In The Beginning Was the Command Line
by Neal Stephenson
About twenty years ago Jobs and Wozniak, the founders of Apple,
came up with the very strange idea of selling information processing machines
for use in the home. The business took off, and its founders made a lot
of money and received the credit they deserved for being daring visionaries.
But around the same time, Bill Gates and Paul Allen came up with an idea
even stranger and more fantastical: selling computer operating systems.
This was much weirder than the idea of Jobs and Wozniak. A computer at
least had some sort of physical reality to it. It came in a box, you could
open it up and plug it in and watch lights blink. An operating system had
no tangible incarnation at all. It arrived on a disk, of course, but the
disk was, in effect, nothing more than the box that the OS came in. The
product itself was a very long string of ones and zeroes that, when properly
installed and coddled, gave you the ability to manipulate other very long strings of ones and zeroes. Even those few who actually understood
what a computer operating system was were apt to think of it as a fantastically
arcane engineering prodigy, like a breeder reactor or a U-2 spy plane,
and not something that could ever be (in the parlance of high-tech) "productized."
Yet now the company that Gates and Allen founded is selling operating
systems like Gillette sells razor blades. New releases of operating systems
are launched as if they were Hollywood blockbusters, with celebrity endorsements,
talk show appearances, and world tours. The market for them is vast enough
that people worry about whether it has been monopolized by one company.
Even the least technically-minded people in our society now have at least
a hazy idea of what operating systems do; what is more, they have strong
opinions about their relative merits. It is commonly understood, even by
technically unsophisticated computer users, that if you have a piece of
software that works on your Macintosh, and you move it over onto a Windows
machine, it will not run. That this would, in fact, be a laughable and
idiotic mistake, like nailing horseshoes to the tires of a Buick.
A person who went into a coma before Microsoft was founded, and woke
up now, could pick up this morning's New York Times and understand everything
Item: the richest man in the world made his fortune from-what? Railways?
Shipping? Oil? No, operating systems.
Item: the Department of Justice is tackling Microsoft's supposed OS monopoly
with legal tools that were invented to restrain the power of Nineteenth-Century
Item: a woman friend of mine recently told me that she'd broken off a (hitherto)
stimulating exchange of e-mail with a young man. At first he had seemed
like such an intelligent and interesting guy, she said, but then "he started
going all PC-versus-Mac on me."
What the hell is going on here? And does the operating system business
have a future, or only a past? Here is my view, which is entirely subjective;
but since I have spent a fair amount of time not only using, but programming,
Macintoshes, Windows machines, Linux boxes and the BeOS, perhaps it is
not so ill-informed as to be completely worthless. This is a subjective
essay, more review than research paper, and so it might seem unfair or
biased compared to the technical reviews you can find in PC magazines.
But ever since the Mac came out, our operating systems have been based
on metaphors, and anything with metaphors in it is fair game as far as
MGBS, TANKS, AND BATMOBILES Around the time that Jobs, Wozniak, Gates, and Allen were dreaming up these
unlikely schemes, I was a teenager living in Ames, Iowa. One of my friends'
dads had an old MGB sports car rusting away in his garage. Sometimes he
would actually manage to get it running and then he would take us for a
spin around the block, with a memorable look of wild youthful exhiliration
on his face; to his worried passengers, he was a madman, stalling and backfiring
around Ames, Iowa and eating the dust of rusty Gremlins and Pintos, but
in his own mind he was Dustin Hoffman tooling across the Bay Bridge with
the wind in his hair.
In retrospect, this was telling me two things about people's relationship
to technology. One was that romance and image go a long way towards shaping
their opinions. If you doubt it (and if you have a lot of spare time on
your hands) just ask anyone who owns a Macintosh and who, on those grounds,
imagines him- or herself to be a member of an oppressed minority group.
The other, somewhat subtler point, was that interface is very important.
Sure, the MGB was a lousy car in almost every way that counted: balky,
unreliable, underpowered. But it was fun to drive. It was responsive.
Every pebble on the road was felt in the bones, every nuance in the pavement
transmitted instantly to the driver's hands. He could listen to the engine
and tell what was wrong with it. The steering responded immediately to
commands from his hands. To us passengers it was a pointless exercise in
going nowhere--about as interesting as peering over someone's shoulder
while he punches numbers into a spreadsheet. But to the driver it was an experience. For a short time he was extending his body and his senses into a larger
realm, and doing things that he couldn't do unassisted.
The analogy between cars and operating systems is not half bad, and
so let me run with it for a moment, as a way of giving an executive summary
of our situation today.
Imagine a crossroads where four competing auto dealerships are situated.
One of them (Microsoft) is much, much bigger than the others. It started
out years ago selling three-speed bicycles (MS-DOS); these were not perfect,
but they worked, and when they broke you could easily fix them.
There was a competing bicycle dealership next door (Apple) that one
day began selling motorized vehicles--expensive but attractively styled
cars with their innards hermetically sealed, so that how they worked was
something of a mystery.
The big dealership responded by rushing a moped upgrade kit (the original
Windows) onto the market. This was a Rube Goldberg contraption that, when
bolted onto a three-speed bicycle, enabled it to keep up, just barely,
with Apple-cars. The users had to wear goggles and were always picking
bugs out of their teeth while Apple owners sped along in hermetically sealed
comfort, sneering out the windows. But the Micro-mopeds were cheap, and
easy to fix compared with the Apple-cars, and their market share waxed.
Eventually the big dealership came out with a full-fledged car: a colossal
station wagon (Windows 95). It had all the aesthetic appeal of a Soviet
worker housing block, it leaked oil and blew gaskets, and it was an enormous
success. A little later, they also came out with a hulking off-road vehicle
intended for industrial users (Windows NT) which was no more beautiful
than the station wagon, and only a little more reliable.
Since then there has been a lot of noise and shouting, but little has
changed. The smaller dealership continues to sell sleek Euro-styled sedans
and to spend a lot of money on advertising campaigns. They have had GOING
OUT OF BUSINESS! signs taped up in their windows for so long that they
have gotten all yellow and curly. The big one keeps making bigger and bigger
station wagons and ORVs.
On the other side of the road are two competitors that have come along
One of them (Be, Inc.) is selling fully operational Batmobiles (the
BeOS). They are more beautiful and stylish even than the Euro-sedans, better
designed, more technologically advanced, and at least as reliable as anything
else on the market--and yet cheaper than the others.
With one exception, that is: Linux, which is right next door, and which
is not a business at all. It's a bunch of RVs, yurts, tepees, and geodesic
domes set up in a field and organized by consensus. The people who live
there are making tanks. These are not old-fashioned, cast-iron Soviet tanks;
these are more like the M1 tanks of the U.S. Army, made of space-age materials
and jammed with sophisticated technology from one end to the other. But
they are better than Army tanks. They've been modified in such a way that
they never, ever break down, are light and maneuverable enough to use on
ordinary streets, and use no more fuel than a subcompact car. These tanks
are being cranked out, on the spot, at a terrific pace, and a vast number
of them are lined up along the edge of the road with keys in the ignition.
Anyone who wants can simply climb into one and drive it away for free.
Customers come to this crossroads in throngs, day and night. Ninety
percent of them go straight to the biggest dealership and buy station wagons
or off-road vehicles. They do not even look at the other dealerships.
Of the remaining ten percent, most go and buy a sleek Euro-sedan, pausing
only to turn up their noses at the philistines going to buy the station
wagons and ORVs. If they even notice the people on the opposite side of
the road, selling the cheaper, technically superior vehicles, these customers
deride them cranks and half-wits.
The Batmobile outlet sells a few vehicles to the occasional car nut
who wants a second vehicle to go with his station wagon, but seems to accept,
at least for now, that it's a fringe player.
The group giving away the free tanks only stays alive because it is
staffed by volunteers, who are lined up at the edge of the street with
bullhorns, trying to draw customers' attention to this incredible situation.
A typical conversation goes something like this:
Hacker with bullhorn: "Save your money! Accept one of our free tanks!
It is invulnerable, and can drive across rocks and swamps at ninety miles
an hour while getting a hundred miles to the gallon!"
Prospective station wagon buyer: "I know what you say is true...but...er...I
don't know how to maintain a tank!"
Bullhorn: "You don't know how to maintain a station wagon either!"
Buyer: "But this dealership has mechanics on staff. If something goes
wrong with my station wagon, I can take a day off work, bring it here,
and pay them to work on it while I sit in the waiting room for hours, listening
to elevator music."
Bullhorn: "But if you accept one of our free tanks we will send volunteers
to your house to fix it for free while you sleep!"
Buyer: "Stay away from my house, you freak!"
Buyer: "Can't you see that everyone is buying station wagons?"
BIT-FLINGER The connection between cars, and ways of interacting with computers,
wouldn't have occurred to me at the time I was being taken for rides in
that MGB. I had signed up to take a computer programming class at Ames
High School. After a few introductory lectures, we students were granted
admission into a tiny room containing a teletype, a telephone, and an old-fashioned
modem consisting of a metal box with a pair of rubber cups on the top (note:
many readers, making their way through that last sentence, probably felt
an initial pang of dread that this essay was about to turn into a tedious,
codgerly reminiscence about how tough we had it back in the old days; rest
assured that I am actually positioning my pieces on the chessboard, as
it were, in preparation to make a point about truly hip and up-to-the minute
topics like Open Source Software). The teletype was exactly the same sort
of machine that had been used, for decades, to send and receive telegrams.
It was basically a loud typewriter that could only produce UPPERCASE LETTERS.
Mounted to one side of it was a smaller machine with a long reel of paper
tape on it, and a clear plastic hopper underneath.
In order to connect this device (which was not a computer at all) to
the Iowa State University mainframe across town, you would pick up the
phone, dial the computer's number, listen for strange noises, and then
slam the handset down into the rubber cups. If your aim was true, one would
wrap its neoprene lips around the earpiece and the other around the mouthpiece,
consummating a kind of informational soixante-neuf. The teletype
would shudder as it was possessed by the spirit of the distant mainframe,
and begin to hammer out cryptic messages.
Since computer time was a scarce resource, we used a sort of batch processing
technique. Before dialing the phone, we would turn on the tape puncher
(a subsidiary machine bolted to the side of the teletype) and type in our
programs. Each time we depressed a key, the teletype would bash out a letter
on the paper in front of us, so we could read what we'd typed; but at the
same time it would convert the letter into a set of eight binary digits,
or bits, and punch a corresponding pattern of holes across the width of
a paper tape. The tiny disks of paper knocked out of the tape would flutter
down into the clear plastic hopper, which would slowly fill up what can
only be described as actual bits. On the last day of the school year, the
smartest kid in the class (not me) jumped out from behind his desk and
flung several quarts of these bits over the head of our teacher, like confetti,
as a sort of semi-affectionate practical joke. The image of this man sitting
there, gripped in the opening stages of an atavistic fight-or-flight reaction,
with millions of bits (megabytes) sifting down out of his hair and into
his nostrils and mouth, his face gradually turning purple as he built up
to an explosion, is the single most memorable scene from my formal education.
Anyway, it will have been obvious that my interaction with the computer
was of an extremely formal nature, being sharply divided up into different
sitting at home with paper and pencil, miles and miles
from any computer, I would think very, very hard about what I wanted the
computer to do, and translate my intentions into a computer language--a
series of alphanumeric symbols on a page.
I would carry this across a sort of informational cordon sanitaire (three miles of snowdrifts)
to school and type those letters into a machine--not a computer--which
would convert the symbols into binary numbers and record them visibly on
Then, through the rubber-cup modem, I would cause those numbers
to be sent to the university mainframe, which would
do arithmetic on
them and send different numbers back to the teletype.
would convert these numbers back into letters and hammer them out on a
I, watching, would construe the letters as meaningful symbols.
The division of responsibilities implied by all of this is admirably
clean: computers do arithmetic on bits of information. Humans construe
the bits as meaningful symbols. But this distinction is now being blurred,
or at least complicated, by the advent of modern operating systems that
use, and frequently abuse, the power of metaphor to make computers accessible
to a larger audience. Along the way--possibly because of those metaphors,
which make an operating system a sort of work of art--people start to get
emotional, and grow attached to pieces of software in the way that my friend's
dad did to his MGB.
People who have only interacted with computers through graphical user
interfaces like the MacOS or Windows--which is to say, almost everyone
who has ever used a computer--may have been startled, or at least bemused,
to hear about the telegraph machine that I used to communicate with a computer
in 1973. But there was, and is, a good reason for using this particular
kind of technology. Human beings have various ways of communicating to
each other, such as music, art, dance, and facial expressions, but
some of these are more amenable than others to being expressed as strings
of symbols. Written language is the easiest of all, because, of course,
it consists of strings of symbols to begin with. If the symbols
happen to belong to a phonetic alphabet (as opposed to, say, ideograms),
converting them into bits is a trivial procedure, and one that was nailed,
technologically, in the early nineteenth century, with the introduction
of Morse code and other forms of telegraphy.
We had a human/computer interface a hundred years before we had computers.
When computers came into being around the time of the Second World War,
humans, quite naturally, communicated with them by simply grafting them
on to the already-existing technologies for translating letters into bits
and vice versa: teletypes and punch card machines.
These embodied two fundamentally different approaches to computing.
When you were using cards, you'd punch a whole stack of them and run them
through the reader all at once, which was called batch processing. You
could also do batch processing with a teletype, as I have already described,
by using the paper tape reader, and we were certainly encouraged to use
this approach when I was in high school. But--though efforts were made
to keep us unaware of this--the teletype could do something that the card
reader could not. On the teletype, once the modem link was established,
you could just type in a line and hit the return key. The teletype would
send that line to the computer, which might or might not respond with some
lines of its own, which the teletype would hammer out--producing, over
time, a transcript of your exchange with the machine. This way of doing
it did not even have a name at the time, but when, much later, an alternative
became available, it was retroactively dubbed the Command Line Interface.
When I moved on to college, I did my computing in large, stifling rooms
where scores of students would sit in front of slightly updated versions
of the same machines and write computer programs: these used dot-matrix
printing mechanisms, but were (from the computer's point of view) identical
to the old teletypes. By that point, computers were better at time-sharing--that
is, mainframes were still mainframes, but they were better at communicating
with a large number of terminals at once. Consequently, it was no longer
necessary to use batch processing. Card readers were shoved out into hallways
and boiler rooms, and batch processing became a nerds-only kind of thing,
and consequently took on a certain eldritch flavor among those of us who
even knew it existed. We were all off the Batch, and on the Command Line,
interface now--my very first shift in operating system paradigms, if only
I'd known it.
A huge stack of accordion-fold paper sat on the floor underneath each
one of these glorified teletypes, and miles of paper shuddered through
their platens. Almost all of this paper was thrown away or recycled without
ever having been touched by ink--an ecological atrocity so glaring that
those machines soon replaced by video terminals--so-called "glass teletypes"--which
were quieter and didn't waste paper. Again, though, from the computer's
point of view these were indistinguishable from World War II-era teletype
machines. In effect we still used Victorian technology to communicate with
computers until about 1984, when the Macintosh was introduced with its
Graphical User Interface. Even after that, the Command Line continued to
exist as an underlying stratum--a sort of brainstem reflex--of many modern
computer systems all through the heyday of Graphical User Interfaces, or
GUIs as I will call them from now on.
GUIS Now the first job that any coder needs to do when writing a new
piece of software is to figure out how to take the information that is
being worked with (in a graphics program, an image; in a spreadsheet, a
grid of numbers) and turn it into a linear string of bytes. These strings
of bytes are commonly called files or (somewhat more hiply) streams. They
are to telegrams what modern humans are to Cro-Magnon man, which is to
say the same thing under a different name. All that you see on your computer
screen--your Tomb Raider, your digitized voice mail messages, faxes, and
word processing documents written in thirty-seven different typefaces--is
still, from the computer's point of view, just like telegrams, except much
longer, and demanding of more arithmetic.
The quickest way to get a taste of this is to fire up your web browser,
visit a site, and then select the View/Document Source menu item. You will
get a bunch of computer code that looks something like this:
< HTML >
< HEAD >
< TITLE > Welcome to the Avon Books Homepage < /TITLE >
< /HEAD >
< MAP NAME="left0199" >
< AREA SHAPE="rect" COORDS="16,56,111,67"
< AREA SHAPE="rect" COORDS="14,77,111,89"
< AREA SHAPE="rect" COORDS="17,98,112,110"
< AREA SHAPE="rect" COORDS="18,119,112,131"
< AREA SHAPE="rect" COORDS="19,140,112,152"
< AREA SHAPE="rect" COORDS="18,161,111,173"
< AREA SHAPE="rect" COORDS="2,181,112,195"
< AREA SHAPE="rect" COORDS="9,203,112,216"
< AREA SHAPE="rect" COORDS="7,223,112,236"
< /MAP >
< BODY TEXT="#478CFF" LINK="#FFFFFF" VLINK="#000000" ALINK="#478CFF"
< TABLE BORDER="0" WIDTH="600" CELLPADDING="0" CELLSPACING="0" >
< TR VALIGN=TOP >
< TD ROWSPAN="3" >
< A HREF=/cgi-bin/imagemap/maps/left.gif.map >
< IMG SRC="/avon/images/home/nav/left0199.gif" WIDTH="113"
HEIGHT="280" BORDER="0" USEMAP="#left0199" >
< /A > < /TD >
< TD ROWSPAN="3" >
< IMG SRC="/avon/images/home/homepagejan98/2ndleft.gif" WIDTH="144"
HEIGHT="280" BORDER="0" > < /TD >
< TD > < A HREF=/avon/about.html >
< IMG SRC="/avon/images/home/homepagejan98/aboutavon.gif"
ALT="About Avon Books" WIDTH="199" HEIGHT="44" BORDER="0" >
< /A > < /TD > < TD ROWSPAN="3" >
< A HREF="/avon/fiction/guides.html" >
< IMG SRC="/avon/images/home/feb98/right1.gif" ALT="Reading Groups"
WIDTH="165" HEIGHT="121" BORDER="0" > < /A >
< BR > < A HREF="/avon/feature/feb99/crook.html" >
< IMG SRC="/avon/images/home/feb99/crook_text.gif"
ALT="The Crook Factory" WIDTH="165" HEIGHT="96" BORDER="0" >
< /A > < BR > < A HREF=
< BR > Questionnaire?domain_id=182&survey_id=541 >
< IMG SRC="/avon/images/home/feb99/env_text.gif"
ALT="The Envelope Please" WIDTH="165" HEIGHT="63" BORDER="0" > < /A >
< /TD >
< /TR >
< TR VALIGN=TOP > < TD >
< IMG SRC="/avon/images/home/feb98/main.gif" WIDTH="199" HEIGHT="182"
< /TD > < /TR > < TR VALIGN=TOP > < TD >
< A HREF="/avon/feature/jan99/sitchin.html" >
< IMG SRC="/avon/images/home/jan99/sitchin_text.gif" WIDTH="199"
HEIGHT="54" BORDER="0" >
< /A > < /TD > < /TR > < TR VALIGN=TOP > < TD COLSPAN="4" >
< IMG SRC="/avon/images/home/jan99/avon_bottom_beau.gif" WIDTH="622"
HEIGHT="179" BORDER="0" USEMAP="#bottom" >
< /TD > < /TR > < TR > < TD ALIGN=CENTER VALIGN=TOP COLSPAN="4" >
< FONT SIZE="2" FACE="ARIAL,COURIER" >
< PRE > < BR > < /PRE >
< A HREF="/avon/ordering.html" > How to order < /A > |
< A HREF="/avon/faq.html#manu" > How to submit a Manuscript < /A > |
< A HREF=mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact us < /A > |
< P > < BR >
< /FONT > < /TD >
< /TR >
< /TABLE >
< /BODY >
< /HTML >
This crud is called HTML (HyperText Markup Language) and it is basically
a very simple programming language instructing your web browser how to
draw a page on a screen. Anyone can learn HTML and many people do. The
important thing is that no matter what splendid multimedia web pages they
might represent, HTML files are just telegrams.
When Ronald Reagan was a radio announcer, he used to call baseball games
by reading the terse descriptions that trickled in over the telegraph wire
and were printed out on a paper tape. He would sit there, all by himself
in a padded room with a microphone, and the paper tape would eke out of
the machine and crawl over the palm of his hand printed with cryptic abbreviations.
If the count went to three and two, Reagan would describe the scene as
he saw it in his mind's eye: "The brawny left-hander steps out of the batter's
box to wipe the sweat from his brow. The umpire steps forward to sweep
the dirt from home plate." and so on. When the cryptogram on the paper
tape announced a base hit, he would whack the edge of the table with a
pencil, creating a little sound effect, and describe the arc of the ball
as if he could actually see it. His listeners, many of whom presumably
thought that Reagan was actually at the ballpark watching the game, would
reconstruct the scene in their minds according to his descriptions.
This is exactly how the World Wide Web works: the HTML files are the
pithy description on the paper tape, and your Web browser is Ronald Reagan.
The same is true of Graphical User Interfaces in general.
