I recently read Ruben Schade’s I’m not sure that UNIX won (via) and had a number of reactions to it. One of them is about the portability of programs among Unixes, which is one of the issues that Schade sees as a problem today. Unfortunately, I have bad news for people who are yearning for the (good) old days. The reality is that significant Unix programs have never been really portable between Unix variants, and if anything today is at an all-time high for program portability by default between Unixes.

Back in the days (the late 1980s and early 1990s specifically), one of the things that Larry Wall was justly famous for was his large, intricate, and comprehensive configure scripts that made rn and Perl build on pretty much any Unix and Unix-like system that you could name. Wall’s approach of configure scripts was generalized and broadened by GNU Autoconf, GNU Autotools, and so on. These tools did not automatically make your complex programs portable between different Unixes, but they gave you the tools that you could use to sort out how to achieve that, and to automatically detect various things you needed to do to adopt to the local Unix (and if you used some of them, you automatically got pointed to the right include directories and the right libraries to link with).