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In the Beginning was the Command Line

by Neal Stephenson

About twenty years ago Jobs and Wozniak, the founders of Apple, came up with
the very strange idea of selling information processing machines for use in
the home. The business took off, and its founders made a lot of money and
received the credit they deserved for being daring visionaries. But around the
same time, Bill Gates and Paul Allen came up with an idea even stranger and
more fantastical: selling computer operating systems. This was much weirder
than the idea of Jobs and Wozniak. A computer at least had some sort of
physical reality to it. It came in a box, you could open it up and plug it in
and watch lights blink. An operating system had no tangible incarnation at
all. It arrived on a disk, of course, but the disk was, in effect, nothing
more than the box that the OS came in. The product itself was a very long
string of ones and zeroes that, when properly installed and coddled, gave you
the ability to manipulate other very long strings of ones and zeroes. Even
those few who actually understood what a computer operating system was were
apt to think of it as a fantastically arcane engineering prodigy, like a
breeder reactor or a U-2 spy plane, and not something that could ever be (in
the parlance of high-tech) "productized."

Yet now the company that Gates and Allen founded is selling operating systems
like Gillette sells razor blades. New releases of operating systems are
launched as if they were Hollywood blockbusters, with celebrity endorsements,
talk show appearances, and world tours. The market for them is vast enough
that people worry about whether it has been monopolized by one company. Even
the least technically-minded people in our society now have at least a hazy
idea of what operating systems do; what is more, they have strong opinions
about their relative merits. It is commonly understood, even by technically
unsophisticated computer users, that if you have a piece of software that
works on your Macintosh, and you move it over onto a Windows machine, it will
not run. That this would, in fact, be a laughable and idiotic mistake, like
nailing horseshoes to the tires of a Buick.

A person who went into a coma before Microsoft was founded, and woke up now,
could pick up this morning's New York Times and understand everything in

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.


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

The big dealership responded by rushing a moped upgrade kit (the original
Windows) onto the market. This was a Rube Goldberg contraption that, when
bolted onto a three-speed bicycle, enabled it to keep up, just barely, with
Apple-cars. The users had to wear goggles and were always picking bugs out of
their teeth while Apple owners sped along in hermetically sealed comfort,
sneering out the windows. But the Micro-mopeds were cheap, and easy to fix
compared with the Apple-cars, and their market share waxed.

Eventually the big dealership came out with a full-fledged car: a colossal
station wagon (Windows 95). It had all the aesthetic appeal of a Soviet worker
housing block, it leaked oil and blew gaskets, and it was an enormous success.
A little later, they also came out with a hulking off-road vehicle intended
for industrial users (Windows NT) which was no more beautiful than the station
wagon, and only a little more reliable.

Since then there has been a lot of noise and shouting, but little has changed.
The smaller dealership continues to sell sleek Euro-styled sedans and to spend
a lot of money on advertising campaigns. They have had GOING OUT OF BUSINESS!
signs taped up in their windows for so long that they have gotten all yellow
and curly. The big one keeps making bigger and bigger station wagons and ORVs.

On the other side of the road are two competitors that have come along more

One of them (Be, Inc.) is selling fully operational Batmobiles (the BeOS).
They are more beautiful and stylish even than the Euro-sedans, better
designed, more technologically advanced, and at least as reliable as anything
else on the market--and yet cheaper than the others.

With one exception, that is: Linux, which is right next door, and which is not
a business at all. It's a bunch of RVs, yurts, tepees, and geodesic domes set
up in a field and organized by consensus. The people who live there are making
tanks. These are not old-fashioned, cast-iron Soviet tanks; these are more
like the M1 tanks of the U.S. Army, made of space-age materials and jammed
with sophisticated technology from one end to the other. But they are better
than Army tanks. They've been modified in such a way that they never, ever
break down, are light and maneuverable enough to use on ordinary streets, and
use no more fuel than a subcompact car. These tanks are being cranked out, on
the spot, at a terrific pace, and a vast number of them are lined up along the
edge of the road with keys in the ignition. Anyone who wants can simply climb
into one and drive it away for free.

Customers come to this crossroads in throngs, day and night. Ninety percent of
them go straight to the biggest dealership and buy station wagons or off-road
vehicles. They do not even look at the other dealerships.

Of the remaining ten percent, most go and buy a sleek Euro-sedan, pausing only
to turn up their noses at the philistines going to buy the station wagons and
ORVs. If they even notice the people on the opposite side of the road, selling
the cheaper, technically superior vehicles, these customers deride them cranks
and half-wits.

The Batmobile outlet sells a few vehicles to the occasional car nut who wants
a second vehicle to go with his station wagon, but seems to accept, at least
for now, that it's a fringe player.