So an OS is a stack of metaphors and abstractions that stands between
you and the telegrams, and embodying various tricks the programmer used
to convert the information you're working with--be it images, e-mail messages,
movies, or word processing documents--into the necklaces of bytes that
are the only things computers know how to work with. When we used actual
telegraph equipment (teletypes) or their higher-tech substitutes ("glass
teletypes," or the MS-DOS command line) to work with our computers, we
were very close to the bottom of that stack. When we use most modern operating
systems, though, our interaction with the machine is heavily mediated.
Everything we do is interpreted and translated time and again as it works
its way down through all of the metaphors and abstractions.
The Macintosh OS was a revolution in both the good and bad senses of
that word. Obviously it was true that command line interfaces were not
for everyone, and that it would be a good thing to make computers more
accessible to a less technical audience--if not for altruistic reasons,
then because those sorts of people constituted an incomparably vaster market.
It was clear the the Mac's engineers saw a whole new country stretching
out before them; you could almost hear them muttering, "Wow! We don't have
to be bound by files as linear streams of bytes anymore, vive la revolution, let's see how far we can take this!" No command line interface was available
on the Macintosh; you talked to it with the mouse, or not at all. This
was a statement of sorts, a credential of revolutionary purity. It seemed
that the designers of the Mac intended to sweep Command Line Interfaces
into the dustbin of history.
My own personal love affair with the Macintosh began in the spring of
1984 in a computer store in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when a friend of mine--coincidentally,
the son of the MGB owner--showed me a Macintosh running MacPaint, the revolutionary
drawing program. It ended in July of 1995 when I tried to save a big important
file on my Macintosh Powerbook and instead instead of doing so, it annihilated
the data so thoroughly that two different disk crash utility programs were
unable to find any trace that it had ever existed. During the intervening
ten years, I had a passion for the MacOS that seemed righteous and reasonable
at the time but in retrospect strikes me as being exactly the same sort
of goofy infatuation that my friend's dad had with his car.
The introduction of the Mac triggered a sort of holy war in the computer
world. Were GUIs a brilliant design innovation that made computers more
human-centered and therefore accessible to the masses, leading us toward
an unprecedented revolution in human society, or an insulting bit of audiovisual
gimcrackery dreamed up by flaky Bay Area hacker types that stripped computers
of their power and flexibility and turned the noble and serious work of
computing into a childish video game?
This debate actually seems more interesting to me today than it did
in the mid-1980s. But people more or less stopped debating it when Microsoft
endorsed the idea of GUIs by coming out with the first Windows. At this
point, command-line partisans were relegated to the status of silly old
grouches, and a new conflict was touched off, between users of MacOS and
users of Windows.
There was plenty to argue about. The first Macintoshes looked different
from other PCs even when they were turned off: they consisted of one box
containing both CPU (the part of the computer that does arithmetic on bits)
and monitor screen. This was billed, at the time, as a philosophical statement
of sorts: Apple wanted to make the personal computer into an appliance,
like a toaster. But it also reflected the purely technical demands of running
a graphical user interface. In a GUI machine, the chips that draw things
on the screen have to be integrated with the computer's central processing
unit, or CPU, to a far greater extent than is the case with command-line
interfaces, which until recently didn't even know that they weren't just
talking to teletypes.
This distinction was of a technical and abstract nature, but it became
clearer when the machine crashed (it is commonly the case with technologies
that you can get the best insight about how they work by watching them
fail). When everything went to hell and the CPU began spewing out random
bits, the result, on a CLI machine, was lines and lines of perfectly formed
but random characters on the screen--known to cognoscenti as "going Cyrillic."
But to the MacOS, the screen was not a teletype, but a place to put graphics;
the image on the screen was a bitmap, a literal rendering of the contents
of a particular portion of the computer's memory. When the computer crashed
and wrote gibberish into the bitmap, the result was something that looked
vaguely like static on a broken television set--a "snow crash."
And even after the introduction of Windows, the underlying differences
endured; when a Windows machine got into trouble, the old command-line
interface would fall down over the GUI like an asbestos fire curtain sealing
off the proscenium of a burning opera. When a Macintosh got into trouble
it presented you with a cartoon of a bomb, which was funny the first time
you saw it.
And these were by no means superficial differences. The reversion of
Windows to a CLI when it was in distress proved to Mac partisans that Windows
was nothing more than a cheap facade, like a garish afghan flung over a
rotted-out sofa. They were disturbed and annoyed by the sense that lurking
underneath Windows' ostensibly user-friendly interface was--literally--a
For their part, Windows fans might have made the sour observation that
all computers, even Macintoshes, were built on that same subtext, and that
the refusal of Mac owners to admit that fact to themselves seemed to signal
a willingness, almost an eagerness, to be duped.
Anyway, a Macintosh had to switch individual bits in the memory chips
on the video card, and it had to do it very fast, and in arbitrarily complicated
patterns. Nowadays this is cheap and easy, but in the technological regime
that prevailed in the early 1980s, the only realistic way to do it was
to build the motherboard (which contained the CPU) and the video system
(which contained the memory that was mapped onto the screen) as a tightly
integrated whole--hence the single, hermetically sealed case that made
the Macintosh so distinctive.
When Windows came out, it was conspicuous for its ugliness, and its
current successors, Windows 95 and Windows NT, are not things that people
would pay money to look at either. Microsoft's complete disregard for aesthetics
gave all of us Mac-lovers plenty of opportunities to look down our noses
at them. That Windows looked an awful lot like a direct ripoff of MacOS
gave us a burning sense of moral outrage to go with it. Among people who
really knew and appreciated computers (hackers, in Steven Levy's non-pejorative
sense of that word) and in a few other niches such as professional musicians,
graphic artists and schoolteachers, the Macintosh, for a while, was simply the computer. It was seen as not only a superb piece of engineering, but an
embodiment of certain ideals about the use of technology to benefit mankind,
while Windows was seen as a pathetically clumsy imitation and a sinister
world domination plot rolled into one. So very early, a pattern had been
established that endures to this day: people dislike Microsoft, which is
okay; but they dislike it for reasons that are poorly considered, and in
the end, self-defeating.
CLASS STRUGGLE ON THE DESKTOP Now that the Third Rail has been firmly grasped, it is worth reviewing
some basic facts here: like any other publicly traded, for-profit corporation,
Microsoft has, in effect, borrowed a bunch of money from some people (its
stockholders) in order to be in the bit business. As an officer of that
corporation, Bill Gates has one responsibility only, which is to maximize
return on investment. He has done this incredibly well. Any actions taken
in the world by Microsoft-any software released by them, for example--are
basically epiphenomena, which can't be interpreted or understood except
insofar as they reflect Bill Gates's execution of his one and only responsibility.
It follows that if Microsoft sells goods that are aesthetically unappealing,
or that don't work very well, it does not mean that they are (respectively)
philistines or half-wits. It is because Microsoft's excellent management
has figured out that they can make more money for their stockholders by
releasing stuff with obvious, known imperfections than they can by making
it beautiful or bug-free. This is annoying, but (in the end) not half so
annoying as watching Apple inscrutably and relentlessly destroy itself.
Hostility towards Microsoft is not difficult to find on the Net, and
it blends two strains: resentful people who feel Microsoft is too powerful,
and disdainful people who think it's tacky. This is all strongly reminiscent
of the heyday of Communism and Socialism, when the bourgeoisie were hated
from both ends: by the proles, because they had all the money, and by the
intelligentsia, because of their tendency to spend it on lawn ornaments.
Microsoft is the very embodiment of modern high-tech prosperity--it is,
in a word, bourgeois--and so it attracts all of the same gripes.
The opening "splash screen" for Microsoft Word 6.0 summed it up pretty
neatly: when you started up the program you were treated to a picture of
an expensive enamel pen lying across a couple of sheets of fancy-looking
handmade writing paper. It was obviously a bid to make the software look
classy, and it might have worked for some, but it failed for me, because
the pen was a ballpoint, and I'm a fountain pen man. If Apple had done
it, they would've used a Mont Blanc fountain pen, or maybe a Chinese calligraphy
brush. And I doubt that this was an accident. Recently I spent a while
re-installing Windows NT on one of my home computers, and many times had
to double-click on the "Control Panel" icon. For reasons that are difficult
to fathom, this icon consists of a picture of a clawhammer and a chisel
or screwdriver resting on top of a file folder.
These aesthetic gaffes give one an almost uncontrollable urge to make
fun of Microsoft, but again, it is all beside the point--if Microsoft had
done focus group testing of possible alternative graphics, they probably
would have found that the average mid-level office worker associated fountain
pens with effete upper management toffs and was more comfortable with ballpoints.
Likewise, the regular guys, the balding dads of the world who probably
bear the brunt of setting up and maintaining home computers, can probably
relate better to a picture of a clawhammer--while perhaps harboring fantasies
of taking a real one to their balky computers.
This is the only way I can explain certain peculiar facts about the
current market for operating systems, such as that ninety percent of all
customers continue to buy station wagons off the Microsoft lot while free
tanks are there for the taking, right across the street.
A string of ones and zeroes was not a difficult thing for Bill Gates
to distribute, one he'd thought of the idea. The hard part was selling it--reassuring customers that they were actually getting something in return
for their money.
Anyone who has ever bought a piece of software in a store has had the
curiously deflating experience of taking the bright shrink-wrapped box
home, tearing it open, finding that it's 95 percent air, throwing away
all the little cards, party favors, and bits of trash, and loading the
disk into the computer. The end result (after you've lost the disk) is
nothing except some images on a computer screen, and some capabilities
that weren't there before. Sometimes you don't even have that--you have
a string of error messages instead. But your money is definitely gone.
Now we are almost accustomed to this, but twenty years ago it was a very
dicey business proposition. Bill Gates made it work anyway. He didn't make
it work by selling the best software or offering the cheapest price. Instead
he somehow got people to believe that they were receiving something in
exchange for their money.
The streets of every city in the world are filled with those hulking,
rattling station wagons. Anyone who doesn't own one feels a little weird,
and wonders, in spite of himself, whether it might not be time to cease
resistance and buy one; anyone who does, feels confident that he has acquired
some meaningful possession, even on those days when the vehicle is up on
a lift in an auto repair shop.
All of this is perfectly congruent with membership in the bourgeoisie,
which is as much a mental, as a material state. And it explains why Microsoft
is regularly attacked, on the Net, from both sides. People who are inclined
to feel poor and oppressed construe everything Microsoft does as some sinister
Orwellian plot. People who like to think of themselves as intelligent and
informed technology users are driven crazy by the clunkiness of Windows.
Nothing is more annoying to sophisticated people to see someone who
is rich enough to know better being tacky--unless it is to realize, a moment
later, that they probably know they are tacky and they simply don't care and they are going to go on being tacky, and rich, and happy, forever.
Microsoft therefore bears the same relationship to the Silicon Valley elite
as the Beverly Hillbillies did to their fussy banker, Mr. Drysdale--who
is irritated not so much by the fact that the Clampetts moved to his neighborhood
as by the knowledge that, when Jethro is seventy years old, he's still
going to be talking like a hillbilly and wearing bib overalls, and he's
still going to be a lot richer than Mr. Drysdale.
Even the hardware that Windows ran on, when compared to the machines
put out by Apple, looked like white-trash stuff, and still mostly does.
The reason was that Apple was and is a hardware company, while Microsoft
was and is a software company. Apple therefore had a monopoly on hardware
that could run MacOS, whereas Windows-compatible hardware came out of a
free market. The free market seems to have decided that people will not
pay for cool-looking computers; PC hardware makers who hire designers to
make their stuff look distinctive get their clocks cleaned by Taiwanese
clone makers punching out boxes that look as if they belong on cinderblocks
in front of someone's trailer. But Apple could make their hardware as pretty
as they wanted to and simply pass the higher prices on to their besotted
consumers, like me. Only last week (I am writing this sentence in early
Jan. 1999) the technology sections of all the newspapers were filled with
adulatory press coverage of how Apple had released the iMac in several
happenin' new colors like Blueberry and Tangerine.
Apple has always insisted on having a hardware monopoly, except for
a brief period in the mid-1990s when they allowed clone-makers to compete
with them, before subsequently putting them out of business. Macintosh
hardware was, consequently, expensive. You didn't open it up and fool around
with it because doing so would void the warranty. In fact the first Mac
was specifically designed to be difficult to open--you needed a kit of
exotic tools, which you could buy through little ads that began to appear
in the back pages of magazines a few months after the Mac came out on the
market. These ads always had a certain disreputable air about them, like
pitches for lock-picking tools in the backs of lurid detective magazines.
This monopolistic policy can be explained in at least three different
THE CHARITABLE EXPLANATION is that the hardware monopoly policy reflected
a drive on Apple's part to provide a seamless, unified blending of hardware,
operating system, and software. There is something to this. It is hard
enough to make an OS that works well on one specific piece of hardware,
designed and tested by engineers who work down the hallway from you, in
the same company. Making an OS to work on arbitrary pieces of hardware,
cranked out by rabidly entrepeneurial clonemakers on the other side of
the International Date Line, is very difficult, and accounts for much of
the troubles people have using Windows.
THE FINANCIAL EXPLANATION is that Apple, unlike Microsoft, is and always
has been a hardware company. It simply depends on revenue from selling
hardware, and cannot exist without it.
THE NOT-SO-CHARITABLE EXPLANATION has to do with Apple's corporate culture,
which is rooted in Bay Area Baby Boomdom.
Now, since I'm going to talk for a moment about culture, full disclosure
is probably in order, to protect myself against allegations of conflict
of interest and ethical turpitude:
Geographically I am a Seattleite,
of a Saturnine temperament, and inclined to take a sour view of the Dionysian
Bay Area, just as they tend to be annoyed and appalled by us.
I am a post-Baby Boomer. I feel that way, at least, because I never experienced
the fun and exciting parts of the whole Boomer scene--just spent a lot
of time dutifully chuckling at Boomers' maddeningly pointless anecdotes
about just how stoned they got on various occasions, and politely fielding
their assertions about how great their music was. But even from this remove
it was possible to glean certain patterns, and one that recurred as regularly
as an urban legend was the one about how someone would move into a commune
populated by sandal-wearing, peace-sign flashing flower children, and eventually
discover that, underneath this facade, the guys who ran it were actually
control freaks; and that, as living in a commune, where much lip service
was paid to ideals of peace, love and harmony, had deprived them of normal,
socially approved outlets for their control-freakdom, it tended to come
out in other, invariably more sinister, ways.
Applying this to the case of Apple Computer will be left as an exercise
for the reader, and not a very difficult exercise.
It is a bit unsettling, at first, to think of Apple as a control freak,
because it is completely at odds with their corporate image. Weren't these
the guys who aired the famous Super Bowl ads showing suited, blindfolded
executives marching like lemmings off a cliff? Isn't this the company that
even now runs ads picturing the Dalai Lama (except in Hong Kong) and Einstein
and other offbeat rebels?
It is indeed the same company, and the fact that they have been able
to plant this image of themselves as creative and rebellious free-thinkers
in the minds of so many intelligent and media-hardened skeptics really
gives one pause. It is testimony to the insidious power of expensive slick
ad campaigns and, perhaps, to a certain amount of wishful thinking in the
minds of people who fall for them. It also raises the question of why Microsoft
is so bad at PR, when the history of Apple demonstrates that, by writing
large checks to good ad agencies, you can plant a corporate image in the
minds of intelligent people that is completely at odds with reality. (The
answer, for people who don't like Damoclean questions, is that since Microsoft
has won the hearts and minds of the silent majority--the bourgeoisie--they
don't give a damn about having a slick image, any more then Dick Nixon
did. "I want to believe,"--the mantra that Fox Mulder has pinned to his
office wall in The X-Files--applies in different ways to these two companies;
Mac partisans want to believe in the image of Apple purveyed in those ads,
and in the notion that Macs are somehow fundamentally different from other
computers, while Windows people want to believe that they are getting something
for their money, engaging in a respectable business transaction).
In any event, as of 1987, both MacOS and Windows were out on the market,
running on hardware platforms that were radically different from each other--not
only in the sense that MacOS used Motorola CPU chips while Windows used
Intel, but in the sense--then overlooked, but in the long run, vastly more
significant--that the Apple hardware business was a rigid monopoly and
the Windows side was a churning free-for-all.
But the full ramifications of this did not become clear until very recently--in
fact, they are still unfolding, in remarkably strange ways, as I'll explain
when we get to Linux. The upshot is that millions of people got accustomed
to using GUIs in one form or another. By doing so, they made Apple/Microsoft
a lot of money. The fortunes of many people have become bound up with the
ability of these companies to continue selling products whose salability
is very much open to question.
HONEY-POT, TAR-PIT, WHATEVER When Gates and Allen invented the idea of selling software, they
ran into criticism from both hackers and sober-sided businesspeople. Hackers
understood that software was just information, and objected to the idea
of selling it. These objections were partly moral. The hackers were coming
out of the scientific and academic world where it is imperative to make
the results of one's work freely available to the public. They were also
partly practical; how can you sell something that can be easily copied?
Businesspeople, who are polar opposites of hackers in so many ways, had
objections of their own. Accustomed to selling toasters and insurance policies,
they naturally had a difficult time understanding how a long collection
of ones and zeroes could constitute a salable product.
Obviously Microsoft prevailed over these objections, and so did Apple.
But the objections still exist. The most hackerish of all the hackers,
the Ur-hacker as it were, was and is Richard Stallman, who became so annoyed
with the evil practice of selling software that, in 1984 (the same year
that the Macintosh went on sale) he went off and founded something called
the Free Software Foundation, which commenced work on something called
GNU. Gnu is an acronym for Gnu's Not Unix, but this is a joke in more ways
than one, because GNU most certainly IS Unix,. Because of trademark concerns
("Unix" is trademarked by AT&T) they simply could not claim that it was Unix, and so, just to be extra safe, they claimed that it wasn't.
Notwithstanding the incomparable talent and drive possessed by Mr. Stallman
and other GNU adherents, their project to build a free Unix to compete
against Microsoft and Apple's OSes was a little bit like trying to dig
a subway system with a teaspoon. Until, that is, the advent of Linux, which
I will get to later.
But the basic idea of re-creating an operating system from scratch was
perfectly sound and completely doable. It has been done many times. It
is inherent in the very nature of operating systems.
Operating systems are not strictly necessary. There is no reason why
a sufficiently dedicated coder could not start from nothing with every
project and write fresh code to handle such basic, low-level operations
as controlling the read/write heads on the disk drives and lighting up
pixels on the screen. The very first computers had to be programmed in
this way. But since nearly every program needs to carry out those same
basic operations, this approach would lead to vast duplication of effort.
Nothing is more disagreeable to the hacker than duplication of effort.
The first and most important mental habit that people develop when they
learn how to write computer programs is to generalize, generalize, generalize.
To make their code as modular and flexible as possible, breaking large
problems down into small subroutines that can be used over and over again
in different contexts. Consequently, the development of operating systems,
despite being technically unnecessary, was inevitable. Because at its heart,
an operating system is nothing more than a library containing the most
commonly used code, written once (and hopefully written well) and then
made available to every coder who needs it.
So a proprietary, closed, secret operating system is a contradiction
in terms. It goes against the whole point of having an operating system.
And it is impossible to keep them secret anyway. The source code--the original
lines of text written by the programmers--can be kept secret. But an OS
as a whole is a collection of small subroutines that do very specific,
very clearly defined jobs. Exactly what those subroutines do has to be
made public, quite explicitly and exactly, or else the OS is completely
useless to programmers; they can't make use of those subroutines if they
don't have a complete and perfect understanding of what the subroutines
The only thing that isn't made public is exactly how the subroutines
do what they do. But once you know what a subroutine does, it's generally
quite easy (if you are a hacker) to write one of your own that does exactly
the same thing. It might take a while, and it is tedious and unrewarding,
but in most cases it's not really hard.
What's hard, in hacking as in fiction, is not writing; it's deciding
what to write. And the vendors of commercial OSes have already decided,
and published their decisions.
This has been generally understood for a long time. MS-DOS was duplicated,
functionally, by a rival product, written from scratch, called ProDOS,
that did all of the same things in pretty much the same way. In other words,
another company was able to write code that did all of the same things
as MS-DOS and sell it at a profit. If you are using the Linux OS, you can
get a free program called WINE which is a windows emulator; that is, you
can open up a window on your desktop that runs windows programs. It means
that a completely functional Windows OS has been recreated inside of Unix,
like a ship in a bottle. And Unix itself, which is vastly more sophisticated
than MS-DOS, has been built up from scratch many times over. Versions of
it are sold by Sun, Hewlett-Packard, AT&T, Silicon Graphics, IBM, and
People have, in other words, been re-writing basic OS code for so long
that all of the technology that constituted an "operating system" in the
traditional (pre-GUI) sense of that phrase is now so cheap and common that
it's literally free. Not only could Gates and Allen not sell MS-DOS today,
they could not even give it away, because much more powerful OSes are already being given away. Even the original Windows (which was the only windows
until 1995) has become worthless, in that there is no point in owning something
that can be emulated inside of Linux--which is, itself, free.
In this way the OS business is very different from, say, the car business.
