BSD on the Mac

Article by Frank Pohlmann (
U.K. Technical Editor, Linuxuser and Developer

19 Jul 2005

–Let the story begin ..

BSD on the Mac is old hat. UNIX has been running on Mac architectures for even longer. Hardly anyone remembers it these days, but there was a time when a version of AT&T UNIX ran on Apple’s Quadra machines. In the late 1980s, this UNIX version was known as Apple UNIX, and it represented Apple’s bid for a part of the UNIX server space. Apple UNIX was never ported to the newer PowerPC architecture, but it ran well enough on Motorola 68×00 chips. Obviously, the code was proprietary, usually requiring a low four-figure monetary investment. We might take comfort in the fact that even a luminary as exalted as Bill Joy was dismissing the Mac in the mid-1980s as a machine no one in the UNIX world cared about. Oh well.

When 386BSD came along in 1991, Mac was not far off some peoples’ minds. Brad Grantham, Lawrence Kesteloot, and Chris Caputo managed to port 386BSD to the Mac under the name MacBSD. In late 1992, BSD UNIX had found a new home on a Mac II, although the concurrent breakup of BSD UNIX was beginning to be seen at the time as a necessity, rather than a possibility: The legal shenanigans around AT&T and U.C. Berkeley had made the freeing of the BSD UNIX project a technical as much as a legal necessity. It is still remarkable, though, that an early Macintosh architecture ran free UNIX before the Intel chip had a BSD flavor dedicated to it. 386BSD was never meant to do much except suggest which UNIX should go on the Intel chip. It didn’t work very well at the best of times and never really reached version 1.0.

In the summer of 1993, Allen Briggs and Michael Finch started to merge NetBSD V0.8 and MacBSD to avoid balkanization before it became a serious issue. After all, the UNIX wars were fresh in everyone’s mind, and NetBSD seemed a worthy project for trying to incorporate as many architectures under the BSD mantle as possible. By the time NetBSD V1.0 came around, the NetBSD/mac68k project was firmly established, and it has been going strong ever since.

The NetBSD/macppc project is of more recent vintage. The PowerPC port was included among the NetBSD ports in 1999, although all post-1995 PPC architectures are included. It supports all Mac architectures since the 604 PowerPC.

OpenBSD/macppc is based on NetBSD code, although it took the OpenBSD project a little longer to have a fully functioning port. For obvious reasons, the FreeBSD project remained aloof, focusing instead on Intel and AMD support, although FreeBSD code has been running on Macintosh architectures since Darwin — the OSS kernel of Mac OS X — was released. This seems less relevant these days, as Apple has announced Intel support. But there is considerable overlap between FreeBSD and Darwin development, and quite a few FreeBSD developers are Apple employees.

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