The group giving away the free tanks only stays alive because it is staffed by
volunteers, who are lined up at the edge of the street with bullhorns, trying
to draw customers' attention to this incredible situation. A typical
conversation goes something like this:

Hacker with bullhorn: "Save your money! Accept one of our free tanks! It is
invulnerable, and can drive across rocks and swamps at ninety miles an hour
while getting a hundred miles to the gallon!"

Prospective station wagon buyer: "I know what you say is true...but...er...I
don't know how to maintain a tank!"

Bullhorn: "You don't know how to maintain a station wagon either!"

Buyer: "But this dealership has mechanics on staff. If something goes wrong
with my station wagon, I can take a day off work, bring it here, and pay them
to work on it while I sit in the waiting room for hours, listening to elevator

Bullhorn: "But if you accept one of our free tanks we will send volunteers to
your house to fix it for free while you sleep!"

Buyer: "Stay away from my house, you freak!"

Bullhorn: "But..."

Buyer: "Can't you see that everyone is buying station wagons?"


The connection between cars, and ways of interacting with computers, wouldn't
have occurred to me at the time I was being taken for rides in that MGB. I had
signed up to take a computer programming class at Ames High School. After a
few introductory lectures, we students were granted admission into a tiny room
containing a teletype, a telephone, and an old-fashioned modem consisting of a
metal box with a pair of rubber cups on the top (note: many readers, making
their way through that last sentence, probably felt an initial pang of dread
that this essay was about to turn into a tedious, codgerly reminiscence about
how tough we had it back in the old days; rest assured that I am actually
positioning my pieces on the chessboard, as it were, in preparation to make a
point about truly hip and up-to-the minute topics like Open Source Software).
The teletype was exactly the same sort of machine that had been used, for
decades, to send and receive telegrams. It was basically a loud typewriter
that could only produce UPPERCASE LETTERS. Mounted to one side of it was a
smaller machine with a long reel of paper tape on it, and a clear plastic
hopper underneath.

In order to connect this device (which was not a computer at all) to the Iowa
State University mainframe across town, you would pick up the phone, dial the
computer's number, listen for strange noises, and then slam the handset down
into the rubber cups. If your aim was true, one would wrap its neoprene lips
around the earpiece and the other around the mouthpiece, consummating a kind
of informational soixante-neuf.  The teletype would shudder as it was
possessed by the spirit of the distant mainframe, and begin to hammer out
cryptic messages.

Since computer time was a scarce resource, we used a sort of batch processing
technique. Before dialing the phone, we would turn on the tape puncher (a
subsidiary machine bolted to the side of the teletype) and type in our
programs. Each time we depressed a key, the teletype would bash out a letter
on the paper in front of us, so we could read what we'd typed; but at the same
time it would convert the letter into a set of eight binary digits, or bits,
and punch a corresponding pattern of holes across the width of a paper tape.
The tiny disks of paper knocked out of the tape would flutter down into the
clear plastic hopper, which would slowly fill up what can only be described as
actual bits. On the last day of the school year, the smartest kid in the class
(not me) jumped out from behind his desk and flung several quarts of these
bits over the head of our teacher, like confetti, as a sort of
semi-affectionate practical joke. The image of this man sitting there, gripped
in the opening stages of an atavistic fight-or-flight reaction, with millions
of bits (megabytes) sifting down out of his hair and into his nostrils and
mouth, his face gradually turning purple as he built up to an explosion, is
the single most memorable scene from my formal education.

Anyway, it will have been obvious that my interaction with the computer was of
an extremely formal nature, being sharply divided up into different 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 symbols.

The division of responsibilities implied by all of this is admirably clean:
computers do arithmetic on bits of information. Humans construe the bits as
meaningful symbols. But this distinction is now being blurred, or at least
complicated, by the advent of modern operating systems that use, and
frequently abuse, the power of metaphor to make computers accessible to a
larger audience. Along the way--possibly because of those metaphors, which
make an operating system a sort of work of art--people start to get emotional,
and grow attached to pieces of software in the way that my friend's dad did to
his MGB.

People who have only interacted with computers through graphical user
interfaces like the MacOS or Windows--which is to say, almost everyone who has
ever used a computer--may have been startled, or at least bemused, to hear
about the telegraph machine that I used to communicate with a computer in
1973. But there was, and is, a good reason for using this particular kind of
technology. Human beings have various ways of communicating to each other,
such as music, art, dance, and facial expressions, but some of these are more
amenable than others to being expressed as strings of symbols. Written
language is the easiest of all, because, of course, it consists of strings of
symbols to begin with. If the symbols happen to belong to a phonetic alphabet
(as opposed to, say, ideograms), converting them into bits is a trivial
procedure, and one that was nailed, technologically, in the early nineteenth
century, with the introduction of Morse code and other forms of telegraphy.