Even an old rundown car has some value. You can use it for making runs
to the dump, or strip it for parts. It is the fate of manufactured goods
to slowly and gently depreciate as they get old and have to compete against
more modern products.
But it is the fate of operating systems to become free.
Microsoft is a great software applications company. Applications--such
as Microsoft Word--are an area where innovation brings real, direct, tangible
benefits to users. The innovations might be new technology straight from
the research department, or they might be in the category of bells and
whistles, but in any event they are frequently useful and they seem to
make users happy. And Microsoft is in the process of becoming a
great research company. But Microsoft is not such a great operating
systems company. And this is not necessarily because their operating systems
are all that bad from a purely technological standpoint. Microsoft's OSes
do have their problems, sure, but they are vastly better than they used
to be, and they are adequate for most people.
Why, then, do I say that Microsoft is not such a great operating systems
company? Because the very nature of operating systems is such that it is
senseless for them to be developed and owned by a specific company. It's
a thankless job to begin with. Applications create possibilities for millions
of credulous users, whereas OSes impose limitations on thousands of grumpy
coders, and so OS-makers will forever be on the shit-list of anyone who
counts for anything in the high-tech world. Applications get used by people
whose big problem is understanding all of their features, whereas OSes
get hacked by coders who are annoyed by their limitations. The OS business
has been good to Microsoft only insofar as it has given them the money
they needed to launch a really good applications software business and
to hire a lot of smart researchers. Now it really ought to be jettisoned,
like a spent booster stage from a rocket. The big question is whether Microsoft
is capable of doing this. Or is it addicted to OS sales in the same way
as Apple is to selling hardware?
Keep in mind that Apple's ability to monopolize its own hardware supply
was once cited, by learned observers, as a great advantage over Microsoft.
At the time, it seemed to place them in a much stronger position. In the
end, it nearly killed them, and may kill them yet. The problem, for Apple,
was that most of the world's computer users ended up owning cheaper hardware.
But cheap hardware couldn't run MacOS, and so these people switched to
Replace "hardware" with "operating systems," and "Apple" with "Microsoft"
and you can see the same thing about to happen all over again. Microsoft
dominates the OS market, which makes them money and seems like a great
idea for now. But cheaper and better OSes are available, and they are growingly
popular in parts of the world that are not so saturated with computers
as the US. Ten years from now, most of the world's computer users may end
up owning these cheaper OSes. But these OSes do not, for the time being,
run any Microsoft applications, and so these people will use something
To put it more directly: every time someone decides to use a non-Microsoft
OS, Microsoft's OS division, obviously, loses a customer. But, as things
stand now, Microsoft's applications division loses a customer too. This
is not such a big deal as long as almost everyone uses Microsoft OSes.
But as soon as Windows' market share begins to slip, the math starts to
look pretty dismal for the people in Redmond.
This argument could be countered by saying that Microsoft could simply
re-compile its applications to run under other OSes. But this strategy
goes against most normal corporate instincts. Again the case of Apple is
instructive. When things started to go south for Apple, they should have
ported their OS to cheap PC hardware. But they didn't. Instead, they tried
to make the most of their brilliant hardware, adding new features and expanding
the product line. But this only had the effect of making their OS more
dependent on these special hardware features, which made it worse for them
in the end.
Likewise, when Microsoft's position in the OS world is threatened, their
corporate instincts will tell them to pile more new features into their
operating systems, and then re-jigger their software applications to exploit
those special features. But this will only have the effect of making their
applications dependent on an OS with declining market share, and make it
worse for them in the end.
The operating system market is a death-trap, a tar-pit, a slough of
despond. There are only two reasons to invest in Apple and Microsoft. (1)
each of these companies is in what we would call a co-dependency relationship
with their customers. The customers Want To Believe, and Apple and Microsoft
know how to give them what they want. (2) each company works very hard
to add new features to their OSes, which works to secure customer loyalty,
at least for a little while.
Accordingly, most of the remainder of this essay will be about those
THE TECHNOSPHERE Unix is the only OS remaining whose GUI (a vast suite of code called the
X Windows System) is separate from the OS in the old sense of the phrase.
This is to say that you can run Unix in pure command-line mode if you want
to, with no windows, icons, mouses, etc. whatsoever, and it will still
be Unix and capable of doing everything Unix is supposed to do. But the
other OSes: MacOS, the Windows family, and BeOS, have their GUIs tangled
up with the old-fashioned OS functions to the extent that they have to
run in GUI mode, or else they are not really running. So it's no longer
really possible to think of GUIs as being distinct from the OS; they're
now an inextricable part of the OSes that they belong to--and they are
by far the largest part, and by far the most expensive and difficult part
There are only two ways to sell a product: price and features. When
OSes are free, OS companies cannot compete on price, and so they compete
on features. This means that they are always trying to outdo each other
writing code that, until recently, was not considered to be part of an
OS at all: stuff like GUIs. This explains a lot about how these companies
It explains why Microsoft added a browser to their OS, for example.
It is easy to get free browsers, just as to get free OSes. If browsers
are free, and OSes are free, it would seem that there is no way to make
money from browsers or OSes. But if you can integrate a browser into the
OS and thereby imbue both of them with new features, you have a salable
Setting aside, for the moment, the fact that this makes government anti-trust
lawyers really mad, this strategy makes sense. At least, it makes sense
if you assume (as Microsoft's management appears to) that the OS has to
be protected at all costs. The real question is whether every new technological
trend that comes down the pike ought to be used as a crutch to maintain
the OS's dominant position. Confronted with the Web phenomenon, Microsoft
had to develop a really good web browser, and they did. But then they had
a choice: they could have made that browser work on many different OSes,
which would give Microsoft a strong position in the Internet world no matter
what happened to their OS market share. Or they could make the browser
one with the OS, gambling that this would make the OS look so modern and
sexy that it would help to preserve their dominance in that market. The
problem is that when Microsoft's OS position begins to erode (and since
it is currently at something like ninety percent, it can't go anywhere
but down) it will drag everything else down with it.
In your high school geology class you probably were taught that all
life on earth exists in a paper-thin shell called the biosphere, which
is trapped between thousands of miles of dead rock underfoot, and cold
dead radioactive empty space above. Companies that sell OSes exist in a
sort of technosphere. Underneath is technology that has already become
free. Above is technology that has yet to be developed, or that is too
crazy and speculative to be productized just yet. Like the Earth's biosphere,
the technosphere is very thin compared to what is above and what is below.
But it moves a lot faster. In various parts of our world, it is possible
to go and visit rich fossil beds where skeleton lies piled upon skeleton,
recent ones on top and more ancient ones below. In theory they go all the
way back to the first single-celled organisms. And if you use your imagination
a bit, you can understand that, if you hang around long enough, you'll
become fossilized there too, and in time some more advanced organism will
become fossilized on top of you.
The fossil record--the La Brea Tar Pit--of software technology is the
Internet. Anything that shows up there is free for the taking (possibly
illegal, but free). Executives at companies like Microsoft must get used
to the experience--unthinkable in other industries--of throwing millions
of dollars into the development of new technologies, such as Web browsers,
and then seeing the same or equivalent software show up on the Internet
two years, or a year, or even just a few months, later.
By continuing to develop new technologies and add features onto their
products they can keep one step ahead of the fossilization process, but
on certain days they must feel like mammoths caught at La Brea, using all
their energies to pull their feet, over and over again, out of the sucking
hot tar that wants to cover and envelop them.
Survival in this biosphere demands sharp tusks and heavy, stomping feet
at one end of the organization, and Microsoft famously has those. But trampling
the other mammoths into the tar can only keep you alive for so long. The
danger is that in their obsession with staying out of the fossil beds,
these companies will forget about what lies above the biosphere: the realm
of new technology. In other words, they must hang onto their primitive
weapons and crude competitive instincts, but also evolve powerful brains.
This appears to be what Microsoft is doing with its research division,
which has been hiring smart people right and left (Here I should mention
that although I know, and socialize with, several people in that company's
research division, we never talk about business issues and I have little
to no idea what the hell they are up to. I have learned much more about
Microsoft by using the Linux operating system than I ever would have done
by using Windows).
Never mind how Microsoft used to make money; today, it is making
its money on a kind of temporal arbitrage. "Arbitrage," in the usual sense,
means to make money by taking advantage of differences in the price of
something between different markets. It is spatial, in other words, and
hinges on the arbitrageur knowing what is going on simultaneously in different
places. Microsoft is making money by taking advantage of differences in
the price of technology in different times. Temporal arbitrage,
if I may coin a phrase, hinges on the arbitrageur knowing what technologies
people will pay money for next year, and how soon afterwards those same
technologies will become free. What spatial and temporal arbitrage have
in common is that both hinge on the arbitrageur's being extremely well-informed;
one about price gradients across space at a given time, and the other about
price gradients over time in a given place.
So Apple/Microsoft shower new features upon their users almost daily,
in the hopes that a steady stream of genuine technical innovations, combined
with the "I want to believe" phenomenon, will prevent their customers from
looking across the road towards the cheaper and better OSes that are available
to them. The question is whether this makes sense in the long run. If Microsoft
is addicted to OSes as Apple is to hardware, then they will bet the whole
farm on their OSes, and tie all of their new applications and technologies
to them. Their continued survival will then depend on these two things:
adding more features to their OSes so that customers will not switch to
the cheaper alternatives, and maintaining the image that, in some mysterious
way, gives those customers the feeling that they are getting something
for their money.
The latter is a truly strange and interesting cultural phenomenon.
THE INTERFACE CULTURE A few years ago I walked into a grocery store somewhere and was
presented with the following tableau vivant: near the entrance a
young couple were standing in front of a large cosmetics display. The man
was stolidly holding a shopping basket between his hands while his mate
raked blister-packs of makeup off the display and piled them in. Since
then I've always thought of that man as the personification of an interesting
human tendency: not only are we not offended to be dazzled by manufactured
images, but we like it. We practically insist on it. We are
eager to be complicit in our own dazzlement: to pay money for a theme park
ride, vote for a guy who's obviously lying to us, or stand there holding
the basket as it's filled up with cosmetics.
I was in Disney World recently, specifically the part of it called the
Magic Kingdom, walking up Main Street USA. This is a perfect gingerbready
Victorian small town that culminates in a Disney castle. It was very crowded;
we shuffled rather than walked. Directly in front of me was a man with
a camcorder. It was one of the new breed of camcorders where instead of
peering through a viewfinder you gaze at a flat-panel color screen about
the size of a playing card, which televises live coverage of whatever the
camcorder is seeing. He was holding the appliance close to his face, so
that it obstructed his view. Rather than go see a real small town for free,
he had paid money to see a pretend one, and rather than see it with the
naked eye he was watching it on television.
And rather than stay home and read a book, I was watching him.
Americans' preference for mediated experiences is obvious enough, and
I'm not going to keep pounding it into the ground. I'm not even going to
make snotty comments about it--after all, I was at Disney World as a paying
customer. But it clearly relates to the colossal success of GUIs and so
I have to talk about it some. Disney does mediated experiences better than
anyone. If they understood what OSes are, and why people use them, they
could crush Microsoft in a year or two.
In the part of Disney World called the Animal Kingdom there is a new
attraction, slated to open in March 1999, called the Maharajah Jungle Trek.
It was open for sneak previews when I was there. This is a complete stone-by-stone
reproduction of a hypothetical ruin in the jungles of India. According
to its backstory, it was built by a local rajah in the 16th Century as
a game reserve. He would go there with his princely guests to hunt Bengal
tigers. As time went on it fell into disrepair and the tigers and monkeys
took it over; eventually, around the time of India's independence, it became
a government wildlife reserve, now open to visitors.
The place looks more like what I have just described than any actual
building you might find in India. All the stones in the broken walls are
weathered as if monsoon rains had been trickling down them for centuries,
the paint on the gorgeous murals is flaked and faded just so, and Bengal
tigers loll amid stumps of broken columns. Where modern repairs have been
made to the ancient structure, they've been done, not as Disney's engineers
would do them, but as thrifty Indian janitors would--with hunks of bamboo
and rust-spotted hunks of rebar. The rust is painted on, or course, and
protected from real rust by a plastic clear-coat, but you can't tell unless
you get down on your knees.
In one place you walk along a stone wall with a series of old pitted
friezes carved into it. One end of the wall has broken off and settled
into the earth, perhaps because of some long-forgotten earthquake, and
so a broad jagged crack runs across a panel or two, but the story is still
readable: first, primordial chaos leads to a flourishing of many animal
species. Next, we see the Tree of Life surrounded by diverse animals. This
is an obvious allusion (or, in showbiz lingo, a tie-in) to the gigantic
Tree of Life that dominates the center of Disney's Animal Kingdom just
as the Castle dominates the Magic Kingdom or the Sphere does Epcot. But
it's rendered in historically correct style and could probably fool anyone
who didn't have a Ph.D. in Indian art history.
The next panel shows a mustachioed H. sapiens chopping down the Tree
of Life with a scimitar, and the animals fleeing every which way. The one
after that shows the misguided human getting walloped by a tidal wave,
part of a latter-day Deluge presumably brought on by his stupidity.
The final panel, then, portrays the Sapling of Life beginning to grow
back, but now Man has ditched the edged weapon and joined the other animals
in standing around to adore and praise it.
It is, in other words, a prophecy of the Bottleneck: the scenario, commonly
espoused among modern-day environmentalists, that the world faces an upcoming
period of grave ecological tribulations that will last for a few decades
or centuries and end when we find a new harmonious modus vivendi with Nature.
Taken as a whole the frieze is a pretty brilliant piece of work. Obviously
it's not _an ancient Indian ruin, and some_ person or people
now living deserve credit for it. But there are no signatures on the Maharajah's
game reserve at Disney World. There are no signatures on anything,
because it would ruin the whole effect to have long strings of production
credits dangling from every custom-worn brick, as they do from Hollywood
Among Hollywood writers, Disney has the reputation of being a real wicked
stepmother. It's not hard to see why. Disney is in the business of putting
out a product of seamless illusion--a magic mirror that reflects the world
back better than it really is. But a writer is literally talking to his
or her readers, not just creating an ambience or presenting them with something
to look at; and just as the command-line interface opens a much more direct
and explicit channel from user to machine than the GUI, so it is with words,
writer, and reader.
The word, in the end, is the only system of encoding thoughts--the only
medium--that is not fungible, that refuses to dissolve in the devouring
torrent of electronic media (the richer tourists at Disney World wear t-shirts
printed with the names of famous designers, because designs themselves can be bootlegged easily and with impunity. The only way to make clothing
that cannot be legally bootlegged is to print copyrighted and trademarked
words on it; once you have taken that step, the clothing itself doesn't really matter, and so a t-shirt is as good as anything else. T-shirts
with expensive words on them are now the insignia of the upper class. T-shirts
with cheap words, or no words at all, are for the commoners).
But this special quality of words and of written communication would
have the same effect on Disney's product as spray-painted graffiti on a
magic mirror. So Disney does most of its communication without resorting
to words, and for the most part, the words aren't missed. Some of Disney's
older properties, such as Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, and Alice in Wonderland,
came out of books. But the authors' names are rarely if ever mentioned,
and you can't buy the original books at the Disney store. If you could,
they would all seem old and queer, like very bad knockoffs of the purer,
more authentic Disney versions. Compared to more recent productions like
Beauty and the Beast and Mulan, the Disney movies based on these books
(particularly Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan) seem deeply bizarre, and
not wholly appropriate for children. That stands to reason, because Lewis
Carroll and J.M. Barrie were very strange men, and such is the nature of
the written word that their personal strangeness shines straight through
all the layers of Disneyfication like x-rays through a wall. Probably for
this very reason, Disney seems to have stopped buying books altogether,
and now finds its themes and characters in folk tales, which have the lapidary,
time-worn quality of the ancient bricks in the Maharajah's ruins.
If I can risk a broad generalization, most of the people who go to Disney
World have zero interest in absorbing new ideas from books. Which sounds
snide, but listen: they have no qualms about being presented with ideas
in other forms. Disney World is stuffed with environmental messages now,
and the guides at Animal Kingdom can talk your ear off about biology.
If you followed those tourists home, you might find art, but it would
be the sort of unsigned folk art that's for sale in Disney World's African-
and Asian-themed stores. In general they only seem comfortable with media
that have been ratified by great age, massive popular acceptance, or both.
In this world, artists are like the anonymous, illiterate stone carvers
who built the great cathedrals of Europe and then faded away into unmarked
graves in the churchyard. The cathedral as a whole is awesome and stirring
in spite, and possibly because, of the fact that we have no idea who built
it. When we walk through it we are communing not with individual stone
carvers but with an entire culture.
Disney World works the same way. If you are an intellectual type, a
reader or writer of books, the nicest thing you can say about this is that
the execution is superb. But it's easy to find the whole environment a
little creepy, because something is missing: the translation of all its
content into clear explicit written words, the attribution of the ideas
to specific people. You can't argue with it. It seems as if a hell
of a lot might be being glossed over, as if Disney World might be putting
one over on us, and possibly getting away with all kinds of buried assumptions
and muddled thinking.
But this is precisely the same as what is lost in the transition from
the command-line interface to the GUI.
Disney and Apple/Microsoft are in the same business: short-circuiting
laborious, explicit verbal communication with expensively designed interfaces.
Disney is a sort of user interface unto itself--and more than just graphical.
Let's call it a Sensorial Interface. It can be applied to anything in the
world, real or imagined, albeit at staggering expense.
Why are we rejecting explicit word-based interfaces, and embracing graphical
or sensorial ones--a trend that accounts for the success of both Microsoft
Part of it is simply that the world is very complicated now--much more
complicated than the hunter-gatherer world that our brains evolved to cope
with--and we simply can't handle all of the details. We have to delegate.
We have no choice but to trust some nameless artist at Disney or programmer
at Apple or Microsoft to make a few choices for us, close off some options,
and give us a conveniently packaged executive summary.
But more importantly, it comes out of the fact that, during this century,
intellectualism failed, and everyone knows it. In places like Russia and
Germany, the common people agreed to loosen their grip on traditional folkways,
mores, and religion, and let the intellectuals run with the ball, and they
screwed everything up and turned the century into an abbatoir. Those wordy
intellectuals used to be merely tedious; now they seem kind of dangerous
We Americans are the only ones who didn't get creamed at some point
during all of this. We are free and prosperous because we have inherited
political and values systems fabricated by a particular set of eighteenth-century
intellectuals who happened to get it right. But we have lost touch with
those intellectuals, and with anything like intellectualism, even to the
point of not reading books any more, though we are literate. We seem much
more comfortable with propagating those values to future generations nonverbally,
through a process of being steeped in media. Apparently this actually works
to some degree, for police in many lands are now complaining that local
arrestees are insisting on having their Miranda rights read to them, just
like perps in American TV cop shows. When it's explained to them that they
are in a different country, where those rights do not exist, they become
outraged. Starsky and Hutch reruns, dubbed into diverse languages, may
turn out, in the long run, to be a greater force for human rights than
the Declaration of Independence.
A huge, rich, nuclear-tipped culture that propagates its core values
through media steepage seems like a bad idea. There is an obvious risk
of running astray here. Words are the only immutable medium we have, which
is why they are the vehicle of choice for extremely important concepts
like the Ten Commandments, the Koran, and the Bill of Rights. Unless the
messages conveyed by our media are somehow pegged to a fixed, written set
of precepts, they can wander all over the place and possibly dump loads
of crap into people's minds.
Orlando used to have a military installation called McCoy Air Force
Base, with long runways from which B-52s could take off and reach Cuba,
or just about anywhere else, with loads of nukes. But now McCoy has been
scrapped and repurposed. It has been absorbed into Orlando's civilian airport.
The long runways are being used to land 747-loads of tourists from Brazil,
Italy, Russia and Japan, so that they can come to Disney World and steep
in our media for a while.
To traditional cultures, especially word-based ones such as Islam, this
is infinitely more threatening than the B-52s ever were. It is obvious,
to everyone outside of the United States, that our arch-buzzwords, multiculturalism
and diversity, are false fronts that are being used (in many cases unwittingly)
to conceal a global trend to eradicate cultural differences. The
basic tenet of multiculturalism (or "honoring diversity" or whatever you
want to call it) is that people need to stop judging each other-to stop
asserting (and, eventually, to stop believing) that this is right and that _is _wrong_, this true and that_
false, one thing ugly and another thing beautiful, that God exists and
has this or that set of qualities.
The lesson most people are taking home from the Twentieth Century is
that, in order for a large number of different cultures to coexist peacefully
on the globe (or even in a neighborhood) it is necessary for people to
suspend judgment in this way. Hence (I would argue) our suspicion of, and
hostility towards, all authority figures in modern culture. As David Foster
Wallace has explained in his essay "E Unibus Pluram," this is the fundamental
message of television; it is the message that people take home, anyway,
after they have steeped in our media long enough. It's not expressed in
these highfalutin terms, of course. It comes through as the presumption
that all authority figures--teachers, generals, cops, ministers, politicians--are
hypocritical buffoons, and that hip jaded coolness is the only way to be.
