Of the handful of men and women who pioneered the personal computer age, none has more influence than Dennis Ritchie in Hong Kong to speak at last week's Bell Labs Technology Seminar. For nearly 30 years, Mr Ritchie has been a researcher at Bell Labs in New Jersey, a laboratory as influential as Xerox in Palo Alto. Not only did the transistor and other devices come from Bell, but the software we use started with work done by Mr Ritchie and colleagues. Both the Unix operating system and the C programming language got their start at Bell in the late 1960s. 'Unix was the brainchild of Ken Thompson. I wrote the device drivers,' Mr Ritchie said. 'He was a far better programmer than I.' Unix is used for serious systems that cannot afford to crash - in banks, telecommunications companies and wherever the slightest error can cost millions of dollars. Microsoft modelled MS-DOS on Unix, and C for years has been the computer programming language of choice for most serious projects. 'Unix was the first OS to provide portability,' Mr Ritchie said. 'Microsoft has mind share and dominates on the desktop, but there are many others: Macintosh, Unix, mainframes.' Today, C is being overtaken by Java and Unix is being threatened by Microsoft's NT. However, neither is yet dead. 'Unix still has a place in the larger machines where Microsoft shows little interest,' Mr Ritchie said. 'One of the things that contributed to the success of C was that it was written as a tool, not to prove a point.' Many computer languages were created for specific, often esoteric, purposes. Pascal, for example, was invented by Nicholas Wirth with the explicit aim of teaching 'structured programming'. When Mr Ritchie and Brian Kernighan wrote C a decade ago, they were concerned with producing something useful. Only recently has another language challenged it - Sun Microsystems' Java. Java interests Mr Ritchie for many reasons, not least of which is that his programmers at Bell came up with a similar idea that seems destined to lose to Java. Three years ago, they developed Inferno - a similar idea to Java but applied as an operating system, not a programming language. Inferno uses a programming language called Limbo. 'The technology used in Java is the same as we use. Inferno specifies a file system, etc. It can run stand-alone or as part of another OS,' Mr Ritchie said. Java creates a Java Virtual Machine, the JVM, so that it can be independent of the hardware. By creating a 'virtual machine OS', Inferno does much the same thing, but at the OS level. Bell Labs and Sun have been talking and they hope to complement each other, rather than compete. Mr Ritchie even reluctantly agrees that Java probably has won the hearts and minds of programmers, so his efforts most likely will be aimed at extending Inferno. Inferno will run on one megabyte of memory, which makes it ideal for many small uses. 'Tiny systems are much more interesting; there are lots of things that you do not normally think of as computers - handheld devices, for example,' Mr Ritchie said. 'We would like to be able to reuse applications in different environments.' One of the unique aspects of Inferno is that everything is a file. 'All resources in the Inferno OS are represented as files. Servers are also represented as files,' he said. This created a certain 'engineering freedom'. The conventional view of the client/server model always has been that the client is small and the server is large. This is not necessarily so with Inferno. It may take a little time, but perhaps one of the computer world's great pioneers will come up with another ground-breaking technology. But even if not, it is doubtful he will get burned.