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NT is Now TOS

an interview with Mr Eric R. Smith, the creator of MiNT
Conducted by Konrad M.Kokoszkiewicz(1998-1999)

Konrad M.Kokoszkiewicz: You worked for Atari as a programmer, so you probably had a chance to take a closer look at this company. The Atari is considered a company, that had great hardware and software laboratories, where people liked their job (and some of them are still addicted to it). And it, people say, can be known from Atari products, all well planned, having more useful features than funny gadgets. But, people say, bad marketing and management put the company down. Were labs as good and the marketing as bad? In other words, is it true or it is just another legend?

Eric R. Smith: Well, there's certainly a lot of truth to it. I think Atari's engineering department was very good, as was some of Atari's management. But certainly there were some problems with marketing, and there were some managers who didn't understand the problems (probably every reasonably large company has such managers!) Also, the market changed very rapidly in the early 1990's, and I think Atari had trouble keeping up with the changes.

KMK: The story behind the TT030 is rather well known (i.e. this started in 1986 as a 68020/16 MHz Unix workstation, then ended up as a 32 MHz 68030 TOS box after Atari finished the hardware and dropped the System V). What about the Falcon030? Can you say something about it? I.e. when they started working on it, is this true that the computer was originally 68000 based, then they changed to 68030... and so on :)

ERS: I arrived after the Falcon030 was finished, so I don't know much of the history. It's possible that it was originally 68000 based, but I couldn't say for sure. The successor to the Falcon030, which was called the "Microbox", would have been a nice machine -- a Falcon in a small box, with a detached keyboard like on the Mega ST and TT. But it was decided that we needed to concentrate all of our resources on the Jaguar, so it was never finished.

KMK: Since you're known to be "the father of MiNT", I'd like to ask you about details of the MiNT history. How did it begin, what was the original concept, how it was developed, how it became MultiTOS etc. Could you describe it?

ERS: My first multitasking system for the Atari was written in 1987. It was rather hacked together, and not very Unix like at all, and so I soon got frustrated and re-wrote it. The re-written version was technically better, but never really got finished; other projects got in the way.

KMK: By the way, browsing the MiNT sources I found a magic number saying: 0x19870425, which litterally looks like 25. April 1987. Can you remember what is the date and is it related to MiNT history in any way? Or it is just an arbitrary magic number?

ERS: I think that's the date of some TOS release. The magic number was supplied to me along with some memory allocation routines by a programmer at Atari; probably Allan Pratt or Ken B. The multitasker I wrote in 1987 was never released, and none of its code was re-used for MiNT. It never really got very far anyway. I only mentioned it because some of the ideas I learned from it did influence MiNT. Two years later, I was working on the GNU C library for the ST, and porting GNU software. It was originally written for Unix systems, and porting to TOS was made harder because TOS lacked many Unix features. It seemed to me that it might be easier to add those features to TOS than to change every Unix program I wanted to port. And so MiNT was born...

KMK: When did it exactly happen?

ERS: MiNT 0.1 was dated May 18, 1990. It ran a few command line utilities, and could do limited multitasking. Once the kernel was up and running, it evolved very rapidly. By version 0.5 it was stable enough that I felt I could share it with a few other users. Version 0.6 was more widely distributed on the Internet, and soon programmers from all over the world were helping me with it. With version 0.7 came the Minix file system by Stephen Henson and TT support by Allan Pratt of Atari. Other early contributors to MiNT were Jwahar Bammi, Howard Chu, Alex Kiernan, and Julian Reschke.

KMK: When and how MiNT has become MultiTOS?

ERS: At around that time Atari was investigating doing a multitasking version of TOS. Allan Pratt was familiar with MiNT, and suggested that it be used as the kernel for MultiTOS. The suggestion was accepted, and Allan contacted me about it. I decided that if MiNT was to become a standard, it needed to be more flexible in the way it handled file systems. Version 0.9 featured a major re-write of the file system code to make loadable file systems possible, and to reduce the number of drive letters necessary. This was when drive U: was introduced, with subdirectories for some of the things, like devices and pipes, that used to be on separate drives. Allan also began work on adding memory protection to Atari's version of MiNT, which was developed in parallel. In 1992 Allan left Atari to pursue other projects. They needed someone to finish the kernel part of MultiTOS, and hired me. I started work at Atari in November of 1992. MultiTOS 1.0 was released soon after that, with MiNT version 1.0 as the kernel. Public development of MiNT continued still. In fact, a MiNT mailing list was set up, and a large number of skilled developers made additions to MiNT and fixed bugs in it. Atari eventually dropped its computer line. My superiors there did agree to the release of Atari's version of MiNT under a less restrictive license. My other commitments made me slow down MiNT development work. The developers on the MiNT mailing list continued to develop their version of MiNT, called "FreeMiNT", with Michael Hohmuth coordinating releases. Kay Roemer's release of MiNT-Net, Stephen Henson's continued support of the Minix file system, and various other projects such as an X Window port have kept MiNT a very interesting and active system.