The problem is that once you have done away with the ability to make
judgments as to right and wrong, true and false, etc., there's no real
culture left. All that remains is clog dancing and macrame. The
ability to make judgments, to believe things, is the entire it point of having a culture. I think this is why guys with machine guns sometimes
pop up in places like Luxor, and begin pumping bullets into Westerners.
They perfectly understand the lesson of McCoy Air Force Base. When their
sons come home wearing Chicago Bulls caps with the bills turned sideways,
the dads go out of their minds.
The global anti-culture that has been conveyed into every cranny of
the world by television is a culture unto itself, and by the standards
of great and ancient cultures like Islam and France, it seems grossly inferior,
at least at first. The only good thing you can say about it is that it
makes world wars and Holocausts less likely--and that is actually a pretty
The only real problem is that anyone who has no culture, other than
this global monoculture, is completely screwed. Anyone who grows up watching
TV, never sees any religion or philosophy, is raised in an atmosphere of
moral relativism, learns about civics from watching bimbo eruptions on
network TV news, and attends a university where postmodernists vie to outdo
each other in demolishing traditional notions of truth and quality, is
going to come out into the world as one pretty feckless human being. And--again--perhaps
the goal of all this is to make us feckless so we won't nuke each other.
On the other hand, if you are raised within some specific culture, you
end up with a basic set of tools that you can use to think about and understand
the world. You might use those tools to reject the culture you were raised
in, but at least you've got some tools.
In this country, the people who run things--who populate major law firms
and corporate boards--understand all of this at some level. They pay lip
service to multiculturalism and diversity and non-judgmentalness, but they
don't raise their own children that way. I have highly educated, technically
sophisticated friends who have moved to small towns in Iowa to live and
raise their children, and there are Hasidic Jewish enclaves in New York
where large numbers of kids are being brought up according to traditional
beliefs. Any suburban community might be thought of as a place where people
who hold certain (mostly implicit) beliefs go to live among others who
think the same way.
And not only do these people feel some responsibility to their own children,
but to the country as a whole. Some of the upper class are vile and cynical,
of course, but many spend at least part of their time fretting about what
direction the country is going in, and what responsibilities they have.
And so issues that are important to book-reading intellectuals, such as
global environmental collapse, eventually percolate through the porous
buffer of mass culture and show up as ancient Hindu ruins in Orlando.
You may be asking: what the hell does all this have to do with operating
systems? As I've explained, there is no way to explain the domination of
the OS market by Apple/Microsoft without looking to cultural explanations,
and so I can't get anywhere, in this essay, without first letting you know
where I'm coming from vis-a-vis contemporary culture.
Contemporary culture is a two-tiered system, like the Morlocks and the
Eloi in H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, except that it's been turned
upside down. In The Time Machine the Eloi were an effete upper class,
supported by lots of subterranean Morlocks who kept the technological wheels
turning. But in our world it's the other way round. The Morlocks are in
the minority, and they are running the show, because they understand how
everything works. The much more numerous Eloi learn everything they know
from being steeped from birth in electronic media directed and controlled
by book-reading Morlocks. So many ignorant people could be dangerous if
they got pointed in the wrong direction, and so we've evolved a popular
culture that is (a) almost unbelievably infectious and (b) neuters every
person who gets infected by it, by rendering them unwilling to make judgments
and incapable of taking stands.
Morlocks, who have the energy and intelligence to comprehend details,
go out and master complex subjects and produce Disney-like Sensorial Interfaces
so that Eloi can get the gist without having to strain their minds or endure
boredom. Those Morlocks will go to India and tediously explore a hundred
ruins, then come home and built sanitary bug-free versions: highlight films,
as it were. This costs a lot, because Morlocks insist on good coffee and
first-class airline tickets, but that's no problem because Eloi like to
be dazzled and will gladly pay for it all.
Now I realize that most of this probably sounds snide and bitter to
the point of absurdity: your basic snotty intellectual throwing a tantrum
about those unlettered philistines. As if I were a self-styled Moses, coming
down from the mountain all alone, carrying the stone tablets bearing the
Ten Commandments carved in immutable stone--the original command-line interface--and
blowing his stack at the weak, unenlightened Hebrews worshipping images.
Not only that, but it sounds like I'm pumping some sort of conspiracy theory.
But that is not where I'm going with this. The situation I describe,
here, could be bad, but doesn't have to be bad and isn't necessarily
It simply is the case that we are way too busy, nowadays, to comprehend
everything in detail. And it's better to comprehend it dimly, through an
interface, than not at all. Better for ten million Eloi to go on the Kilimanjaro
Safari at Disney World than for a thousand cardiovascular surgeons and
mutual fund managers to go on "real" ones in Kenya.
The boundary between these two classes is more porous than I've made it
sound. I'm always running into regular dudes--construction workers, auto
mechanics, taxi drivers, galoots in general--who were largely aliterate
until something made it necessary for them to become readers and start
actually thinking about things. Perhaps they had to come to grips with
alcoholism, perhaps they got sent to jail, or came down with a disease,
or suffered a crisis in religious faith, or simply got bored. Such people
can get up to speed on particular subjects quite rapidly. Sometimes their
lack of a broad education makes them over-apt to go off on intellectual
wild goose chases, but, hey, at least a wild goose chase gives you some
The spectre of a polity controlled by the fads and whims of voters who
actually believe that there are significant differences between Bud Lite
and Miller Lite, and who think that professional wrestling is for real,
is naturally alarming to people who don't. But then countries controlled
via the command-line interface, as it were, by double-domed intellectuals,
be they religious or secular, are generally miserable places to live.
Sophisticated people deride Disneyesque entertainments as pat and saccharine,
but, hey, if the result of that is to instill basically warm and sympathetic
reflexes, at a preverbal level, into hundreds of millions of unlettered
media-steepers, then how bad can it be? We killed a lobster in our kitchen
last night and my daughter cried for an hour. The Japanese, who used to
be just about the fiercest people on earth, have become infatuated with
cuddly adorable cartoon characters.
My own family--the people I know best--is divided about evenly between
people who will probably read this essay and people who almost certainly
won't, and I can't say for sure that one group is necessarily warmer, happier,
or better-adjusted than the other.
MORLOCKS AND ELOI AT THE KEYBOARD Back in the days of the command-line interface, users were all Morlocks
who had to convert their thoughts into alphanumeric symbols and type them
in, a grindingly tedious process that stripped away all ambiguity, laid
bare all hidden assumptions, and cruelly punished laziness and imprecision.
Then the interface-makers went to work on their GUIs, and introduced a
new semiotic layer between people and machines. People who use such systems
have abdicated the responsibility, and surrendered the power, of sending
bits directly to the chip that's doing the arithmetic, and handed that
responsibility and power over to the OS. This is tempting because giving
clear instructions, to anyone or anything, is difficult. We cannot do it
without thinking, and depending on the complexity of the situation, we
may have to think hard about abstract things, and consider any number of
ramifications, in order to do a good job of it. For most of us, this is
hard work. We want things to be easier. How badly we want it can be measured
by the size of Bill Gates's fortune.
The OS has (therefore) become a sort of intellectual labor-saving device
that tries to translate humans' vaguely expressed intentions into bits.
In effect we are asking our computers to shoulder responsibilities that
have always been considered the province of human beings--we want them
to understand our desires, to anticipate our needs, to foresee consequences,
to make connections, to handle routine chores without being asked, to remind
us of what we ought to be reminded of while filtering out noise.
At the upper (which is to say, closer to the user) levels, this is done
through a set of conventions--menus, buttons, and so on. These work in
the sense that analogies work: they help Eloi understand abstract or unfamiliar
concepts by likening them to something known. But the loftier word "metaphor"
The overarching concept of the MacOS was the "desktop metaphor" and
it subsumed any number of lesser (and frequently conflicting, or at least
mixed) metaphors. Under a GUI, a file (frequently called "document") is
metaphrased as a window on the screen (which is called a "desktop"). The
window is almost always too small to contain the document and so you "move
around," or, more pretentiously, "navigate" in the document by "clicking
and dragging" the "thumb" on the "scroll bar." When you "type" (using a
keyboard) or "draw" (using a "mouse") into the "window" or use pull-down
"menus" and "dialog boxes" to manipulate its contents, the results of your
labors get stored (at least in theory) in a "file," and later you can pull
the same information back up into another "window." When you don't want
it anymore, you "drag" it into the "trash."
There is massively promiscuous metaphor-mixing going on here, and I
could deconstruct it 'til the cows come home, but I won't. Consider only
one word: "document." When we document something in the real world,
we make fixed, permanent, immutable records of it. But computer documents
are volatile, ephemeral constellations of data. Sometimes (as when you've
just opened or saved them) the document as portrayed in the window is identical
to what is stored, under the same name, in a file on the disk, but other
times (as when you have made changes without saving them) it is completely
different. In any case, every time you hit "Save" you annihilate the previous
version of the "document" and replace it with whatever happens to be in
the window at the moment. So even the word "save" is being used in a sense
that is grotesquely misleading---"destroy one version, save another" would
be more accurate.
Anyone who uses a word processor for very long inevitably has the experience
of putting hours of work into a long document and then losing it because
the computer crashes or the power goes out. Until the moment that it disappears
from the screen, the document seems every bit as solid and real as if it
had been typed out in ink on paper. But in the next moment, without warning,
it is completely and irretrievably gone, as if it had never existed. The
user is left with a feeling of disorientation (to say nothing of annoyance)
stemming from a kind of metaphor shear--you realize that you've been living
and thinking inside of a metaphor that is essentially bogus.
So GUIs use metaphors to make computing easier, but they are bad metaphors.
Learning to use them is essentially a word game, a process of learning
new definitions of words like "window" and "document" and "save" that are
different from, and in many cases almost diametrically opposed to, the
old. Somewhat improbably, this has worked very well, at least from a commercial
standpoint, which is to say that Apple/Microsoft have made a lot of money
off of it. All of the other modern operating systems have learned that
in order to be accepted by users they must conceal their underlying gutwork
beneath the same sort of spackle. This has some advantages: if you know
how to use one GUI operating system, you can probably work out how to use
any other in a few minutes. Everything works a little differently, like
European plumbing--but with some fiddling around, you can type a memo or
surf the web.
Most people who shop for OSes (if they bother to shop at all) are comparing
not the underlying functions but the superficial look and feel. The average
buyer of an OS is not really paying for, and is not especially interested
in, the low-level code that allocates memory or writes bytes onto the disk.
What we're really buying is a system of metaphors. And--much more important--what
we're buying into is the underlying assumption that metaphors are
a good way to deal with the world.
Recently a lot of new hardware has become available that gives computers
numerous interesting ways of affecting the real world: making paper spew
out of printers, causing words to appear on screens thousands of miles
away, shooting beams of radiation through cancer patients, creating realistic
moving pictures of the Titanic. Windows is now used as an OS for cash registers
and bank tellers' terminals. My satellite TV system uses a sort of GUI
to change channels and show program guides. Modern cellular telephones
have a crude GUI built into a tiny LCD screen. Even Legos now have a GUI:
you can buy a Lego set called Mindstorms that enables you to build little
Lego robots and program them through a GUI on your computer.
So we are now asking the GUI to do a lot more than serve as a glorified
typewriter. Now we want to become a generalized tool for dealing with reality.
This has become a bonanza for companies that make a living out of bringing
new technology to the mass market.
Obviously you cannot sell a complicated technological system to people
without some sort of interface that enables them to use it. The internal
combustion engine was a technological marvel in its day, but useless as
a consumer good until a clutch, transmission, steering wheel and throttle
were connected to it. That odd collection of gizmos, which survives to
this day in every car on the road, made up what we would today call a user
interface. But if cars had been invented after Macintoshes, carmakers would
not have bothered to gin up all of these arcane devices. We would have
a computer screen instead of a dashboard, and a mouse (or at best a joystick)
instead of a steering wheel, and we'd shift gears by pulling down a menu:
A few lines of computer code can thus be made to substitute for any
imaginable mechanical interface. The problem is that in many cases the
substitute is a poor one. Driving a car through a GUI would be a miserable
experience. Even if the GUI were perfectly bug-free, it would be incredibly
dangerous, because menus and buttons simply can't be as responsive as direct
mechanical controls. My friend's dad, the gentleman who was restoring the
MGB, never would have bothered with it if it had been equipped with a GUI.
It wouldn't have been any fun.
The steering wheel and gearshift lever were invented during an era when
the most complicated technology in most homes was a butter churn. Those
early carmakers were simply lucky, in that they could dream up whatever
interface was best suited to the task of driving an automobile, and people
would learn it. Likewise with the dial telephone and the AM radio. By the
time of the Second World War, most people knew several interfaces: they
could not only churn butter but also drive a car, dial a telephone, turn
on a radio, summon flame from a cigarette lighter, and change a light bulb.
But now every little thing--wristwatches, VCRs, stoves--is jammed with
features, and every feature is useless without an interface. If you are
like me, and like most other consumers, you have never used ninety percent
of the available features on your microwave oven, VCR, or cellphone. You
don't even know that these features exist. The small benefit they might
bring you is outweighed by the sheer hassle of having to learn about them.
This has got to be a big problem for makers of consumer goods, because
they can't compete without offering features.
It's no longer acceptable for engineers to invent a wholly novel user
interface for every new product, as they did in the case of the automobile,
partly because it's too expensive and partly because ordinary people can
only learn so much. If the VCR had been invented a hundred years ago, it
would have come with a thumbwheel to adjust the tracking and a gearshift
to change between forward and reverse and a big cast-iron handle to load
or to eject the cassettes. It would have had a big analog clock on the
front of it, and you would have set the time by moving the hands around
on the dial. But because the VCR was invented when it was--during a sort
of awkward transitional period between the era of mechanical interfaces
and GUIs--it just had a bunch of pushbuttons on the front, and in order
to set the time you had to push the buttons in just the right way. This
must have seemed reasonable enough to the engineers responsible for it,
but to many users it was simply impossible. Thus the famous blinking 12:00
that appears on so many VCRs. Computer people call this "the blinking twelve
problem". When they talk about it, though, they usually aren't talking
Modern VCRs usually have some kind of on-screen programming, which means
that you can set the time and control other features through a sort of
primitive GUI. GUIs have virtual pushbuttons too, of course, but they also
have other types of virtual controls, like radio buttons, checkboxes, text
entry boxes, dials, and scrollbars. Interfaces made out of these components
seem to be a lot easier, for many people, than pushing those little buttons
on the front of the machine, and so the blinking 12:00 itself is
slowly disappearing from America's living rooms. The blinking twelve problem has moved on to plague other technologies.
So the GUI has gone beyond being an interface to personal computers,
and become a sort of meta-interface that is pressed into service for every
new piece of consumer technology. It is rarely an ideal fit, but having
an ideal, or even a good interface is no longer the priority; the
important thing now is having some kind of interface that customers will
actually use, so that manufacturers can claim, with a straight face, that
they are offering new features.
We want GUIs largely because they are convenient and because they are
easy--_ or at least the GUI makes it seem that way_ Of course, nothing
is really easy and simple, and putting a nice interface on top of it does
not change that fact. A car controlled through a GUI would be easier to
drive than one controlled through pedals and steering wheel, but it would
be incredibly dangerous.
By using GUIs all the time we have insensibly bought into a premise
that few people would have accepted if it were presented to them bluntly:
namely, that hard things can be made easy, and complicated things simple,
by putting the right interface on them. In order to understand how bizarre
this is, imagine that book reviews were written according to the same values
system that we apply to user interfaces: "The writing in this book is marvelously
simple-minded and glib; the author glosses over complicated subjects and
employs facile generalizations in almost every sentence. Readers rarely
have to think, and are spared all of the difficulty and tedium typically
involved in reading old-fashioned books." As long as we stick to simple
operations like setting the clocks on our VCRs, this is not so bad. But
as we try to do more ambitious things with our technologies, we inevitably
run into the problem of:
METAPHOR SHEAR I began using Microsoft Word as soon as the first version was released
around 1985. After some initial hassles I found it to be a better tool
than MacWrite, which was its only competition at the time. I wrote a lot
of stuff in early versions of Word, storing it all on floppies, and transferred
the contents of all my floppies to my first hard drive, which I acquired
around 1987. As new versions of Word came out I faithfully upgraded, reasoning
that as a writer it made sense for me to spend a certain amount of money
Sometime in the mid-1980's I attempted to open one of my old, circa-1985
Word documents using the version of Word then current: 6.0 It didn't work.
Word 6.0 did not recognize a document created by an earlier version of
itself. By opening it as a text file, I was able to recover the sequences
of letters that made up the text of the document. My words were still there.
But the formatting had been run through a log chipper--the words I'd written
were interrupted by spates of empty rectangular boxes and gibberish.
Now, in the context of a business (the chief market for Word) this sort
of thing is only an annoyance--one of the routine hassles that go along
with using computers. It's easy to buy little file converter programs that
will take care of this problem. But if you are a writer whose career is
words, whose professional identity is a corpus of written documents, this
kind of thing is extremely disquieting. There are very few fixed assumptions
in my line of work, but one of them is that once you have written a word,
it is written, and cannot be unwritten. The ink stains the paper, the chisel
cuts the stone, the stylus marks the clay, and something has irrevocably
happened (my brother-in-law is a theologian who reads 3250-year-old cuneiform
tablets--he can recognize the handwriting of particular scribes, and identify
them by name). But word-processing software--particularly the sort that
employs special, complex file formats--has the eldritch power to unwrite
things. A small change in file formats, or a few twiddled bits, and months'
or years' literary output can cease to exist.
Now this was technically a fault in the application (Word 6.0
for the Macintosh) not the operating system (MacOS 7 point something)
and so the initial target of my annoyance was the people who were responsible
for Word. But. On the other hand, I could have chosen the "save as text"
option in Word and saved all of my documents as simple telegrams, and this
problem would not have arisen. Instead I had allowed myself to be seduced
by all of those flashy formatting options that hadn't even existed until
GUIs had come along to make them practicable. I had gotten into the habit
of using them to make my documents look pretty (perhaps prettier than they
deserved to look; all of the old documents on those floppies turned out
to be more or less crap). Now I was paying the price for that self-indulgence.
Technology had moved on and found ways to make my documents look even prettier,
and the consequence of it was that all old ugly documents had ceased to
It was--if you'll pardon me for a moment's strange little fantasy--as
if I'd gone to stay at some resort, some exquisitely designed and art-directed
hotel, placing myself in the hands of past masters of the Sensorial Interface,
and had sat down in my room and written a story in ballpoint pen on a yellow
legal pad, and when I returned from dinner, discovered that the maid had
taken my work away and left behind in its place a quill pen and a stack
of fine parchment--explaining that the room looked ever so much finer this
way, and it was all part of a routine upgrade. But written on these sheets
of paper, in flawless penmanship, were long sequences of words chosen at
random from the dictionary. Appalling, sure, but I couldn't really lodge
a complaint with the management, because by staying at this resort I had
given my consent to it. I had surrendered my Morlock credentials and become
LINUX During the late 1980's and early 1990's I spent a lot of
time programming Macintoshes, and eventually decided for fork over
several hundred dollars for an Apple product called the Macintosh
Programmer's Workshop, or MPW. MPW had competitors, but it was
unquestionably the premier software development system for the Mac. It
was what Apple's own engineers used to write Macintosh code. Given
that MacOS was far more technologically advanced, at the time, than
its competition, and that Linux did not even exist yet, and given that
this was the actual program used by Apple's world-class team of
creative engineers, I had high expectations. It arrived on a stack of
floppy disks about a foot high, and so there was plenty of time for my
excitement to build during the endless installation process. The first
time I launched MPW, I was probably expecting some kind of touch-feely
multimedia showcase. Instead it was austere, almost to the point of
being intimidating. It was a scrolling window into which you could
type simple, unformatted text. The system would then interpret these
lines of text as commands, and try to execute them.
It was, in
other words, a glass teletype running a command line interface. It
came with all sorts of cryptic but powerful commands, which could be
invoked by typing their names, and which I learned to use only
gradually. It was not until a few years later, when I began messing
around with Unix, that I understood that the command line interface
embodied in MPW was a re-creation of Unix.
In other words, the
first thing that Apple's hackers had done when they'd got the MacOS up
and running--probably even before they'd gotten it up and
running--was to re-create the Unix interface, so that they would be
able to get some useful work done. At the time, I simply couldn't get
my mind around this, but: as far as Apple's hackers were concerned,
the Mac's vaunted Graphical User Interface was an impediment,
something to be circumvented before the little toaster even came out
onto the market.
Even before my Powerbook crashed and obliterated
my big file in July 1995, there had been danger signs. An old college
buddy of mine, who starts and runs high-tech companies in Boston, had
developed a commercial product using Macintoshes as the front
end. Basically the Macs were high-performance graphics terminals,
chosen for their sweet user interface, giving users access to a large
database of graphical information stored on a network of much more
powerful, but less user-friendly, computers. This fellow was the
second person who turned me on to Macintoshes, by the way, and through
the mid-1980's we had shared the thrill of being high-tech
cognoscenti, using superior Apple technology in a world of DOS-using
knuckleheads. Early versions of my friend's system had worked well, he
told me, but when several machines joined the network, mysterious
crashes began to occur; sometimes the whole network would just
freeze. It was one of those bugs that could not be reproduced
easily. Finally they figured out that these network crashes were
triggered whenever a user, scanning the menus for a particular item,
held down the mouse button for more than a couple of seconds.
