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WebliminalBlog Notes from Webliminal. Skip to content. Home About View du Jour Nov 22, Posted by ernie on Monday, June 29, , at pm. Filed under Books , Commentary. Tagged book review , stephenson. 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.

In the beginning was the command line / Neal Stephenson - Details - Trove

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 Operating System 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 theleast 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:.

In the Beginning was the Command Line

Item: the richest man in the world made his fortune from -- what? No, operating systems.


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Item: the Department of Justice has tackled 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.

In the Beginning … Was the Command Line

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.

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  1. Samizdat copies of Neal Stephenson's "In the Beginning was the Command Line"?
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  4. Shop Books. Read an excerpt of this book! 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 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.

    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. 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 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.

    In The Beginning Was The Command Line

    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. 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.


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    4. But sometimes, if you have it all just right, the computer grinds away for a while and then produces something like emacs. 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.