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 in it--almost:
- 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 robber barons.
- 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 I'm concerned.
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
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 more recently.
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
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
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
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
Buyer: "Stay away from my house, you freak!"
Buyer: "Can't you see that everyone is buying station
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
Anyway, it will have been obvious that my interaction with
the computer was of an extremely formal nature, being sharply
divided up into different phases, viz.: (1) 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. (2) 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 a tape. (3) Then, through the rubber-cup
modem, I would cause those numbers to be sent to the university
mainframe, which would (4) do arithmetic on them and send different
numbers back to the teletype. (5) The teletype would convert
these numbers back into letters and hammer them out on a page
and (6) I, watching, would construe the letters as meaningful
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
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.
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:
<TITLE>Welcome to the Avon Books Homepage</TITLE>
<BODY TEXT="#478CFF" LINK="#FFFFFF"
VLINK="#000000" ALINK="#478CFF" BGCOLOR="#003399">
<TABLE BORDER="0" WIDTH="600" CELLPADDING="0"
HEIGHT="280" BORDER="0" USEMAP="#left0199"></A></TD><TD
WIDTH="144" HEIGHT="280" BORDER="0"></TD><TD><A
ALT="About Avon Books" WIDTH="199" HEIGHT="44"
ALT="Reading Groups" WIDTH="165" HEIGHT="121"
Crook Factory" WIDTH="165" HEIGHT="96"
Envelope Please" WIDTH="165" HEIGHT="63"
<TR VALIGN=TOP><TD><IMG SRC="/avon/images/home/feb98/main.gif"
WIDTH="199" HEIGHT="182" BORDER="0"></TD></TR><TR
VALIGN=TOP><TD COLSPAN="4"><IMG SRC="/avon/images/home/jan99/avon_bottom_beau.gif"
WIDTH="622" HEIGHT="179" BORDER="0"
ALIGN=CENTER VALIGN=TOP COLSPAN="4"><FONT SIZE="2"
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> | <A HREF="/avon/policy.html">Privacy
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
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
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
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 subtext.
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
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
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
This monopolistic policy can be explained in at least three
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: (1) 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. (2) Chronologically 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
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
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
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 others.
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 Windows.
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 else.
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 two topics.
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 to create.
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 behave.
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 product.
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
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
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
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
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
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 and Disney?
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 as well.
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 good
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
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 bad now:
- 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 exercise.
- 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
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 about VCRs.
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:
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 on tools.
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 exist.
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 an Eloi.
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
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
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 things happened.
(1) 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,
(2) 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 computer."
(3) 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 bucks.
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) flat.
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
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 atavistic terror.
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 consequences.
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 tools.
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
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 freedom).
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 other.
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.
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 picked apart.
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
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
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
Some of these tour guides are commercial organizations, such
as Red Hat Software, 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
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
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: 0xFEE00000 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 (max 63) 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 at 0xfdb80 Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel:
pcibios_init : PCI BIOS revision 2.10 entry at 0xfdba1 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 NET3.035. Dec
14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Swansea University Computer Society
TCP/IP for NET3.034 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 (root@theRev)
(gcc version 22.214.171.124) #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 BogoMIPS). Dec 14 15:04:15
theRev kernel: Serial driver version 4.13 with no serial options
enabled 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, CHS=8928/15/63,
DMA 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 126.96.36.199 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 channels, max=256). 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 interface. Dec 15 11:58:06 theRev kernel: Enabling
bus-master transmits and whole-frame receives. Dec 15 11:58:06
theRev kernel: 3c59x.c:v0.49 1/2/98 Donald Becker http://cesdis.gsfc.nasa.gov/linux/drivers/vortex.html
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 one device! Dec 15 11:58:09
theRev diald: You must define a connector script (option
'connect'). 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 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
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 didn't work.
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
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 rage
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 are.
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 or Tucson.
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 of errors.
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
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 engineer.
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
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
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
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 (a)
it is for Linux, (b) it is freeware, (c) it is being developed
by a very small number of obsessed hackers, and (d) 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
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.
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
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 the BeOS.
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 protective junk.
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 start barking.
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
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 fractured techno-English.
The only real question about BeOS is whether or not it is
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 States.
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.
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
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
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
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 opinions.
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