Fundamentally, the MacOS could only do one thing at a time. Drawing
a menu on the screen is one thing. So when a menu was pulled down, the
Macintosh was not capable of doing anything else until that indecisive
user released the button.
This is not such a bad thing in a
single-user, single-process machine (although it's a fairly bad
thing), but it's no good in a machine that is on a network, because
being on a network implies some kind of continual low-level
interaction with other machines. By failing to respond to the network,
the Mac caused a network-wide crash.
In order to work with other
computers, and with networks, and with various different types of
hardware, an OS must be incomparably more complicated and powerful
than either MS-DOS or the original MacOS. The only way of connecting
to the Internet that's worth taking seriously is PPP, the
Point-to-Point Protocol, which (never mind the details) makes your
computer--temporarily--a full-fledged member of the Global Internet,
with its own unique address, and various privileges, powers, and
responsibilities appertaining thereunto. Technically it means your
machine is running the TCP/IP protocol, which, to make a long story
short, revolves around sending packets of data back and forth, in no
particular order, and at unpredictable times, according to a clever
and elegant set of rules. But sending a packet of data is one thing,
and so an OS that can only do one thing at a time cannot
simultaneously be part of the Internet and do anything else. When
TCP/IP was invented, running it was an honor reserved for Serious
Computers--mainframes and high-powered minicomputers used in
technical and commercial settings--and so the protocol is engineered
around the assumption that every computer using it is a serious
machine, capable of doing many things at once. Not to put too fine a
point on it, a Unix machine. Neither MacOS nor MS-DOS was originally
built with that in mind, and so when the Internet got hot, radical
changes had to be made.
When my Powerbook broke my heart, and when
Word stopped recognizing my old files, I jumped to Unix. The obvious
alternative to MacOS would have been Windows. I didn't really have
anything against Microsoft, or Windows. But it was pretty
obvious, now, that old PC operating systems were overreaching, and
showing the strain, and, perhaps, were best avoided until they had
learned to walk and chew gum at the same time.
The changeover took
place on a particular day in the summer of 1995. I had been San
Francisco for a couple of weeks, using my PowerBook to work on a
document. The document was too big to fit onto a single floppy, and so
I hadn't made a backup since leaving home. The PowerBook crashed and
wiped out the entire file.
It happened just as I was on my way out
the door to visit a company called Electric Communities, which in
those days was in Los Altos. I took my PowerBook with me. My friends
at Electric Communities were Mac users who had all sorts of utility
software for unerasing files and recovering from disk crashes, and I
was certain I could get most of the file back.
As it turned out,
two different Mac crash recovery utilities were unable to find any
trace that my file had ever existed. It was completely and
systematically wiped out. We went through that hard disk block by
block and found disjointed fragments of countless old, discarded,
forgotten files, but none of what I wanted. The metaphor shear was
especially brutal that day. It was sort of like watching the girl
you've been in love with for ten years get killed in a car wreck, and
then attending her autopsy, and learning that underneath the clothes
and makeup she was just flesh and blood.
I must have been reeling
around the offices of Electric Communities in some kind of primal
Jungian fugue, because at this moment three weirdly synchronistic
Randy Farmer, a co-founder of the company,
came in for a quick visit along with his family--he was recovering
from back surgery at the time. He had some hot gossip: "Windows 95
mastered today." What this meant was that Microsoft's new operating
system had, on this day, been placed on a special compact disk known
as a golden master, which would be used to stamp out a jintillion
copies in preparation for its thunderous release a few weeks
later. This news was received peevishly by the staff of Electric
Communities, including one whose office door was plastered with the
usual assortment of cartoons and novelties, e.g.
a copy of a Dilbert cartoon in which Dilbert, the long-suffering corporate
software engineer, encounters a portly, bearded, hairy man of a
certain age--a bit like Santa Claus, but darker, with a certain edge
about him. Dilbert recognizes this man, based upon his appearance and
affect, as a Unix hacker, and reacts with a certain mixture of
nervousness, awe, and hostility. Dilbert jabs weakly at the disturbing
interloper for a couple of frames; the Unix hacker listens with a kind
of infuriating, beatific calm, then, in the last frame, reaches into
his pocket. "Here's a nickel, kid," he says, "go buy yourself a real
the owner of the door, and the cartoon, was one
Doug Barnes. Barnes was known to harbor certain heretical opinions on
the subject of operating systems. Unlike most Bay Area techies who
revered the Macintosh, considering it to be a true hacker's machine,
Barnes was fond of pointing out that the Mac, with its hermetically
sealed architecture, was actually hostile to hackers, who are prone to
tinkering and dogmatic about openness. By contrast, the IBM-compatible
line of machines, which can easily be taken apart and plugged back
together, was much more hackable.
So when I got home I began
messing around with Linux, which is one of many, many different
concrete implementations of the abstract, Platonic ideal called
Unix. I was not looking forward to changing over to a new OS, because
my credit cards were still smoking from all the money I'd spent on Mac
hardware over the years. But Linux's great virtue was, and is, that it
would run on exactly the same sort of hardware as the Microsoft
OSes--which is to say, the cheapest hardware in existence. As if to
demonstrate why this was a great idea, I was, within a week or two of
returning home, able to get my hand on a then-decent computer (a
33-MHz 486 box) for free, because I knew a guy who worked in an
office where they were simply being thrown away. Once I got it home, I
yanked the hood off, stuck my hands in, and began switching cards
around. If something didn't work, I went to a used-computer outlet and
pawed through a bin full of components and bought a new card for a few
The availability of all this cheap but effective hardware
was an unintended consequence of decisions that had been made more
than a decade earlier by IBM and Microsoft. When Windows came out, and
brought the GUI to a much larger market, the hardware regime changed:
the cost of color video cards and high-resolution monitors began to
drop, and is dropping still. This free-for-all approach to hardware
meant that Windows was unavoidably clunky compared to MacOS. But the
GUI brought computing to such a vast audience that volume went way up
and prices collapsed. Meanwhile Apple, which so badly wanted a clean,
integrated OS with video neatly integrated into processing hardware,
had fallen far behind in market share, at least partly because their
beautiful hardware cost so much.
But the price that we Mac owners
had to pay for superior aesthetics and engineering was not merely a
financial one. There was a cultural price too, stemming from the fact
that we couldn't open up the hood and mess around with it. Doug Barnes
was right. Apple, in spite of its reputation as the machine of choice
of scruffy, creative hacker types, had actually created a machine that
discouraged hacking, while Microsoft, viewed as a technological
laggard and copycat, had created a vast, disorderly parts bazaar--a
primordial soup that eventually self-assembled into Linux.
THE HOLE HAWG OF OPERATING SYSTEMS Unix has always lurked provocatively in the background of the operating
system wars, like the Russian Army. Most people know it only by reputation,
and its reputation, as the Dilbert cartoon suggests, is mixed. But everyone
seems to agree that if it could only get its act together and stop surrendering
vast tracts of rich agricultural land and hundreds of thousands of prisoners
of war to the onrushing invaders, it could stomp them (and all other opposition)
It is difficult to explain how Unix has earned this respect without
going into mind-smashing technical detail. Perhaps the gist of it can be
explained by telling a story about drills.
The Hole Hawg is a drill made by the Milwaukee Tool Company. If you
look in a typical hardware store you may find smaller Milwaukee drills
but not the Hole Hawg, which is too powerful and too expensive for homeowners.
The Hole Hawg does not have the pistol-like design of a cheap homeowner's
drill. It is a cube of solid metal with a handle sticking out of one face
and a chuck mounted in another. The cube contains a disconcertingly potent
electric motor. You can hold the handle and operate the trigger with your
index finger, but unless you are exceptionally strong you cannot control
the weight of the Hole Hawg with one hand; it is a two-hander all the way.
In order to fight off the counter-torque of the Hole Hawg you use a separate
handle (provided), which you screw into one side of the iron cube or the
other depending on whether you are using your left or right hand to operate
the trigger. This handle is not a sleek, ergonomically designed item as
it would be in a homeowner's drill. It is simply a foot-long chunk of regular
galvanized pipe, threaded on one end, with a black rubber handle on the
other. If you lose it, you just go to the local plumbing supply store and
buy another chunk of pipe.
During the Eighties I did some construction work. One day, another worker
leaned a ladder against the outside of the building that we were putting
up, climbed up to the second-story level, and used the Hole Hawg to drill
a hole through the exterior wall. At some point, the drill bit caught in
the wall. The Hole Hawg, following its one and only imperative, kept going.
It spun the worker's body around like a rag doll, causing him to knock
his own ladder down. Fortunately he kept his grip on the Hole Hawg, which
remained lodged in the wall, and he simply dangled from it and shouted
for help until someone came along and reinstated the ladder.
I myself used a Hole Hawg to drill many holes through studs, which it
did as a blender chops cabbage. I also used it to cut a few six-inch-diameter
holes through an old lath-and-plaster ceiling. I chucked in a new hole
saw, went up to the second story, reached down between the newly installed
floor joists, and began to cut through the first-floor ceiling below. Where
my homeowner's drill had labored and whined to spin the huge bit around,
and had stalled at the slightest obstruction, the Hole Hawg rotated with
the stupid consistency of a spinning planet. When the hole saw seized up,
the Hole Hawg spun itself and me around, and crushed one of my hands between
the steel pipe handle and a joist, producing a few lacerations, each surrounded
by a wide corona of deeply bruised flesh. It also bent the hole saw itself,
though not so badly that I couldn't use it. After a few such run-ins, when
I got ready to use the Hole Hawg my heart actually began to pound with
But I never blamed the Hole Hawg; I blamed myself. The Hole Hawg is
dangerous because it does exactly what you tell it to. It is not bound
by the physical limitations that are inherent in a cheap drill, and neither
is it limited by safety interlocks that might be built into a homeowner's
product by a liability-conscious manufacturer. The danger lies not in the
machine itself but in the user's failure to envision the full consequences
of the instructions he gives to it.
A smaller tool is dangerous too, but for a completely different reason:
it tries to do what you tell it to, and fails in some way that is unpredictable
and almost always undesirable. But the Hole Hawg is like the genie of the
ancient fairy tales, who carries out his master's instructions literally
and precisely and with unlimited power, often with disastrous, unforeseen
Pre-Hole Hawg, I used to examine the drill selection in hardware stores
with what I thought was a judicious eye, scorning the smaller low-end models
and hefting the big expensive ones appreciatively, wishing I could afford
one of them babies. Now I view them all with such contempt that I do not
even consider them to be real drills--merely scaled-up toys designed to
exploit the self-delusional tendencies of soft-handed homeowners who want
to believe that they have purchased an actual tool. Their plastic casings,
carefully designed and focus-group-tested to convey a feeling of solidity
and power, seem disgustingly flimsy and cheap to me, and I am ashamed that
I was ever bamboozled into buying such knicknacks.
It is not hard to imagine what the world would look like to someone
who had been raised by contractors and who had never used any drill other
than a Hole Hawg. Such a person, presented with the best and most expensive
hardware-store drill, would not even recognize it as such. He might instead
misidentify it as a child's toy, or some kind of motorized screwdriver.
If a salesperson or a deluded homeowner referred to it as a drill, he would
laugh and tell them that they were mistaken--they simply had their terminology
wrong. His interlocutor would go away irritated, and probably feeling rather
defensive about his basement full of cheap, dangerous, flashy, colorful
Unix is the Hole Hawg of operating systems, and Unix hackers, like Doug
Barnes and the guy in the Dilbert cartoon and many of the other people
who populate Silicon Valley, are like contractor's sons who grew up using
only Hole Hawgs. They might use Apple/Microsoft OSes to write letters,
play video games, or balance their checkbooks, but they cannot really bring
themselves to take these operating systems seriously.
THE ORAL TRADITION Unix is hard to learn. The process of learning it is one of multiple
small epiphanies. Typically you are just on the verge of inventing some
necessary tool or utility when you realize that someone else has already
invented it, and built it in, and this explains some odd file or directory
or command that you have noticed but never really understood before.
For example there is a command (a small program, part of the OS) called
whoami, which enables you to ask the computer who it thinks you are. On
a Unix machine, you are always logged in under some name--possibly even
your own! What files you may work with, and what software you may use,
depends on your identity. When I started out using Linux, I was on a non-networked
machine in my basement, with only one user account, and so when I became
aware of the whoami command it struck me as ludicrous. But once you are
logged in as one person, you can temporarily switch over to a pseudonym
in order to access different files. If your machine is on the Internet,
you can log onto other computers, provided you have a user name and a password.
At that point the distant machine becomes no different in practice from
the one right in front of you. These changes in identity and location can
easily become nested inside each other, many layers deep, even if you aren't
doing anything nefarious. Once you have forgotten who and where you are,
the whoami command is indispensible. I use it all the time.
The file systems of Unix machines all have the same general structure.
On your flimsy operating systems, you can create directories (folders)
and give them names like Frodo or My Stuff and put them pretty much anywhere
you like. But under Unix the highest level--the root--of the filesystem
is always designated with the single character "/" and it always contains
the same set of top-level directories:
and each of these directories typically has its own distinct structure
of subdirectories. Note the obsessive use of abbreviations and avoidance
of capital letters; this is a system invented by people to whom repetitive
stress disorder is what black lung is to miners. Long names get worn down
to three-letter nubbins, like stones smoothed by a river.
This is not the place to try to explain why each of the above directories
exists, and what is contained in it. At first it all seems obscure; worse,
it seems deliberately obscure. When I started using Linux I was
accustomed to being able to create directories wherever I wanted and to
give them whatever names struck my fancy. Under Unix you are free to do
that, of course (you are free to do anything) but as you gain experience
with the system you come to understand that the directories listed above
were created for the best of reasons and that your life will be much easier
if you follow along (within /home, by the way, you have pretty much unlimited
After this kind of thing has happened several hundred or thousand times,
the hacker understands why Unix is the way it is, and agrees that it wouldn't
be the same any other way. It is this sort of acculturation that gives
Unix hackers their confidence in the system, and the attitude of calm,
unshakable, annoying superiority captured in the Dilbert cartoon. Windows
95 and MacOS are products, contrived by engineers in the service of specific
companies. Unix, by contrast, is not so much a product as it is a painstakingly
compiled oral history of the hacker subculture. It is our Gilgamesh epic.
What made old epics like Gilgamesh so powerful and so long-lived was
that they were living bodies of narrative that many people knew by heart,
and told over and over again--making their own personal embellishments
whenever it struck their fancy. The bad embellishments were shouted down,
the good ones picked up by others, polished, improved, and, over time,
incorporated into the story. Likewise, Unix is known, loved, and understood
by so many hackers that it can be re-created from scratch whenever someone
needs it. This is very difficult to understand for people who are accustomed
to thinking of OSes as things that absolutely have to be bought.
Many hackers have launched more or less successful re-implementations
of the Unix ideal. Each one brings in new embellishments. Some of them
die out quickly, some are merged with similar, parallel innovations created
by different hackers attacking the same problem, others still are embraced,
and adopted into the epic. Thus Unix has slowly accreted around a simple
kernel and acquired a kind of complexity and asymmetry about it that is
organic, like the roots of a tree, or the branchings of a coronary artery.
Understanding it is more like anatomy than physics.
For at least a year, prior to my adoption of Linux, I had been hearing
about it. Credible, well-informed people kept telling me that a bunch of
hackers had got together an implentation of Unix that could be downloaded,
free of charge, from the Internet. For a long time I could not bring myself
to take the notion seriously. It was like hearing rumors that a group of
model rocket enthusiasts had created a completely functional Saturn V by
exchanging blueprints on the Net and mailing valves and flanges to each
But it's true. Credit for Linux generally goes to its human namesake,
one Linus Torvalds, a Finn who got the whole thing rolling in 1991 when
he used some of the GNU tools to write the beginnings of a Unix kernel
that could run on PC-compatible hardware. And indeed Torvalds deserves
all the credit he has ever gotten, and a whole lot more. But he could not
have made it happen by himself, any more than Richard Stallman could have.
To write code at all, Torvalds had to have cheap but powerful development
tools, and these he got from Stallman's GNU project.
And he had to have cheap hardware on which to write that code. Cheap
hardware is a much harder thing to arrange than cheap software; a single
person (Stallman) can write software and put it up on the Net for free,
but in order to make hardware it's necessary to have a whole industrial
infrastructure, which is not cheap by any stretch of the imagination. Really
the only way to make hardware cheap is to punch out an incredible number
of copies of it, so that the unit cost eventually drops. For reasons already
explained, Apple had no desire to see the cost of hardware drop. The only
reason Torvalds had cheap hardware was Microsoft.
Microsoft refused to go into the hardware business, insisted on making
its software run on hardware that anyone could build, and thereby created
the market conditions that allowed hardware prices to plummet. In trying
to understand the Linux phenomenon, then, we have to look not to a single
innovator but to a sort of bizarre Trinity: Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman,
and Bill Gates. Take away any of these three and Linux would not exist.
OS SHOCK Young Americans who leave their great big homogeneous country and
visit some other part of the world typically go through several stages
of culture shock: first, dumb wide-eyed astonishment. Then a tentative
engagement with the new country's manners, cuisine, public transit systems
and toilets, leading to a brief period of fatuous confidence that they
are instant experts on the new country. As the visit wears on, homesickness
begins to set in, and the traveler begins to appreciate, for the first
time, how much he or she took for granted at home. At the same time it
begins to seem obvious that many of one's own cultures and traditions are
essentially arbitrary, and could have been different; driving on the right
side of the road, for example. When the traveler returns home and takes
stock of the experience, he or she may have learned a good deal more about
America than about the country they went to visit.
For the same reasons, Linux is worth trying. It is a strange country
indeed, but you don't have to live there; a brief sojourn suffices to give
some flavor of the place and--more importantly--to lay bare everything
that is taken for granted, and all that could have been done differently,
under Windows or MacOS.
You can't try it unless you install it. With any other OS, installing
it would be a straightforward transaction: in exchange for money, some
company would give you a CD-ROM, and you would be on your way. But a lot
is subsumed in that kind of transaction, and has to be gone through and
We like plain dealings and straightforward transactions in America.
If you go to Egypt and, say, take a taxi somewhere, you become a part of
the taxi driver's life; he refuses to take your money because it would
demean your friendship, he follows you around town, and weeps hot tears
when you get in some other guy's taxi. You end up meeting his kids at some
point, and have to devote all sort of ingenuity to finding some way to
compensate him without insulting his honor. It is exhausting. Sometimes
you just want a simple Manhattan-style taxi ride.
But in order to have an American-style setup, where you can just go
out and hail a taxi and be on your way, there must exist a whole hidden
apparatus of medallions, inspectors, commissions, and so forth--which is
fine as long as taxis are cheap and you can always get one. When the system
fails to work in some way, it is mysterious and infuriating and turns otherwise
reasonable people into conspiracy theorists. But when the Egyptian system
breaks down, it breaks down transparently. You can't get a taxi, but your
driver's nephew will show up, on foot, to explain the problem and apologize.
Microsoft and Apple do things the Manhattan way, with vast complexity
hidden behind a wall of interface. Linux does things the Egypt way, with
vast complexity strewn about all over the landscape. If you've just flown
in from Manhattan, your first impulse will be to throw up your hands and
say "For crying out loud! Will you people get a grip on yourselves!?" But
this does not make friends in Linux-land any better than it would in Egypt.
You can suck Linux right out of the air, as it were, by downloading
the right files and putting them in the right places, but there probably
are not more than a few hundred people in the world who could create a
functioning Linux system in that way. What you really need is a distribution of Linux, which means a prepackaged set of files. But distributions are
a separate thing from Linux per se.
Linux per se is not a specific set of ones and zeroes, but a
self-organizing Net subculture. The end result of its collective lucubrations
is a vast body of source code, almost all written in C (the dominant computer
programming language). "Source code" just means a computer program as typed
in and edited by some hacker. If it's in C, the file name will probably
have .c or .cpp on the end of it, depending on which dialect was used;
if it's in some other language it will have some other suffix. Frequently
these sorts of files can be found in a directory with the name /src which
is the hacker's Hebraic abbreviation of "source."
Source files are useless to your computer, and of little interest to
most users, but they are of gigantic cultural and political significance,
because Microsoft and Apple keep them secret while Linux makes them public.
They are the family jewels. They are the sort of thing that in Hollywood
thrillers is used as a McGuffin: the plutonium bomb core, the top-secret
blueprints, the suitcase of bearer bonds, the reel of microfilm. If the
source files for Windows or MacOS were made public on the Net, then those
OSes would become free, like Linux--only not as good, because no one would
be around to fix bugs and answer questions. Linux is "open source" software
meaning, simply, that anyone can get copies of its source code files.
Your computer doesn't want source code any more than you do; it wants
object code. Object code files typically have the suffix .o and are unreadable
all but a few, highly strange humans, because they consist of ones and
zeroes. Accordingly, this sort of file commonly shows up in a directory
with the name /bin, for "binary."
