The Unicorn Fable

Mince and Scribble

Once upon a time there was a software company called "Mark of the Unicorn," named after something that was in "Lord of the Rings." This company was created, back in the early 1980s, by students who turned one of their school projects into a commercial product.

The product that they marketed was a package of Mince, a text editor, and Scribble a text formatter. (Mince is an acronym for Mince Is Not Emacs. Mince was patterned after the text editor Emacs, but, because of the limitations of the 64k memory CP/M machines of the day, did not contain all of Emacs.) Scribble was patterned after Scribe, a large text formatting program that ran on (expensive) mini computers. (As did Emacs.)

Why it was so neat

One of the really neat things that Mark of the Unicorn did was supply the program with partial source code. Because this was a commercial program, they did not want to release the all of the source code. But, being hackers themselves (in the good sense of the word), they wanted to make it possible for motivated end users to extend the program.

What they released was the program in two versions. The first was a "ready to run" version that could be immediately used, just like commercial software is released today.

The second version (that everybody also got) was comprised of partial source code and libraries. What this was was the source code to the parts of the program that they deemed as being most susceptible to being a "hook" for extension, along with pre-compiled libraries containing the parts of the program that they didn't want to release in source code.

They also included all the "make" files designed for a popular "C" compilier, such that you could re-compile your own vesion of the program, just by starting the first make file. (Assuming that you also had installed the "C" compilier.)

What you could do with it

What you could do with all this is use it to learn programming with the very neat added attraction that you were starting with a working commercial product. After you installed everything on your hard disk, you would test the installation by compiling the program into a new directory. You would keep the original executable in its own directory.

After doing the first compile, you would then test the freshly created version to see if it worked just like the commercial release. If it did, well then good, you would THEN start looking over the source code, making little tweaks and then compiling the program and testing it.

If the program didn't do what you wanted, well go back and fix it. This is the same procedure that you use when you are writing HTML code for a web page.

The end of the story?

Well, there isn't an end. Mark of the Unicorn wisely realized that Mince and Scribble were no match compared with the, then reigning, "Monster of the Marketplace" Office Suite (WordStar, DataStar, ReportStar), so they moved to a niche that was out of the monster's reach. (MIDI Musical Software.) The company is still alive and thriving.

And as for the Monster of the Marketplace? Well, the fact that you probably do not recognize any of his program's names should tell you what happened to him.

And that I'm a much richer person for having been exposed to this source code. Thank you, Mark of the Unicorn.

End of fable. (Or is it beginning again?)


This is a part of How to Scrounge Up a Cheap Computer. (And what to do with it once you've got it.)