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Coherent: Unix variant for DOS compatible PCs (1994) [pdf] (autometer.de)
81 points by ColinWright on Aug 21, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 39 comments

From the Mastodon comment[0] where I found this:

"COHERENT was a UNIX variant for DOS compatible PCs and this is the 1409 page document that will teach you everything.

"This document assumes you've never used a computer much less UNIX and walks you through installation, configuration, how logging in works, basic usage, using text editors, basic and advanced administration, network administrator and eventually topics including programming!

"You walk in a baby and walk out a C programming UNIX wizard, all on your 286 with 2MB of ram."

-- penny, @penny@cute.science

[0] https://mathstodon.xyz/web/statuses/104720370803968311

I can't overstate how great Coherent and this pale green book were. It was a complete UNIX experience and taught me valuable skills that I use to this day. The manual is probably the best organized and most comprehensive one that I've seen for ANY software to this day. I still don't know how Mark Williams Company pulled off this amazing feat with such limited resources. To anyone who was involved with its production - thank you and much respect.

Similar with me. I was loving using UNIX at work on Suns ~1991/2, but it wasn't until I borrowed a PC with Coherent for a few weeks that I really was able to explore it properly, both in the sense of being to work as root, and having this excellent book. I was sad when I had to give the PC back, until Linux hit the scene a little while later.

I had never heard about this, but from the nicely written manual it looks like a neat OS.

Since the source code is available I could not resist porting "lc" (List files in categories and columns): https://github.com/gdm85/lc

If you have nostalgia of that command you can now enjoy it on your modern Linux!

It's a command with my initials too, so how could I not compile and install this :) Thanks for doing this!

Coherent made a fatal choice at the wrong time. Mark Williams Company started to ramp up their marketing right before Linux really started to his. When they had to make a choice to add either XWindows or a TCP/IP stack to Coherent, they chose XWindows. Coherent could have been a great Internet OS at the dawn of the commercialization of the Internet but they blew it.

For me Linux was only a thing, because it was the only way I could do the university homework at home, while the computer center was running DG/UX and Solaris.

Red-Hat Linux was eventually adopted when both of them died, until then it was available in a couple of desktops that would dual boot alongside Windows 95.

Had Windows NT offered a solid POSIX story, that would have been what the labs would have switched to instead.

If they'd chosen to skip X and create a TCP/IP stack, in the early-to-mid nineties Unix battles they would have had to compete with Xenix, BSDI and the other BSDs, and Solaris on x86. Not to mention Linux, the non-x86 options, and whatever else I forgot.

In hindsight, it's not like there was some kind of very powerful move they could have made.

Per memory, Coherent 4.0 showed up around 1992-3, with TCP/IP and pseudoTTYs. X11 came along a little later. But by then it was too little too late: the Linux distros were already eating their lunch.

Same with SCO. When I worked there circa 1991-95, the company lost $250 in license fee payments to assorted other companies for every complete copy of Open Desktop that they sold -- fees for the TCP/IP stack, the compiler, the AT&T license, the Motif skin, CDE, the IXI desktop ... even purchasing IXI didn't reduce it by much. They tried to go head-to-head with Windows NT as a workstation OS on the desktop and nearly broke the company, then backed off to focus on enterprise sales and support contracts. There was no way they could compete with a solid Linux as a desktop option after the late 1990s. And SCO was a much larger and more powerful company than Mark Williams (by 1991 they had about 1200 employees worldwide and $200M/year revenue -- going by memory).

That is wild. I didn't know SCO was ever losing money in quite that way.

I worked tech support for an early PC point of sale credit card payment processing company and Linux was actually one of the last *nixes we supported. I don't believe they had even rolled it out in 1998 when I quit. We supported DOS, Windows, SCO, and maybe one other commercial Unix with just a few users. It was excruciatingly obvious to the more knowledgeable rank and file where things were going, and I even wrote an internal document once explaining how to run the SCO version of our software on Linux using its iBCS support.