Source files are simply ASCII text files. ASCII denotes a particular
way of encoding letters into bit patterns. In an ASCII file, each character
has eight bits all to itself. This creates a potential "alphabet" of 256
distinct characters, in that eight binary digits can form that many unique
patterns. In practice, of course, we tend to limit ourselves to the familiar
letters and digits. The bit-patterns used to represent those letters and
digits are the same ones that were physically punched into the paper tape
by my high school teletype, which in turn were the same one used by the
telegraph industry for decades previously. ASCII text files, in other words,
are telegrams, and as such they have no typographical frills. But for the
same reason they are eternal, because the code never changes, and universal,
because every text editing and word processing software ever written knows
about this code.
Therefore just about any software can be used to create, edit, and read
source code files. Object code files, then, are created from these source
files by a piece of software called a compiler, and forged into a working
application by another piece of software called a linker.
The triad of editor, compiler, and linker, taken together, form the
core of a software development system. Now, it is possible to spend a lot
of money on shrink-wrapped development systems with lovely graphical user
interfaces and various ergonomic enhancements. In some cases it might even
be a good and reasonable way to spend money. But on this side of the road,
as it were, the very best software is usually the free stuff. Editor, compiler
and linker are to hackers what ponies, stirrups, and archery sets were
to the Mongols. Hackers live in the saddle, and hack on their own tools even
while they are using them to create new applications. It is quite inconceivable
that superior hacking tools could have been created from a blank sheet
of paper by product engineers. Even if they are the brightest engineers
in the world they are simply outnumbered.
In the GNU/Linux world there are two major text editing programs: the
minimalist vi (known in some implementations as elvis) and the maximalist
emacs. I use emacs, which might be thought of as a thermonuclear word processor.
It was created by Richard Stallman; enough said. It is written in Lisp,
which is the only computer language that is beautiful. It is colossal,
and yet it only edits straight ASCII text files, which is to say, no fonts,
no boldface, no underlining. In other words, the engineer-hours that, in
the case of Microsoft Word, were devoted to features like mail merge, and
the ability to embed feature-length motion pictures in corporate memoranda,
were, in the case of emacs, focused with maniacal intensity on the deceptively
simple-seeming problem of editing text. If you are a professional writer--i.e.,
if someone else is getting paid to worry about how your words are formatted
and printed--emacs outshines all other editing software in approximately
the same way that the noonday sun does the stars. It is not just bigger
and brighter; it simply makes everything else vanish. For page layout and
printing you can use TeX: a vast corpus of typesetting lore written in
C and also available on the Net for free.
I could say a lot about emacs and TeX, but right now I am trying to
tell a story about how to actually install Linux on your machine. The hard-core
survivalist approach would be to download an editor like emacs, and the
GNU Tools--the compiler and linker--which are polished and excellent to
the same degree as emacs. Equipped with these, one would be able to start
downloading ASCII source code files (/src) and compiling them into binary
object code files (/bin) that would run on the machine. But in order to
even arrive at this point--to get emacs running, for example--you have
to have Linux actually up and running on your machine. And even a minimal
Linux operating system requires thousands of binary files all acting in
concert, and arranged and linked together just so.
Several entities have therefore taken it upon themselves to create "distributions"
of Linux. If I may extend the Egypt analogy slightly, these entities are
a bit like tour guides who meet you at the airport, who speak your language,
and who help guide you through the initial culture shock. If you are an
Egyptian, of course, you see it the other way; tour guides exist to keep
brutish outlanders from traipsing through your mosques and asking you the
same questions over and over and over again.
Some of these tour guides are commercial organizations, such as Red
which makes a Linux distribution called Red Hat that has a relatively
commercial sheen to it. In most cases you put a Red Hat CD-ROM into your PC and
reboot and it handles the rest. Just as a tour guide in
Egypt will expect some sort of compensation for his services, commercial
distributions need to be paid for. In most cases they cost almost nothing
and are well worth it.
I use a distribution called Debian (the word is a contraction of "Deborah"
and "Ian") which is non-commercial. It is organized (or perhaps I should
say "it has organized itself") along the same lines as Linux in general,
which is to say that it consists of volunteers who collaborate over the
Net, each responsible for looking after a different chunk of the system.
These people have broken Linux down into a number of packages, which are
compressed files that can be downloaded to an already functioning Debian
Linux system, then opened up and unpacked using a free installer application.
Of course, as such, Debian has no commercial arm--no distribution mechanism.
You can download all Debian packages over the Net, but most people will
want to have them on a CD-ROM. Several different companies have taken it
upon themselves to decoct all of the current Debian packages onto CD-ROMs
and then sell them. I buy mine from Linux Systems Labs. The cost for a
three-disc set, containing Debian in its entirety, is less than three dollars.
But (and this is an important distinction) not a single penny of that three
dollars is going to any of the coders who created Linux, nor to the Debian
packagers. It goes to Linux Systems Labs and it pays, not for the software,
or the packages, but for the cost of stamping out the CD-ROMs.
Every Linux distribution embodies some more or less clever hack for
circumventing the normal boot process and causing your computer, when it
is turned on, to organize itself, not as a PC running Windows, but as a
"host" running Unix. This is slightly alarming the first time you see it,
but completely harmless. When a PC boots up, it goes through a little self-test
routine, taking an inventory of available disks and memory, and then begins
looking around for a disk to boot up from. In any normal Windows computer
that disk will be a hard drive. But if you have your system configured
right, it will look first for a floppy or CD-ROM disk, and boot from that
if one is available.
Linux exploits this chink in the defenses. Your computer notices a bootable
disk in the floppy or CD-ROM drive, loads in some object code from that
disk, and blindly begins to execute it. But this is not Microsoft or Apple
code, this is Linux code, and so at this point your computer begins to
behave very differently from what you are accustomed to. Cryptic messages
began to scroll up the screen. If you had booted a commercial OS, you would,
at this point, be seeing a "Welcome to MacOS" cartoon, or a screen filled
with clouds in a blue sky, and a Windows logo. But under Linux you get
a long telegram printed in stark white letters on a black screen. There
is no "welcome!" message. Most of the telegram has the semi-inscrutable
menace of graffiti tags.
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev syslogd 1.3-3#17: restart.
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: klogd 1.3-3, log source = /proc/kmsg started.
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Loaded 3535 symbols from /System.map.
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Symbols match kernel version 2.0.30.
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: No module symbols loaded.
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Intel MultiProcessor Specification v1.4
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Virtual Wire compatibility mode.
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: OEM ID: INTEL Product ID: 440FX APIC at:
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Processor #0 Pentium(tm) Pro APIC version 17
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Processor #1 Pentium(tm) Pro APIC version 17
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: I/O APIC #2 Version 17 at 0xFEC00000.
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Processors: 2 Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel:
Console: 16 point font, 400 scans
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Console: colour VGA+ 80x25, 1 virtual console
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: pcibios_init : BIOS32 Service Directory
structure at 0x000fdb70
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: pcibios_init : BIOS32 Service Directory entry
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: pcibios_init : PCI BIOS revision 2.10 entry at
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Probing PCI hardware.
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Warning : Unknown PCI device (10b7:9001).
Please read include/linux/pci.h
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Calibrating delay loop.. ok - 179.40 BogoMIPS
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Memory: 64268k/66556k available (700k kernel
code, 384k reserved, 1204k data)
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Swansea University Computer Society NET3.035
for Linux 2.0
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: NET3: Unix domain sockets 0.13 for Linux
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Swansea University Computer Society TCP/IP for
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: IP Protocols: ICMP, UDP, TCP
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Checking 386/387 coupling... Ok, fpu using
exception 16 error reporting.
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Checking 'hlt' instruction... Ok.
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Linux version 2.0.30 (gcc version 126.96.36.199) #15
Fri Mar 27 16:37:24 PST 1998
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Booting processor 1 stack 00002000: Calibrating
delay loop.. ok - 179.40 BogoMIPS
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Total of 2 processors activated (358.81
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Serial driver version 4.13 with no serial
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: tty00 at 0x03f8 (irq = 4) is a 16550A
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: tty01 at 0x02f8 (irq = 3) is a 16550A
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: lp1 at 0x0378, (polling) Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev
kernel: PS/2 auxiliary pointing device detected -- driver installed.
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Real Time Clock Driver v1.07
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: loop: registered device at major 7 Dec 14
15:04:15 theRev kernel: ide: i82371 PIIX (Triton) on PCI bus 0 function 57
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: ide0: BM-DMA at 0xffa0-0xffa7 Dec 14 15:04:15
theRev kernel: ide1: BM-DMA at 0xffa8-0xffaf
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: hda: Conner Peripherals 1275MB - CFS1275A,
1219MB w/64kB Cache, LBA, CHS=619/64/63
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: hdb: Maxtor 84320A5, 4119MB w/256kB Cache, LBA,
Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: hdc: , ATAPI CDROM drive
Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: ide0 at 0x1f0-0x1f7,0x3f6 on irq 14
Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: ide1 at 0x170-0x177,0x376 on irq 15
Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: Floppy drive(s): fd0 is 1.44M Dec 15 11:58:06
theRev kernel: Started kswapd v 188.8.131.52
Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: FDC 0 is a National Semiconductor PC87306
Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: md driver 0.35 MAX_MD_DEV=4, MAX_REAL=8 Dec 15
11:58:06 theRev kernel: PPP: version 2.2.0 (dynamic channel allocation)
Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: TCP compression code copyright 1989 Regents of
the University of California
Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: PPP Dynamic channel allocation code copyright
1995 Caldera, Inc.
Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: PPP line discipline registered.
Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: SLIP: version 0.8.4-NET3.019-NEWTTY (dynamic
Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: eth0: 3Com 3c900 Boomerang 10Mbps/Combo at
0xef00, 00:60:08:a4:3c:db, IRQ 10
Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: 8K word-wide RAM 3:5 Rx:Tx split, 10base2
Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: Enabling bus-master transmits and whole-frame
Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: 3c59x.c:v0.49 1/2/98 Donald Becker
Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: Partition check:
Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: hda: hda1 hda2 hda3
Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: hdb: hdb1 hdb2 Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel:
VFS: Mounted root (ext2 filesystem) readonly.
Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: Adding Swap: 16124k swap-space (priority -1)
Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: EXT2-fs warning: maximal mount count reached,
running e2fsck is recommended
Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: hdc: media changed Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev
kernel: ISO9660 Extensions: RRIP_1991A
Dec 15 11:58:07 theRev syslogd 1.3-3#17: restart.
Dec 15 11:58:09 theRev diald: Unable to open options file
/etc/diald/diald.options: No such file or directory
Dec 15 11:58:09 theRev diald: No device specified. You must have at least
Dec 15 11:58:09 theRev diald: You must define a connector script (option
Dec 15 11:58:09 theRev diald: You must define the remote ip address.
Dec 15 11:58:09 theRev diald: You must define the local ip address. Dec 15
Dec 15 11:58:09 theRev diald: Terminating due to damaged reconfigure.
The only parts of this that are readable, for normal people, are the
error messages and warnings. And yet it's noteworthy that Linux doesn't
stop, or crash, when it encounters an error; it spits out a pithy complaint,
gives up on whatever processes were damaged, and keeps on rolling. This
was decidedly not true of the early versions of Apple and Microsoft OSes,
for the simple reason that an OS that is not capable of walking and chewing
gum at the same time cannot possibly recover from errors. Looking for,
and dealing with, errors requires a separate process running in parallel
with the one that has erred. A kind of superego, if you will, that keeps
an eye on all of the others, and jumps in when one goes astray. Now that
MacOS and Windows can do more than one thing at a time they are much better
at dealing with errors than they used to be, but they are not even close
to Linux or other Unices in this respect; and their greater complexity
has made them vulnerable to new types of errors.
FALLIBILITY, ATONEMENT, REDEMPTION, TRUST, AND OTHER ARCANE TECHNICAL CONCEPTS Linux is not capable of having any centrally organized policies dictating
how to write error messages and documentation, and so each programmer writes
his own. Usually they are in English even though tons of Linux programmers
are Europeans. Frequently they are funny. Always they are honest. If something
bad has happened because the software simply isn't finished yet, or because
the user screwed something up, this will be stated forthrightly. The command
line interface makes it easy for programs to dribble out little comments,
warnings, and messages here and there. Even if the application is imploding
like a damaged submarine, it can still usually eke out a little S.O.S.
message. Sometimes when you finish working with a program and shut it down,
you find that it has left behind a series of mild warnings and low-grade
error messages in the command-line interface window from which you launched
it. As if the software were chatting to you about how it was doing the
whole time you were working with it.
Documentation, under Linux, comes in the form of man (short for manual)
pages. You can access these either through a GUI (xman) or from the command
line (man). Here is a sample from the man page for a program called rsh:
"Stop signals stop the local rsh process only; this is arguably wrong,
but currently hard to fix for reasons too complicated to explain here."
The man pages contain a lot of such material, which reads like the terse
mutterings of pilots wrestling with the controls of damaged airplanes.
The general feel is of a thousand monumental but obscure struggles seen
in the stop-action light of a strobe. Each programmer is dealing with his
own obstacles and bugs; he is too busy fixing them, and improving the software,
to explain things at great length or to maintain elaborate pretensions.
In practice you hardly ever encounter a serious bug while running Linux.
When you do, it is almost always with commercial software (several vendors
sell software that runs under Linux). The operating system and its fundamental
utility programs are too important to contain serious bugs. I have been
running Linux every day since late 1995 and have seen many application
programs go down in flames, but I have never seen the operating system
crash. Never. Not once. There are quite a few Linux systems that have been
running continuously and working hard for months or years without needing
to be rebooted.
Commercial OSes have to adopt the same official stance towards errors
as Communist countries had towards poverty. For doctrinal reasons it was
not possible to admit that poverty was a serious problem in Communist countries,
because the whole point of Communism was to eradicate poverty. Likewise,
commercial OS companies like Apple and Microsoft can't go around admitting
that their software has bugs and that it crashes all the time, any more
than Disney can issue press releases stating that Mickey Mouse is an actor
in a suit.
This is a problem, because errors do exist and bugs do happen. Every
few months Bill Gates tries to demo a new Microsoft product in front of
a large audience only to have it blow up in his face. Commercial OS vendors,
as a direct consequence of being commercial, are forced to adopt the grossly
disingenuous position that bugs are rare aberrations, usually someone else's
fault, and therefore not really worth talking about in any detail. This
posture, which everyone knows to be absurd, is not limited to press releases
and ad campaigns. It informs the whole way these companies do business
and relate to their customers. If the documentation were properly written,
it would mention bugs, errors, and crashes on every single page. If the
on-line help systems that come with these OSes reflected the experiences
and concerns of their users, they would largely be devoted to instructions
on how to cope with crashes and errors.
But this does not happen. Joint stock corporations are wonderful inventions
that have given us many excellent goods and services. They are good at
many things. Admitting failure is not one of them. Hell, they can't even
admit minor shortcomings.
Of course, this behavior is not as pathological in a corporation as
it would be in a human being. Most people, nowadays, understand that corporate
press releases are issued for the benefit of the corporation's shareholders
and not for the enlightenment of the public. Sometimes the results of this
institutional dishonesty can be dreadful, as with tobacco and asbestos.
In the case of commercial OS vendors it is nothing of the kind, of course;
it is merely annoying.
Some might argue that consumer annoyance, over time, builds up into
a kind of hardened plaque that can conceal serious decay, and that honesty
might therefore be the best policy in the long run; the jury is still out
on this in the operating system market. The business is expanding fast
enough that it's still much better to have billions of chronically annoyed
customers than millions of happy ones.
Most system administrators I know who work with Windows NT all the time
agree that when it hits a snag, it has to be re-booted, and when it gets
seriously messed up, the only way to fix it is to re-install the operating
system from scratch. Or at least this is the only way that they know
of to fix it, which amounts to the same thing. It is quite possible
that the engineers at Microsoft have all sorts of insider knowledge on
how to fix the system when it goes awry, but if they do, they do not seem
to be getting the message out to any of the actual system administrators
Because Linux is not commercial--because it is, in fact, free, as well
as rather difficult to obtain, install, and operate--it does not have to
maintain any pretensions as to its reliability. Consequently, it is much
more reliable. When something goes wrong with Linux, the error is noticed
and loudly discussed right away. Anyone with the requisite technical knowledge
can go straight to the source code and point out the source of the error,
which is then rapidly fixed by whichever hacker has carved out responsibility
for that particular program.
As far as I know, Debian is the only Linux distribution that has its
own constitution (http://www.debian.org/devel/constitution), but what really
sold me on it was its phenomenal bug database (http://www.debian.org/Bugs),
which is a sort of interactive Doomsday Book of error, fallibility, and
redemption. It is simplicity itself. When had a problem with Debian in
early January of 1997, I sent in a message describing the problem to email@example.com.
My problem was promptly assigned a bug report number (#6518) and a severity
level (the available choices being critical, grave, important, normal,
fixed, and wishlist) and forwarded to mailing lists where Debian people
hang out. Within twenty-four hours I had received five e-mails telling
me how to fix the problem: two from North America, two from Europe, and
one from Australia. All of these e-mails gave me the same suggestion, which
worked, and made my problem go away. But at the same time, a transcript
of this exchange was posted to Debian's bug database, so that if other
users had the same problem later, they would be able to search through
and find the solution without having to enter a new, redundant bug report.
Contrast this with the experience that I had when I tried to install
Windows NT 4.0 on the very same machine about ten months later, in late
1997. The installation program simply stopped in the middle with no error
messages. I went to the Microsoft Support website and tried to perform
a search for existing help documents that would address my problem. The
search engine was completely nonfunctional; it did nothing at all. It did
not even give me a message telling me that it was not working.
Eventually I decided that my motherboard must be at fault; it was of
a slightly unusual make and model, and NT did not support as many different
motherboards as Linux. I am always looking for excuses, no matter how feeble,
to buy new hardware, so I bought a new motherboard that was Windows NT
logo-compatible, meaning that the Windows NT logo was printed right on
the box. I installed this into my computer and got Linux running right
away, then attempted to install Windows NT again. Again, the installation
died without any error message or explanation. By this time a couple of
weeks had gone by and I thought that perhaps the search engine on the Microsoft
Support website might be up and running. I gave that a try but it still
So I created a new Microsoft support account, then logged on to submit
the incident. I supplied my product ID number when asked, and then began
to follow the instructions on a series of help screens. In other words,
I was submitting a bug report just as with the Debian bug tracking system.
It's just that the interface was slicker--I was typing my complaint into
little text-editing boxes on Web forms, doing it all through the GUI, whereas
with Debian you send in an e-mail telegram. I knew that when I was finished
submitting the bug report, it would become proprietary Microsoft information,
and other users wouldn't be able to see it. Many Linux users would refuse
to participate in such a scheme on ethical grounds, but I was willing to
give it a shot as an experiment. In the end, though I was never able to
submit my bug report, because the series of linked web pages that I was
filling out eventually led me to a completely blank page: a dead end.
So I went back and clicked on the buttons for "phone support" and eventually
was given a Microsoft telephone number. When I dialed this number I got
a series of piercing beeps and a recorded message from the phone company
saying "We're sorry, your call cannot be completed as dialed."
I tried the search page again--it was still completely nonfunctional.
Then I tried PPI (Pay Per Incident) again. This led me through another
series of Web pages until I dead-ended at one reading: "Notice-there is
no Web page matching your request."
I tried it again, and eventually got to a Pay Per Incident screen reading:
"OUT OF INCIDENTS. There are no unused incidents left in your account.
If you would like to purchase a support incident, click OK-you will then
be able to prepay for an incident...." The cost per incident was $95.
The experiment was beginning to seem rather expensive, so I gave up
on the PPI approach and decided to have a go at the FAQs posted on Microsoft's
website. None of the available FAQs had anything to do with my problem
except for one entitled "I am having some problems installing NT" which
appeared to have been written by flacks, not engineers.
So I gave up and still, to this day, have never gotten Windows NT installed
on that particular machine. For me, the path of least resistance was simply
to use Debian Linux.
In the world of open source software, bug reports are useful information.
Making them public is a service to other users, and improves the OS. Making
them public systematically is so important that highly intelligent
people voluntarily put time and money into running bug databases. In the
commercial OS world, however, reporting a bug is a privilege that you have
to pay lots of money for. But if you pay for it, it follows that the bug
report must be kept confidential--otherwise anyone could get the
benefit of your ninety-five bucks! And yet nothing prevents NT users from
setting up their own public bug database.
This is, in other words, another feature of the OS market that simply
makes no sense unless you view it in the context of culture. What Microsoft
is selling through Pay Per Incident isn't technical support so much as
the continued illusion that its customers are engaging in some kind of
rational business transaction. It is a sort of routine maintenance fee
for the upkeep of the fantasy. If people really wanted a solid OS they
would use Linux, and if they really wanted tech support they would find
a way to get it; Microsoft's customers want something else.
