Recently, we reported on Google’s work to remove Intel Management Engine (ME)--an obscured, MINIX-based OS running as firmware--from its Intel CPUs. It turns out that the creator of MINIX, Andrew S. Tanenbaum, wasn’t aware that his OS had been commercialized by Intel.
In an open letter addressed to Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, Tanenbaum said that he only found out about Intel’s commercial use of MINIX after reading recent press coverage of ME. Tanenbaum created the first version of MINIX in 1987 as an educational tool to go along with his textbook. He announced MINIX 3, the version reportedly used in Intel ME, at the ACM SOSP conference in 2005. MINIX 3 was the first version of the OS targeted for commercial applications.
Tanenbaum wasn’t completely unaware of Intel’s interest in MINIX, however, as he said in his letter:
“I knew that Intel had some potential interest in MINIX several years ago when one of your engineering teams contacted me about some secret internal project and asked a large number of technical questions about MINIX, which I was happy to answer. I got another clue when your engineers began asking me to make a number of changes to MINIX, for example, making the memory footprint smaller and adding #ifdefs around pieces of code so they could be statically disabled by setting flags in the main configuration file.”
MINIX is distributed under the BSD license, which is extremely unrestricted. Unlike with the more popular GPL, which requires that derivative works inherit the same license, software with the BSD license can be used, royalty and recognition-free, to create closed-source derivatives. Tanenbaum chose BSD for MINIX on purpose and posited that it was a key reason behind Intel’s adoption of his OS.
Tanenbaum isn’t looking for money from Intel; he just wrapped up his missive by noting that he would have appreciated a friendly heads-up that, by dint of its presence on Intel chips, his OS might now be the most popular in the world.