The internal discussion I remember about which operating system we would support next as online payment processing took off was mostly about BSDI vs Linux (but with our upper management focused very strongly on NT). Perhaps oddly, both options were treated seriously.

SCO wasn't losing money on sales -- IIRC their cheapest product at the time (bare-bones SysV 3.2 SCO UNIX) sold for upwards of $600 without the dev tools or extras: Open Desktop retailed for a minimum of $1200 in its most pared-back form -- but the $250 licensing fees put a floor under SCO that made it impossible for them to compete as a desktop OS for the general public, as opposed to enterprises that expected to spend $3000-4000 per seat on tech support and licensing for every employee, every year.

A buddy at work used to work for MWC, and always talks about what might have been. This, among other stories...

Isn't Linux being free (including as in beer) one of the main reasons of Coherent fail?

In the mid-90s, downloading Linux wasn't feasible for most people and getting a manual with the install media was a plus because you couldn't just google for help the same way you can today. But I guess Coherent could have been competitive for no more than a few years, at best.

You didn't have to download it yourself. There were vendors which offered media with it for a small fee (remember RMS was Ok with people charging a copying/service fee for GPL'ed software, as long as access to the sources was provided). Yggdrasil was one I remember.

I remember going to a "Linux install fest" at a local ISP. We downloaded all of the SLS Linux floppies over a 56K leased line! This was late 1993 or early 1994, I think.

In the mid-90's you have Slackware 96.

And books like Linux Unleashed with Slackware CDs included.

Seems like the wrong choice to me too. I was running System V/386 at around that time, it wasn't very difficult to port X11 to a new platform but hard to add a network stack to a binary only operating system.

Very early Linux didn't have TCP/IP support either. People used (for a short time) KA9Q (http://www.ka9q.net/code/ka9qnos/), which was also available for other OS.

Anyone remember (the now glorified) Bill Gates claiming the Internet would just be a fad and announcing that Windows '95 would come w/o support for TCP/IP?

Fabulous ... thank you.

Coherent was produced by the Mark Williams company, founded by Robert Swartz, Aaron Swartz' father.

If you ever want to see what good documentation looks like go read the manuals (linked elsewhere in this thread).

Thank you Coherent. And thank you to all the guys/girls that used to work at the Mark Williams Company.

Coherent opened my eyes to the world of UNIX. 30 years later, and I have never yet used Windows as my every-day desktop.

Advent of Computing did a great podcast about Coherent recently. For anybody who's interested, I'd recommend checking it out:


Coherent was the operating system running on the Commodore 900, that was cancelled when Commodore bought Amiga Inc.

We used Coherent- I remember it was much cheaper than SCO UNIX / Xenix (back in the days when you had to pay $500 for the C compiler). Here's an ad showing this:


The install time claim is interesting- I'm sure this comes down whether it optimizes floppy drive reads (for example, read a track at a time).

It is such a marvel of cosmic luck that Linus Torvalds could not afford to buy this for his computer.

Linus's Jan 1992 post on comp.os.coherent is interesting:


Even more luck that BSD was being sued, while Linus decided to use GPL.

I was flirting with setting up my own server with bsd386 in the 90s. The main thing stopping me was money: I had the offer of free rack space at my old college's network but my income was low enough relative to the cost of building a server (and a rackmount case) that I never pulled the trigger. My 20-something self would be envious of the amount of computing power I have within arm's reach right now.

I remember one of the reviews, where the reviewer complained he couldn't get uucp working between Coherent and a Unix box and he suggested it be called "cccp" (Coherent to Coherent Copy Program) instead.

edit: s/could/couldn't/

Typo ...

Edit: Sorted.

Fixed that

I used to run Coherent back when I was in high school. I ran it on a 386SX with 3 megs of RAM (yes, odd number.) I later installed SLS Linux on that same machine.

The Coherent documentation was amazing. I still remember that huge book...

Instantly reminded me of Desqview, one of many systems murdered by Bill Gates’ dirty tricks while the government was asleep at the switch of an IBM 360.

The page design of the book reminds me of the old WROX Press books

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