As of this writing (Jan. 1999), something like 32,000 bugs have been
reported to the Debian Linux bug database. Almost all of them have been
fixed a long time ago. There are twelve "critical" bugs still outstanding,
of which the oldest was posted 79 days ago. There are 20 outstanding "grave"
bugs of which the oldest is 1166 days old. There are 48 "important" bugs
and hundreds of "normal" and less important ones.
Likewise, BeOS (which I'll get to in a minute) has its own bug database
(http://www.be.com/developers/bugs/index.html) with its own classification
system, including such categories as "Not a Bug," "Acknowledged Feature,"
and "Will Not Fix." Some of the "bugs" here are nothing more than Be hackers
blowing off steam, and are classified as "Input Acknowledged." For example,
I found one that was posted on December 30th, 1998. It's in the middle
of a long list of bugs, wedged between one entitled "Mouse working in very
strange fashion" and another called "Change of BView frame does not affect,
if BView not attached to a BWindow."
This one is entitled
R4: BeOS missing megalomaniacal figurehead to harness and focus developer
and it goes like this:
Be Status: Input Acknowledged
BeOS Version: R3.2
The BeOS needs a megalomaniacal egomaniac sitting on its throne to give
it a human character which everyone loves to hate. Without this, the BeOS
will languish in the impersonifiable realm of OSs that people can never
quite get a handle on. You can judge the success of an OS not by the quality
of its features, but by how infamous and disliked the leaders behind them
I believe this is a side-effect of developer comraderie under miserable
conditions. After all, misery loves company. I believe that making the
BeOS less conceptually accessible and far less reliable will require developers
to band together, thus developing the kind of community where strangers
talk to one- another, kind of like at a grocery store before a huge snowstorm.
Following this same program, it will likely be necessary to move the
BeOS headquarters to a far-less-comfortable climate. General environmental
discomfort will breed this attitude within and there truly is no greater
recipe for success. I would suggest Seattle, but I think it's already taken.
You might try Washington, DC, but definitely not somewhere like San Diego
Unfortunately, the Be bug reporting system strips off the names of the
people who report the bugs (to protect them from retribution!?) and so
I don't know who wrote this.
So it would appear that I'm in the middle of crowing about the technical
and moral superiority of Debian Linux. But as almost always happens in
the OS world, it's more complicated than that. I have Windows NT running
on another machine, and the other day (Jan. 1999), when I had a problem
with it, I decided to have another go at Microsoft Support. This time the
search engine actually worked (though in order to reach it I had to identify
myself as "advanced"). And instead of coughing up some useless FAQ, it
located about two hundred documents (I was using very vague search criteria)
that were obviously bug reports--though they were called something else.
Microsoft, in other words, has got a system up and running that is functionally
equivalent to Debian's bug database. It looks and feels different, of course,
but it contains technical nitty-gritty and makes no bones about the existence
As I've explained, selling OSes for money is a basically untenable position,
and the only way Apple and Microsoft can get away with it is by pursuing
technological advancements as aggressively as they can, and by getting
people to believe in, and to pay for, a particular image: in the case of
Apple, that of the creative free thinker, and in the case of Microsoft,
that of the respectable techno-bourgeois. Just like Disney, they're making
money from selling an interface, a magic mirror. It has to be polished
and seamless or else the whole illusion is ruined and the business plan
vanishes like a mirage.
Accordingly, it was the case until recently that the people who wrote
manuals and created customer support websites for commercial OSes seemed
to have been barred, by their employers' legal or PR departments, from
admitting, even obliquely, that the software might contain bugs or that
the interface might be suffering from the blinking twelve problem. They
couldn't address users' actual difficulties. The manuals and websites were
therefore useless, and caused even technically self-assured users to wonder
whether they were going subtly insane.
When Apple engages in this sort of corporate behavior, one wants to
believe that they are really trying their best. We all want to give Apple
the benefit of the doubt, because mean old Bill Gates kicked the crap out
of them, and because they have good PR. But when Microsoft does it, one
almost cannot help becoming a paranoid conspiracist. Obviously they are
hiding something from us! And yet they are so powerful! They are trying
to drive us crazy!
This approach to dealing with one's customers was straight out of the
Central European totalitarianism of the mid-Twentieth Century. The adjectives
"Kafkaesque" and "Orwellian" come to mind. It couldn't last, any more than
the Berlin Wall could, and so now Microsoft has a publicly available bug
database. It's called something else, and it takes a while to find it,
but it's there.
They have, in other words, adapted to the two-tiered Eloi/Morlock structure
of technological society. If you're an Eloi you install Windows, follow
the instructions, hope for the best, and dumbly suffer when it breaks.
If you're a Morlock you go to the website, tell it that you are "advanced,"
find the bug database, and get the truth straight from some anonymous Microsoft
But once Microsoft has taken this step, it raises the question, once
again, of whether there is any point to being in the OS business at all.
Customers might be willing to pay $95 to report a problem to Microsoft
if, in return, they get some advice that no other user is getting. This
has the useful side effect of keeping the users alienated from one another,
which helps maintain the illusion that bugs are rare aberrations. But once
the results of those bug reports become openly available on the Microsoft
website, everything changes. No one is going to cough up $95 to report
a problem when chances are good that some other sucker will do it first,
and that instructions on how to fix the bug will then show up, for free,
on a public website. And as the size of the bug database grows, it eventually
becomes an open admission, on Microsoft's part, that their OSes have just
as many bugs as their competitors'. There is no shame in that; as I mentioned,
Debian's bug database has logged 32,000 reports so far. But it puts Microsoft
on an equal footing with the others and makes it a lot harder for their
customers--who want to believe--to believe.
MEMENTO MORI Once the Linux machine has finished spitting out its jargonic opening
telegram, it prompts me to log in with a user name and a password. At this
point the machine is still running the command line interface, with white
letters on a black screen. There are no windows, menus, or buttons. It
does not respond to the mouse; it doesn't even know that the mouse is there.
It is still possible to run a lot of software at this point. Emacs, for
example, exists in both a CLI and a GUI version (actually there are two
GUI versions, reflecting some sort of doctrinal schism between Richard
Stallman and some hackers who got fed up with him). The same is true of
many other Unix programs. Many don't have a GUI at all, and many that do
are capable of running from the command line.
Of course, since my computer only has one monitor screen, I can only
see one command line, and so you might think that I could only interact
with one program at a time. But if I hold down the Alt key and then hit
the F2 function button at the top of my keyboard, I am presented with a
fresh, blank, black screen with a login prompt at the top of it. I can
log in here and start some other program, then hit Alt-F1 and go back to
the first screen, which is still doing whatever it was when I left it.
Or I can do Alt-F3 and log in to a third screen, or a fourth, or a fifth.
On one of these screens I might be logged in as myself, on another as root
(the system administrator), on yet another I might be logged on to some
other computer over the Internet.
Each of these screens is called, in Unix-speak, a tty, which is an abbreviation
for teletype. So when I use my Linux system in this way I am going right
back to that small room at Ames High School where I first wrote code twenty-five
years ago, except that a tty is quieter and faster than a teletype, and
capable of running vastly superior software, such as emacs or the GNU development
It is easy (easy by Unix, not Apple/Microsoft standards) to configure
a Linux machine so that it will go directly into a GUI when you boot it
up. This way, you never see a tty screen at all. I still have mine boot
into the white-on-black teletype screen however, as a computational memento
mori. It used to be fashionable for a writer to keep a human skull
on his desk as a reminder that he was mortal, that all about him was vanity.
The tty screen reminds me that the same thing is true of slick user interfaces.
The X Windows System, which is the GUI of Unix, has to be capable of
running on hundreds of different video cards with different chipsets, amounts
of onboard memory, and motherboard buses. Likewise, there are hundreds
of different types of monitors on the new and used market, each with different
specifications, and so there are probably upwards of a million different
possible combinations of card and monitor. The only thing they all have
in common is that they all work in VGA mode, which is the old command-line
screen that you see for a few seconds when you launch Windows. So Linux
always starts in VGA, with a teletype interface, because at first it has
no idea what sort of hardware is attached to your computer. In order to
get beyond the glass teletype and into the GUI, you have to tell Linux
exactly what kinds of hardware you have. If you get it wrong, you'll get
a blank screen at best, and at worst you might actually destroy your monitor
by feeding it signals it can't handle.
When I started using Linux this had to be done by hand. I once spent
the better part of a month trying to get an oddball monitor to work for
me, and filled the better part of a composition book with increasingly
desperate scrawled notes. Nowadays, most Linux distributions ship with
a program that automatically scans the video card and self-configures the
system, so getting X Windows up and running is nearly as easy as installing
an Apple/Microsoft GUI. The crucial information goes into a file (an ASCII
text file, naturally) called XF86Config, which is worth looking at even
if your distribution creates it for you automatically. For most people
it looks like meaningless cryptic incantations, which is the whole point
of looking at it. An Apple/Microsoft system needs to have the same information
in order to launch its GUI, but it's apt to be deeply hidden somewhere,
and it's probably in a file that can't even be opened and read by a text
editor. All of the important files that make Linux systems work are right
out in the open. They are always ASCII text files, so you don't need special
tools to read them. You can look at them any time you want, which is good,
and you can mess them up and render your system totally dysfunctional,
which is not so good.
At any rate, assuming that my XF86Config file is just so, I enter the
command "startx" to launch the X Windows System. The screen blanks out
for a minute, the monitor makes strange twitching noises, then reconstitutes
itself as a blank gray desktop with a mouse cursor in the middle. At the
same time it is launching a window manager. X Windows is pretty low-level
software; it provides the infrastructure for a GUI, and it's a heavy industrial
infrastructure. But it doesn't do windows. That's handled by another category
of application that sits atop X Windows, called a window manager. Several
of these are available, all free of course. The classic is twm (Tom's Window
Manager) but there is a smaller and supposedly more efficient variant of
it called fvwm, which is what I use. I have my eye on a completely different
window manager called Enlightenment, which may be the hippest single technology
product I have ever seen, in that
it is for Linux
it is freeware,
it is being developed by a very small number of obsessed hackers, and
it looks amazingly cool; it is the sort of window manager that might
show up in the backdrop of an Aliens movie.
Anyway, the window manager acts as an intermediary between X Windows
and whatever software you want to use. It draws the window frames, menus,
and so on, while the applications themselves draw the actual content in
the windows. The applications might be of any sort: text editors, Web browsers,
graphics packages, or utility programs, such as a clock or calculator.
In other words, from this point on, you feel as if you have been shunted
into a parallel universe that is quite similar to the familiar Apple or
Microsoft one, but slightly and pervasively different. The premier graphics
program under Apple/Microsoft is Adobe Photoshop, but under Linux it's
something called The GIMP. Instead of the Microsoft Office Suite, you can
buy something called ApplixWare. Many commercial software packages, such
as Mathematica, Netscape Communicator, and Adobe Acrobat, are available
in Linux versions, and depending on how you set up your window manager
you can make them look and behave just as they would under MacOS or Windows.
But there is one type of window you'll see on Linux GUI that is rare
or nonexistent under other OSes. These windows are called "xterm" and contain
nothing but lines of text--this time, black text on a white background,
though you can make them be different colors if you choose. Each xterm
window is a separate command line interface--a tty in a window. So even
when you are in full GUI mode, you can still talk to your Linux machine
through a command-line interface.
There are many good pieces of Unix software that do not have GUIs at
all. This might be because they were developed before X Windows was available,
or because the people who wrote them did not want to suffer through all
the hassle of creating a GUI, or because they simply do not need one. In
any event, those programs can be invoked by typing their names into the
command line of an xterm window. The whoami command, mentioned earlier,
is a good example. There is another called wc ("word count") which simply
returns the number of lines, words, and characters in a text file.
The ability to run these little utility programs on the command line
is a great virtue of Unix, and one that is unlikely to be duplicated by
pure GUI operating systems. The wc command, for example, is the sort of
thing that is easy to write with a command line interface. It probably
does not consist of more than a few lines of code, and a clever programmer
could probably write it in a single line. In compiled form it takes up
just a few bytes of disk space. But the code required to give the same
program a graphical user interface would probably run into hundreds or
even thousands of lines, depending on how fancy the programmer wanted to
make it. Compiled into a runnable piece of software, it would have a large
overhead of GUI code. It would be slow to launch and it would use up a
lot of memory. This would simply not be worth the effort, and so "wc" would
never be written as an independent program at all. Instead users would
have to wait for a word count feature to appear in a commercial software
GUIs tend to impose a large overhead on every single piece of software,
even the smallest, and this overhead completely changes the programming
environment. Small utility programs are no longer worth writing. Their
functions, instead, tend to get swallowed up into omnibus software packages.
As GUIs get more complex, and impose more and more overhead, this tendency
becomes more pervasive, and the software packages grow ever more colossal;
after a point they begin to merge with each other, as Microsoft Word and
Excel and PowerPoint have merged into Microsoft Office: a stupendous software
Wal-Mart sitting on the edge of a town filled with tiny shops that are
all boarded up.
It is an unfair analogy, because when a tiny shop gets boarded up it
means that some small shopkeeper has lost his business. Of course nothing
of the kind happens when "wc" becomes subsumed into one of Microsoft Word's
countless menu items. The only real drawback is a loss of flexibility for
the user, but it is a loss that most customers obviously do not notice
or care about. The most serious drawback to the Wal-Mart approach is that
most users only want or need a tiny fraction of what is contained in these
giant software packages. The remainder is clutter, dead weight. And yet
the user in the next cubicle over will have completely different opinions
as to what is useful and what isn't.
The other important thing to mention, here, is that Microsoft has included
a genuinely cool feature in the Office package: a Basic programming package.
Basic is the first computer language that I learned, back when I was using
the paper tape and the teletype. By using the version of Basic that comes
with Office you can write your own little utility programs that know how
to interact with all of the little doohickeys, gewgaws, bells, and whistles
in Office. Basic is easier to use than the languages typically employed
in Unix command-line programming, and Office has reached many, many more
people than the GNU tools. And so it is quite possible that this feature
of Office will, in the end, spawn more hacking than GNU.
But now I'm talking about application software, not operating systems.
And as I've said, Microsoft's application software tends to be very good
stuff. I don't use it very much, because I am nowhere near their target
market. If Microsoft ever makes a software package that I use and like,
then it really will be time to dump their stock, because I am a market
segment of one.
GEEK FATIGUE Over the years that I've been working with Linux I have filled three and
a half notebooks logging my experiences. I only begin writing things down
when I'm doing something complicated, like setting up X Windows or fooling
around with my Internet connection, and so these notebooks contain only
the record of my struggles and frustrations. When things are going well
for me, I'll work along happily for many months without jotting down a
single note. So these notebooks make for pretty bleak reading. Changing
anything under Linux is a matter of opening up various of those little
ASCII text files and changing a word here and a character there, in ways
that are extremely significant to how the system operates.
Many of the files that control how Linux operates are nothing more than
command lines that became so long and complicated that not even Linux hackers
could type them correctly. When working with something as powerful as Linux,
you can easily devote a full half-hour to engineering a single command line.
For example, the "find" command, which searches your file system for files
that match certain criteria, is fantastically powerful and general. Its
"man" is eleven pages long, and these are pithy pages; you could easily
expand them into a whole book. And if that is not complicated enough in
and of itself, you can always pipe the output of one Unix command to the
input of another, equally complicated one. The "pon" command, which is
used to fire up a PPP connection to the Internet, requires so much detailed
information that it is basically impossible to launch it entirely from
the command line. Instead you abstract big chunks of its input into three
or four different files. You need a dialing script, which is effectively
a little program telling it how to dial the phone and respond to various
events; an options file, which lists up to about sixty different options
on how the PPP connection is to be set up; and a secrets file, giving information
about your password.
Presumably there are godlike Unix hackers somewhere in the world who
don't need to use these little scripts and options files as crutches, and
who can simply pound out fantastically complex command lines without making
typographical errors and without having to spend hours flipping through
documentation. But I'm not one of them. Like almost all Linux users, I
depend on having all of those details hidden away in thousands of little
ASCII text files, which are in turn wedged into the recesses of the Unix
filesystem. When I want to change something about the way my system works,
I edit those files. I know that if I don't keep track of every little change
I've made, I won't be able to get your system back in working order after
I've gotten it all messed up. Keeping hand-written logs is tedious, not
to mention kind of anachronistic. But it's necessary.
I probably could have saved myself a lot of headaches by doing business
with a company called Cygnus Support, which exists to provide assistance
to users of free software. But I didn't, because I wanted to see if I could
do it myself. The answer turned out to be yes, but just barely. And there
are many tweaks and optimizations that I could probably make in my system
that I have never gotten around to attempting, partly because I get tired
of being a Morlock some days, and partly because I am afraid of fouling
up a system that generally works well.
Though Linux works for me and many other users, its sheer power and
generality is its Achilles' heel. If you know what you are doing, you can
buy a cheap PC from any computer store, throw away the Windows discs that
come with it, turn it into a Linux system of mind-boggling complexity and
power. You can hook it up to twelve other Linux boxes and make it into
part of a parallel computer. You can configure it so that a hundred different
people can be logged onto it at once over the Internet, via as many modem
lines, Ethernet cards, TCP/IP sockets, and packet radio links. You can
hang half a dozen different monitors off of it and play DOOM with someone
in Australia while tracking communications satellites in orbit and controlling
your house's lights and thermostats and streaming live video from your
web-cam and surfing the Net and designing circuit boards on the other screens.
But the sheer power and complexity of the system--the qualities that make
it so vastly technically superior to other OSes--sometimes make it seem
too formidable for routine day-to-day use.
Sometimes, in other words, I just want to go to Disneyland.
The ideal OS for me would be one that had a well-designed GUI that was
easy to set up and use, but that included terminal windows where I could
revert to the command line interface, and run GNU software, when it made
sense. A few years ago, Be Inc. invented exactly that OS. It is called
Many people in the computer business have had a difficult time grappling
with Be, Incorporated, for the simple reason that nothing about it seems
to make any sense whatsoever. It was launched in late 1990, which makes
it roughly contemporary with Linux. From the beginning it has been devoted
to creating a new operating system that is, by design, incompatible with
all the others (though, as we shall see, it is compatible with Unix in
some very important ways). If a definition of "celebrity" is someone who
is famous for being famous, then Be is an anti-celebrity. It is famous
for not being famous; it is famous for being doomed. But it has been doomed
for an awfully long time.
Be's mission might make more sense to hackers than to other people.
In order to explain why I need to explain the concept of cruft, which,
to people who write code, is nearly as abhorrent as unnecessary repetition.
If you've been to San Francisco you may have seen older buildings that
have undergone "seismic upgrades," which frequently means that grotesque
superstructures of modern steelwork are erected around buildings made in,
say, a Classical style. When new threats arrive--if we have an Ice Age,
for example--additional layers of even more high-tech stuff may be constructed,
in turn, around these, until the original building is like a holy relic
in a cathedral--a shard of yellowed bone enshrined in half a ton of fancy
Analogous measures can be taken to keep creaky old operating systems
working. It happens all the time. Ditching an worn-out old OS ought to
be simplified by the fact that, unlike old buildings, OSes have no aesthetic
or cultural merit that makes them intrinsically worth saving. But it doesn't
work that way in practice. If you work with a computer, you have probably
customized your "desktop," the environment in which you sit down to work
every day, and spent a lot of money on software that works in that environment,
and devoted much time to familiarizing yourself with how it all works.
This takes a lot of time, and time is money. As already mentioned, the
desire to have one's interactions with complex technologies simplified
through the interface, and to surround yourself with virtual tchotchkes
and lawn ornaments, is natural and pervasive--presumably a reaction against
the complexity and formidable abstraction of the computer world. Computers
give us more choices than we really want. We prefer to make those choices
once, or accept the defaults handed to us by software companies, and let
sleeping dogs lie. But when an OS gets changed, all the dogs jump up and
The average computer user is a technological antiquarian who doesn't
really like things to change. He or she is like an urban professional who
has just bought a charming fixer-upper and is now moving the furniture
and knicknacks around, and reorganizing the kitchen cupboards, so that
everything's just right. If it is necessary for a bunch of engineers to
scurry around in the basement shoring up the foundation so that it can
support the new cast-iron claw-foot bathtub, and snaking new wires and
pipes through the walls to supply modern appliances, why, so be it--engineers
are cheap, at least when millions of OS users split the cost of their services.
Likewise, computer users want to have the latest Pentium in their machines,
and to be able to surf the web, without messing up all the stuff that makes
them feel as if they know what the hell is going on. Sometimes this is
actually possible. Adding more RAM to your system is a good example of
an upgrade that is not likely to screw anything up.
Alas, very few upgrades are this clean and simple. Lawrence Lessig,
the whilom Special Master in the Justice Department's antitrust suit against
Microsoft, complained that he had installed Internet Explorer on his computer,
and in so doing, lost all of his bookmarks--his personal list of signposts
that he used to navigate through the maze of the Internet. It was as if
he'd bought a new set of tires for his car, and then, when pulling away
from the garage, discovered that, owing to some inscrutable side-effect,
every signpost and road map in the world had been destroyed. If he's like
most of us, he had put a lot of work into compiling that list of bookmarks.
This is only a small taste of the sort of trouble that upgrades can cause.
