In the Beginning . . . Was the Command Line

In the Beginning . . . Was the Command Line

by Neal Stephenson
Originally published in 1999

You may think “The command line? That sounds geeky.” Yes, it kind of is. You might also think “A book about Operating System (OS) wars? That sounds dated.” Perhaps a little, but it’s still pretty relevant — there are a few different players now but the basics of the game remain pretty much the same. So why should someone who doesn’t already think about OSs on a daily basis consider reading this book (actually, more of a long essay than a true book)?

Well, you’ll certainly learn a little bit about OSs and computing in general, but I think it is worth reading for the analogies alone. Stephenson uses cars as a metaphor for the different OSs. Imagine a crossroads with a car dealership on each corner. 90% of people go to the station-wagon dealer (Microsoft), even though they are unreliable and aesthetically displeasing. Everyone goes there simply because everyone goes there. Across the street is the sports car dealership (Apple), where things are more expensive and look prettier (but you can’t really tell what’s under the hood because the car is hermetically sealed). On the third corner there is a dealership selling Batmobiles for much less than what one would pay for a station-wagon (this is BeOS, which has gone out of business. To my knowledge, there’s no current OS that fills this role in the analogy, at least not one that isn’t a variety of Linux).

On the fourth corner there’s less of a dealership than a hippy commune of RVs, tents, yurts, and they’re not actually selling anything. They’re giving away tanks, for free (Linux). And not aging, Soviet tanks — these are high-tech tanks made of space age materials that never break down and are light and manoeuvrable enough to drive on ordinary streets. Stephenson imagines the following conversation between a hacker (not derogatory in this sense) and someone looking to acquire an OS:

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!”

Bullhorn: “But…”

Buyer: “Can’t you see that everyone is buying station wagons?”

The reason this is such a good analogy is because it is true. I’ve been doing a lot of Linux security research at work (we have a Linux server), and they truly are tanks. The only reason to install anti-virus software in Linux is to prevent your computer from passing Windows viruses to Windows computers. Firewalls? Not really necessary, by default at least. Linux just works — and some of the usability issues of the past are now mute point with newer varieties of Linux (Ubuntu, the main type of Linux I use, is really easy to use)

In many ways, for me this was the right book at the right time. I’ve started moving away from Microsoft products as much as possible — too many headaches, too much “cruft” (Stephenson’s word) accumulated over the years. I’m not really interested in converting to Apple, b/c I don’t have the money and I don’t like how their systems are closed systems (remember ‘hermetically sealed’ in the car analogy? I recently read a quote from Umberto Eco likening Apple to the Catholic church of computing — you do it our way or you go to hell) There are eight computers I use semi-regularly (four at work and four at home); currently three out of eight are running Linux, soon to be five out of eight with plans to be six out of eight machines running Linux in the future (the two which won’t be converted are an IPod and my main work laptop, which is running Windows 7 — I’d probably get in trouble for “throwing out” an OS we just purchased.)

Wow, this post sure turned nerdy. Perhaps that’s not actually very surprising.

Four stars out of five.

PS – In the Beginning . . . was the Command Line is available on line for free online at the Cryptonomicon website (which, btw, is an awesome book).

(FYI – if I was to hand in this review I would definitely get expelled for plagiarism in the sections describing the car dealership analogy. Assume Stephenson wrote those sections. Unless they’re awkwardly worded, in which case that part was probably me)

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