KMK: So, the MiNT was initially just a TOS extension made in order to run GNU software on ST, then it got considered an independent OS, do I get it correctly?

ERS: That's basically right, although I realized quite early on that I would have to replace all of GEMDOS in order to provide the functionality that some GNU software would want.

KMK: Why the name "MiNT"? I know it was explained as "MiNT is not TOS", then "MiNT is now TOS", but where the concept of that "recursive abbreviation" came from?

ERS: It's by analogy to "GNU", which stands for "GNU's Not Unix".

KMK: Has the MultiTOS got all its Unix-like features from the MiNT? Was it planned for the MultiTOS to support some Unix features from the beginning or it was MiNT what introduced that?

ERS: I think the main goal of MultiTOS was pre-emptive multitasking. If Atari hadn't used MiNT, MultiTOS may not have been very Unix like at all -- but since they did use MiNT, all that is pure speculation :-).

KMK: Why Atari didn't make a complete multitasking OS instead of a soft loaded extension?

ERS: MiNT already existed, it was reasonably functional, and it was cheap. I'm sure that if Atari had continued in the computer business for longer, MiNT would have become more closely integrated into the OS.

KMK: In many places across the source code you can see quite a lot of lines those refer to the 68040 processor. Was it planned for a TT040, Falcon040 or perhaps it was added later, by other developers?

ERS: It was added by developers to support some of the third party 68040 boards.

KMK: How did you manage to explore TOS deep enough to write MiNT? Was the Atari documentation sufficient, or had you to discover some things yourself, disassembling the TOS code etc? I am asking, because the MiNT source is actually a thesaurus of information about TOS internals, bugs etc, which are hardly documented anywhere else.

ERS: I used the Abacus ST Internals book; that was very helpful. I learned a few things by disassembling TOS, or by asking Atari employees directly. But most I learned by trial and error -- I would try applications under MiNT, and if they didn't work I would trace through and figure out what went wrong.

KMK: What do you think about MiNT pretending to be a fully featured Unix?

ERS: I think that's overly ambitious. MiNT is not really intended to be Unix, and I think it's better to go with Linux for that. Mostly I intended MiNT to be a "better TOS", with enough Unix like features that porting software from Unix would be easy. I think MiNT has largely succeeded at this.

KMK: Linux can't run GEM programs. As I understood, people are using MiNT because it is *both* Unix-like and GEM compatible. So maybe it would make sense to keep the tendention to make MiNT a full Unix keeping TOS compatibility (instead of a TOS featuring some Unix functions)?

ERS: MiNT's primary purpose is to run TOS programs; that's what it can do better than Linux (whereas Linux can run Unix programs better than MiNT). I think it's good for MiNT to become more Posix/Unix compliant wherever that won't hurt the primary goal of running TOS applications; but I think that where TOS and Unix conflict, MiNT should choose TOS compatibility.

KMK: What do you think about the future of MiNT, if any?

ERS: I don't really have any thoughts on this. I don't use my Atari much anymore (except as a print server for an SLM printer). In the long run I guess that Atari hardware will be interesting only to collectors, unfortunately. But in the short term perhaps MiNT can make that obsolete hardware do useful things for some people.

KMK: I realize that Atari hardware may be considered obsolete (because it really is, of course, especially ST series), but MiNT is also getting the main OS for Atari clones like Hades and Milan. What do you think, will they (and MiNT with them) survive any longer, or should they be just dropped because the m68k technology they use is obsolete as well?

ERS: If people are using their m68k computers and having fun with them, then that's great -- and if MiNT can keep those machines useful for longer, then I think that's one of the best things MiNT can do.

KMK: And what do you think, why MacMiNT didn't survive in the Mac world?

ERS: I'm not sure. I guess most Mac users preferred "native" Mac programs; probably as more and better ports of Unix programs to the Mac became available the need for MacMiNT declined.

KMK: What do you think about the relative popularity the MiNT got now among Atari users?

ERS: I'm very pleased that people find MiNT useful! :-) It seems that the MiNT community is still very active, and I think that's a good thing. While I don't use my TT much any more, that's not because it's not still a viable platform -- it just isn't suitable for the tasks I'm doing right now. I know a lot of people do useful work on ST's and TT's, and I hope MiNT's continuing development helps them to do this. Moreover, it looks like lots of people have fun hacking MiNT, and that's really the most important thing -- that's why I wrote it!

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