Crappy old OSes have value in the basically negative sense that changing
to new ones makes us wish we'd never been born.
All of the fixing and patching that engineers must do in order to give
us the benefits of new technology without forcing us to think about it,
or to change our ways, produces a lot of code that, over time, turns into
a giant clot of bubble gum, spackle, baling wire and duct tape surrounding
every operating system. In the jargon of hackers, it is called "cruft."
An operating system that has many, many layers of it is described as "crufty."
Hackers hate to do things twice, but when they see something crufty, their
first impulse is to rip it out, throw it away, and start anew.
If Mark Twain were brought back to San Francisco today and dropped into
one of these old seismically upgraded buildings, it would look just the
same to him, with all the doors and windows in the same places--but if
he stepped outside, he wouldn't recognize it. And--if he'd been brought
back with his wits intact--he might question whether the building had been
worth going to so much trouble to save. At some point, one must ask the
question: is this really worth it, or should we maybe just tear it down
and put up a good one? Should we throw another human wave of structural
engineers at stabilizing the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or should we just let
the damn thing fall over and build a tower that doesn't suck?
Like an upgrade to an old building, cruft always seems like a good idea
when the first layers of it go on--just routine maintenance, sound prudent
management. This is especially true if (as it were) you never look into
the cellar, or behind the drywall. But if you are a hacker who spends all
his time looking at it from that point of view, cruft is fundamentally
disgusting, and you can't avoid wanting to go after it with a crowbar.
Or, better yet, simply walk out of the building--let the Leaning Tower
of Pisa fall over--and go make a new one THAT DOESN'T LEAN.
For a long time it was obvious to Apple, Microsoft, and their customers
that the first generation of GUI operating systems was doomed, and that
they would eventually need to be ditched and replaced with completely fresh
ones. During the late Eighties and early Nineties, Apple launched a few
abortive efforts to make fundamentally new post-Mac OSes such as Pink and
Taligent. When those efforts failed they launched a new project called
Copland which also failed. In 1997 they flirted with the idea of acquiring
Be, but instead they acquired Next, which has an OS called NextStep that
is, in effect, a variant of Unix. As these efforts went on, and on, and
on, and failed and failed and failed, Apple's engineers, who were among
the best in the business, kept layering on the cruft. They were gamely
trying to turn the little toaster into a multi-tasking, Internet-savvy
machine, and did an amazingly good job of it for a while--sort of like
a movie hero running across a jungle river by hopping across crocodiles'
backs. But in the real world you eventually run out of crocodiles, or step
on a really smart one.
Speaking of which, Microsoft tackled the same problem in a considerably
more orderly way by creating a new OS called Windows NT, which is explicitly
intended to be a direct competitor of Unix. NT stands for "New Technology"
which might be read as an explicit rejection of cruft. And indeed, NT is
reputed to be a lot less crufty than what MacOS eventually turned into;
at one point the documentation needed to write code on the Mac filled something
like 24 binders. Windows 95 was, and Windows 98 is, crufty because they
have to be backward-compatible with older Microsoft OSes. Linux deals with
the cruft problem in the same way that Eskimos supposedly dealt with senior
citizens: if you insist on using old versions of Linux software, you will
sooner or later find yourself drifting through the Bering Straits on a
dwindling ice floe. They can get away with this because most of the software
is free, so it costs nothing to download up-to-date versions, and because
most Linux users are Morlocks.
The great idea behind BeOS was to start from a clean sheet of paper
and design an OS the right way. And that is exactly what they did. This
was obviously a good idea from an aesthetic standpoint, but does not a
sound business plan make. Some people I know in the GNU/Linux world are
annoyed with Be for going off on this quixotic adventure when their formidable
skills could have been put to work helping to promulgate Linux.
Indeed, none of it makes sense until you remember that the founder of
the company, Jean-Louis Gassee, is from France--a country that for many
years maintained its own separate and independent version of the English
monarchy at a court in St. Germaines, complete with courtiers, coronation
ceremonies, a state religion and a foreign policy. Now, the same annoying
yet admirable stiff-neckedness that gave us the Jacobites, the force de
frappe, Airbus, and ARRET signs in Quebec, has brought us a really cool
operating system. I fart in your general direction, Anglo-Saxon pig-dogs!
To create an entirely new OS from scratch, just because none of the
existing ones was exactly right, struck me as an act of such colossal
nerve that I felt compelled to support it. I bought a BeBox as soon as
I could. The BeBox was a dual-processor machine, powered by Motorola chips,
made specifically to run the BeOS; it could not run any other operating
system. That's why I bought it. I felt it was a way to burn my bridges.
Its most distinctive feature is two columns of LEDs on the front panel
that zip up and down like tachometers to convey a sense of how hard each
processor is working. I thought it looked cool, and besides, I reckoned
that when the company went out of business in a few months, my BeBox would
be a valuable collector's item.
Now it is about two years later and I am typing this on my BeBox. The
LEDs (Das Blinkenlights, as they are called in the Be community) flash
merrily next to my right elbow as I hit the keys. Be, Inc. is still in
business, though they stopped making BeBoxes almost immediately after I
bought mine. They made the sad, but probably quite wise decision that hardware
was a sucker's game, and ported the BeOS to Macintoshes and Mac clones.
Since these used the same sort of Motorola chips that powered the BeBox,
this wasn't especially hard.
Very soon afterwards, Apple strangled the Mac-clone makers and restored
its hardware monopoly. So, for a while, the only new machines that could
run BeOS were made by Apple.
By this point Be, like Spiderman with his Spider-sense, had developed
a keen sense of when they were about to get crushed like a bug. Even if
they hadn't, the notion of being dependent on Apple--so frail and yet so
vicious--for their continued existence should have put a fright into anyone.
Now engaged in their own crocodile-hopping adventure, they ported the BeOS
to Intel chips--the same chips used in Windows machines. And not a moment
too soon, for when Apple came out with its new top-of-the-line hardware,
based on the Motorola G3 chip, they withheld the technical data that Be's
engineers would need to make the BeOS run on those machines. This would
have killed Be, just like a slug between the eyes, if they hadn't made
the jump to Intel.
So now BeOS runs on an assortment of hardware that is almost incredibly
motley: BeBoxes, aging Macs and Mac orphan-clones, and Intel machines that
are intended to be used for Windows. Of course the latter type are ubiquitous
and shockingly cheap nowadays, so it would appear that Be's hardware troubles
are finally over. Some German hackers have even come up with a Das Blinkenlights
replacement: it's a circuit board kit that you can plug into PC-compatible
machines running BeOS. It gives you the zooming LED tachometers that were
such a popular feature of the BeBox.
My BeBox is already showing its age, as all computers do after a couple
of years, and sooner or later I'll probably have to replace it with an
Intel machine. Even after that, though, I will still be able to use it.
Because, inevitably, someone has now ported Linux to the BeBox.
At any rate, BeOS has an extremely well-thought-out GUI built on a technological
framework that is solid. It is based from the ground up on modern object-oriented
software principles. BeOS software consists of quasi-independent software
entities called objects, which communicate by sending messages to each
other. The OS itself is made up of such objects, and serves as a kind of
post office or Internet that routes messages to and fro, from object to
object. The OS is multi-threaded, which means that like all other modern
OSes it can walk and chew gum at the same time; but it gives programmers
a lot of power over spawning and terminating threads, or independent sub-processes.
It is also a multi-processing OS, which means that it is inherently good
at running on computers that have more than one CPU (Linux and Windows
NT can also do this proficiently).
For this user, a big selling point of BeOS is the built-in Terminal
application, which enables you to open up windows that are equivalent to
the xterm windows in Linux. In other words, the command line interface
is available if you want it. And because BeOS hews to a certain standard
called POSIX, it is capable of running most of the GNU software. That is
to say that the vast array of command-line software developed by the GNU
crowd will work in BeOS terminal windows without complaint. This includes
the GNU development tools-the compiler and linker. And it includes all
of the handy little utility programs. I'm writing this using a modern sort
of user-friendly text editor called Pe, written by a Dutchman named Maarten
Hekkelman, but when I want to find out how long it is, I jump to a terminal
window and run "wc."
As is suggested by the sample bug report I quoted earlier, people who
work for Be, and developers who write code for BeOS, seem to be enjoying
themselves more than their counterparts in other OSes. They also seem to
be a more diverse lot in general. A couple of years ago I went to an auditorium
at a local university to see some representatives of Be put on a dog-and-pony
show. I went because I assumed that the place would be empty and echoing,
and I felt that they deserved an audience of at least one. In fact, I ended
up standing in an aisle, for hundreds of students had packed the place.
It was like a rock concert. One of the two Be engineers on the stage was
a black man, which unfortunately is a very odd thing in the high-tech world.
The other made a ringing denunciation of cruft, and extolled BeOS for its
cruft-free qualities, and actually came out and said that in ten or fifteen
years, when BeOS had become all crufty like MacOS and Windows 95, it would
be time to simply throw it away and create a new OS from scratch. I doubt
that this is an official Be, Inc. policy, but it sure made a big impression
on everyone in the room! During the late Eighties, the MacOS was, for a
time, the OS of cool people-artists and creative-minded hackers-and BeOS
seems to have the potential to attract the same crowd now. Be mailing
lists are crowded with hackers with names like
Vladimir and Olaf and Pierre, sending flames to each other in
The only real question about BeOS is whether or not it is doomed.
Of late, Be has responded to the tiresome accusation that they are doomed
with the assertion that BeOS is "a media operating system" made for media
content creators, and hence is not really in competition with Windows at
all. This is a little bit disingenuous. To go back to the car dealership
analogy, it is like the Batmobile dealer claiming that he is not really
in competition with the others because his car can go three times as fast
as theirs and is also capable of flying.
Be has an office in Paris, and, as mentioned, the conversation on Be mailing lists
has a strongly European flavor. At the same time they have made strenuous
efforts to find a niche in Japan, and Hitachi has recently begun bundling
BeOS with their PCs. So if I had to make wild guess I'd say that they are
playing Go while Microsoft is playing chess. They are staying clear, for
now, of Microsoft's overwhelmingly strong position in North America. They
are trying to get themselves established around the edges of the board,
as it were, in Europe and Japan, where people may be more open to alternative
OSes, or at least more hostile to Microsoft, than they are in the United
What holds Be back in this country is that the smart people are afraid
to look like suckers. You run the risk of looking naive when you say "I've
tried the BeOS and here's what I think of it." It seems much more sophisticated
to say "Be's chances of carving out a new niche in the highly competitive
OS market are close to nil."
It is, in techno-speak, a problem of mindshare. And in the OS business,
mindshare is more than just a PR issue; it has direct effects on the technology
itself. All of the peripheral gizmos that can be hung off of a personal
computer--the printers, scanners, PalmPilot interfaces, and Lego Mindstorms--require
pieces of software called drivers. Likewise, video cards and (to a lesser
extent) monitors need drivers. Even the different types of motherboards
on the market relate to the OS in different ways, and separate code is
required for each one. All of this hardware-specific code must not only
written but also tested, debugged, upgraded, maintained, and supported.
Because the hardware market has become so vast and complicated, what really
determines an OS's fate is not how good the OS is technically, or how much
it costs, but rather the availability of hardware-specific code. Linux
hackers have to write that code themselves, and they have done an amazingly
good job of keeping up to speed. Be, Inc. has to write all their own drivers,
though as BeOS has begun gathering momentum, third-party developers have
begun to contribute drivers, which are available on Be's web site.
But Microsoft owns the high ground at the moment, because it doesn't
have to write its own drivers. Any hardware maker bringing a new video
card or peripheral device to market today knows that it will be unsalable
unless it comes with the hardware-specific code that will make it work
under Windows, and so each hardware maker has accepted the burden of creating
and maintaining its own library of drivers.
MINDSHARE The U.S. Government's assertion that Microsoft has a monopoly in
the OS market might be the most patently absurd claim ever advanced by
the legal mind. Linux, a technically superior operating system, is being
given away for free, and BeOS is available at a nominal price. This is
simply a fact, which has to be accepted whether or not you like Microsoft.
Microsoft is really big and rich, and if some of the government's witnesses
are to be believed, they are not nice guys. But the accusation of a monopoly
simply does not make any sense.
What is really going on is that Microsoft has seized, for the time being,
a certain type of high ground: they dominate in the competition for mindshare,
and so any hardware or software maker who wants to be taken seriously feels
compelled to make a product that is compatible with their operating systems.
Since Windows-compatible drivers get written by the hardware makers, Microsoft
doesn't have to write them; in effect, the hardware makers are adding new
components to Windows, making it a more capable OS, without charging Microsoft
for the service. It is a very good position to be in. The only way to fight
such an opponent is to have an army of highly competetent coders who write
equivalent drivers for free, which Linux does.
But possession of this psychological high ground is different from a
monopoly in any normal sense of that word, because here the dominance has
nothing to do with technical performance or price. The old robber-baron
monopolies were monopolies because they physically controlled means of
production and/or distribution. But in the software business, the means
of production is hackers typing code, and the means of distribution is
the Internet, and no one is claiming that Microsoft controls those.
Here, instead, the dominance is inside the minds of people who buy software.
Microsoft has power because people believe it does. This power is very
real. It makes lots of money. Judging from recent legal proceedings in
both Washingtons, it would appear that this power and this money have inspired
some very peculiar executives to come out and work for Microsoft, and that
Bill Gates should have administered saliva tests to some of them before
issuing them Microsoft ID cards.
But this is not the sort of power that fits any normal definition of
the word "monopoly," and it's not amenable to a legal fix. The courts may
order Microsoft to do things differently. They might even split the company
up. But they can't really do anything about a mindshare monopoly, short
of taking every man, woman, and child in the developed world and subjecting
them to a lengthy brainwashing procedure.
Mindshare dominance is, in other words, a really odd sort of beast,
something that the framers of our antitrust laws couldn't possibly have
imagined. It looks like one of these modern, wacky chaos-theory phenomena,
a complexity thing, in which a whole lot of independent but connected entities
(the world's computer users), making decisions on their own, according
to a few simple rules of thumb, generate a large phenomenon (total domination
of the market by one company) that cannot be made sense of through any
kind of rational analysis. Such phenomena are fraught with concealed tipping-points
and all a-tangle with bizarre feedback loops, and cannot be understood;
people who try, end up (a) going crazy, (b) giving up, (c) forming crackpot
theories, or (d) becoming high-paid chaos theory consultants.
Now, there might be one or two people at Microsoft who are dense enough
to believe that mindshare dominance is some kind of stable and enduring
position. Maybe that even accounts for some of the weirdos they've hired
in the pure-business end of the operation, the zealots who keep getting
hauled into court by enraged judges. But most of them must have the wit
to understand that phenomena like these are maddeningly unstable, and that
there's no telling what weird, seemingly inconsequential event might cause
the system to shift into a radically different configuration.
To put it another way, Microsoft can be confident that Thomas Penfield
Jackson will not hand down an order that the brains of everyone in the
developed world are to be summarily re-programmed. But there's no way to
predict when people will decide, en masse, to re-program their own brains.
This might explain some of Microsoft's behavior, such as their policy of
keeping eerily large reserves of cash sitting around, and the extreme anxiety
that they display whenever something like Java comes along.
I have never seen the inside of the building at Microsoft where the
top executives hang out, but I have this fantasy that in the hallways,
at regular intervals, big red alarm boxes are bolted to the wall. Each
contains a large red button protected by a windowpane. A metal hammer
dangles on a chain next to it. Above is a big sign reading:
IN THE EVENT OF A CRASH IN MARKET SHARE, BREAK GLASS.
What happens when someone shatters the glass and hits the button, I
don't know, but it sure would be interesting to find out. One imagines
banks collapsing all over the world as Microsoft withdraws its cash
reserves, and shrink-wrapped pallet-loads of hundred-dollar bills
dropping from the skies. No doubt, Microsoft has a plan. But what I
would really like to know is whether, at some level, their programmers
might heave a big sigh of relief if the burden of writing the One
Universal Interface to Everything were suddenly lifted from their shoulders.
THE RIGHT PINKY OF GOD In his book The Life of the Cosmos, which everyone should
read, Lee Smolin gives the best description I've ever read of how our universe
emerged from an uncannily precise balancing of different fundamental constants.
The mass of the proton, the strength of gravity, the range of the weak
nuclear force, and a few dozen other fundamental constants completely determine
what sort of universe will emerge from a Big Bang. If these values had
been even slightly different, the universe would have been a vast ocean
of tepid gas or a hot knot of plasma or some other basically uninteresting
thing--a dud, in other words. The only way to get a universe that's not
a dud--that has stars, heavy elements, planets, and life--is to get the
basic numbers just right. If there were some machine, somewhere, that could
spit out universes with randomly chosen values for their fundamental constants,
then for every universe like ours it would produce 10^229 duds.
Though I haven't sat down and run the numbers on it, to me this seems
comparable to the probability of making a Unix computer do something useful
by logging into a tty and typing in command lines when you have
forgotten all of the little options and keywords. Every time
your right pinky slams that ENTER key, you are making another try. In some
cases the operating system does nothing. In other cases it wipes out all
of your files. In most cases it just gives you an error message. In other
words, you get many duds. But sometimes, if you have it all just right,
the computer grinds away for a while and then produces something like emacs.
It actually generates complexity, which is Smolin's criterion for interestingness.
Not only that, but it's beginning to look as if, once you get below
a certain size--way below the level of quarks, down into the realm of string
theory--the universe can't be described very well by physics as it has
been practiced since the days of Newton. If you look at a small enough
scale, you see processes that look almost computational in nature.
I think that the message is very clear here: somewhere outside of and
beyond our universe is an operating system, coded up over incalculable
spans of time by some kind of hacker-demiurge. The cosmic operating system
uses a command-line interface. It runs on something like a teletype, with
lots of noise and heat; punched-out bits flutter down into its hopper like
drifting stars. The demiurge sits at his teletype, pounding out one command
line after another, specifying the values of fundamental constants of physics:
universe -G 6.672e-11 -e 1.602e-19 -h 6.626e-34 -protonmass 1.673e-27....
and when he's finished typing out the command line, his right pinky
hesitates above the ENTER key for an aeon or two, wondering what's going
to happen; then down it comes--and the WHACK you hear is another Big Bang.
Now THAT is a cool operating system, and if such a thing were
actually made available on the Internet (for free, of course) every
hacker in the world would download it right away and then stay up all
night long messing with it, spitting out universes right and
left. Most of them would be pretty dull universes but some of them
would be simply amazing. Because what those hackers would be aiming
for would be much more ambitious than a universe that had a few stars
and galaxies in it. Any run-of-the-mill hacker would be able to do
that. No, the way to gain a towering reputation on the Internet would
be to get so good at tweaking your command line that your universes
would spontaneously develop life. And once the way to do that became common
knowledge, those hackers would move on, trying to make their universes
develop the right kind of life, trying to find the one change in the
Nth decimal place of some physical constant that would give us an
Earth in which, say, Hitler had been accepted into art school after
all, and had ended up his days as a street artist with cranky political
Even if that fantasy came true, though, most users (including
myself, on certain days) wouldn't want to bother learning to use all
of those arcane commands, and struggling with all of the failures; a
few dud universes can really clutter up your basement. After we'd
spent a while pounding out command lines and hitting that ENTER key
and spawning dull, failed universes, we would start to long for an OS
that would go all the way to the opposite extreme: an OS that had the
power to do everything--to live our life for us. In this OS, all of
the possible decisions we could ever want to make would have been
anticipated by clever programmers, and condensed into a series of
dialog boxes. By clicking on radio buttons we could choose from among
mutually exclusive choices (HETEROSEXUAL/HOMOSEXUAL). Columns of check
boxes would enable us to select the things that we wanted in our life
(GET MARRIED/WRITE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL) and for more complicated
options we could fill in little text boxes (NUMBER OF DAUGHTERS:
NUMBER OF SONS:).
Even this user interface would begin to look awfully complicated
after a while, with so many choices, and so many hidden interactions
between choices. It could become damn near unmanageable--the blinking
twelve problem all over again. The people who brought us this
operating system would have to provide templates and wizards, giving
us a few default lives that we could use as starting places for
designing our own. Chances are that these default lives would actually
look pretty damn good to most people, good enough, anyway, that they'd
be reluctant to tear them open and mess around with them for fear of
making them worse. So after a few releases the software would begin
to look even simpler: you would boot it up and it would present you
with a dialog box with a single large button in the middle labeled:
LIVE. Once you had clicked that button, your life would begin. If
anything got out of whack, or failed to meet your expectations, you
could complain about it to Microsoft's Customer Support Department. If
you got a flack on the line, he or she would tell you that your life
was actually fine, that there was not a thing wrong with it, and in
any event it would be a lot better after the next upgrade was rolled
out. But if you persisted, and identified yourself as Advanced, you
might get through to an actual engineer.
What would the engineer say,
after you had explained your problem, and enumerated all of the
dissatisfactions in your life? He would probably tell you that life is
a very hard and complicated thing; that no interface can change that;
that anyone who believes otherwise is a sucker; and that if you don't
like having choices made for you, you should start making your own.
Copyright 1999 by Neal Stephenson