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*nix refers broadly to systems that are similar and possibly descendant from the Unix system and its general setup.

Actual UNIX is a historic thing from the seventies that led to variants starting in that same decade, commercial and academic. (think SunOS/Solaris, HP-UX, IRIX, AIX, Minix, Ultrix, and Xenix).

A few variants live on, particularly linux and BSD, and note that Apple OSX is a BSD derivative.

Note that the above refer to things that varied at how the lowest levels were built.

There a a lot of names today that differ only in the software built on top - mostly built on linux and 99% of their lower levels are identical.

We sometimes want a single name for these systems, and what they share in the broader sense.

And these days, we may well refer to POSIX-compliant unices, which makes them share enough to be more easily compatible from a software development perspective.

We tend to use *nix, referring to their eventual pedigree of unix, and the fact that many were named similarly.

See also