We had a human/computer interface a hundred years before we had computers.
When computers came into being around the time of the Second World War,
humans, quite naturally, communicated with them by simply grafting them on to
the already-existing technologies for translating letters into bits and vice
versa: teletypes and punch card machines.

These embodied two fundamentally different approaches to computing. When you
were using cards, you'd punch a whole stack of them and run them through the
reader all at once, which was called batch processing. You could also do batch
processing with a teletype, as I have already described, by using the paper
tape reader, and we were certainly encouraged to use this approach when I was
in high school. But--though efforts were made to keep us unaware of this--the
teletype could do something that the card reader could not. On the teletype,
once the modem link was established, you could just type in a line and hit the
return key. The teletype would send that line to the computer, which might or
might not respond with some lines of its own, which the teletype would hammer
out--producing, over time, a transcript of your exchange with the machine.
This way of doing it did not even have a name at the time, but when, much
later, an alternative became available, it was retroactively dubbed the
Command Line Interface.

When I moved on to college, I did my computing in large, stifling rooms where
scores of students would sit in front of slightly updated versions of the same
machines and write computer programs: these used dot-matrix printing
mechanisms, but were (from the computer's point of view) identical to the old
teletypes. By that point, computers were better at time-sharing--that is,
mainframes were still mainframes, but they were better at communicating with a
large number of terminals at once. Consequently, it was no longer necessary to
use batch processing. Card readers were shoved out into hallways and boiler
rooms, and batch processing became a nerds-only kind of thing, and
consequently took on a certain eldritch flavor among those of us who even knew
it existed. We were all off the Batch, and on the Command Line, interface
now--my very first shift in operating system paradigms, if only I'd known it.

A huge stack of accordion-fold paper sat on the floor underneath each one of
these glorified teletypes, and miles of paper shuddered through their platens.
Almost all of this paper was thrown away or recycled without ever having been
touched by ink--an ecological atrocity so glaring that those machines soon
replaced by video terminals--so-called "glass teletypes"--which were quieter
and didn't waste paper. Again, though, from the computer's point of view these
were indistinguishable from World War II-era teletype machines. In effect we
still used Victorian technology to communicate with computers until about
1984, when the Macintosh was introduced with its Graphical User Interface.
Even after that, the Command Line continued to exist as an underlying
stratum--a sort of brainstem reflex--of many modern computer systems all
through the heyday of Graphical User Interfaces, or GUIs as I will call them
from now on.


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

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:


</HEAD> <BODY BGCOLOR="#000000" LINK="#996600" ALINK="#FFFFFF"

<MAP NAME="navtext"> <AREA SHAPE=RECT HREF="praise.html" COORDS="0,37,84,55">
<AREA SHAPE=RECT HREF="author.html" COORDS="0,59,137,75"> <AREA SHAPE=RECT
HREF="text.html" COORDS="0,81,101,96"> <AREA SHAPE=RECT HREF="tour.html"
COORDS="0,100,121,117"> <AREA SHAPE=RECT HREF="order.html"
COORDS="0,122,143,138"> <AREA SHAPE=RECT HREF="beginning.html"
COORDS="0,140,213,157"> </MAP>


		<TD VALIGN=TOP ROWSPAN="5"> <IMG SRC="images/spacer.gif" WIDTH="30"
HEIGHT="1" BORDER="0"> </TD>

		<TD VALIGN=TOP COLSPAN="2"> <IMG SRC="images/main_banner.gif"
ALT="Cryptonomincon by Neal Stephenson" WIDTH="479" HEIGHT="122" BORDER="0">


This crud is called HTML (HyperText Markup Language) and it is basically a
very simple programming language instructing your web browser how to draw a
page on a screen. Anyone can learn HTML and many people do. The important
thing is that no matter what splendid multimedia web pages they might
represent, HTML files are just telegrams.

When Ronald Reagan was a radio announcer, he used to call baseball games by
reading the terse descriptions that trickled in over the telegraph wire and
were printed out on a paper tape. He would sit there, all by himself in a
padded room with a microphone, and the paper tape would eke out of the machine
and crawl over the palm of his hand printed with cryptic abbreviations. If the
count went to three and two, Reagan would describe the scene as he saw it in
his mind's eye: "The brawny left-hander steps out of the batter's box to wipe
the sweat from his brow. The umpire steps forward to sweep the dirt from home
plate." and so on. When the cryptogram on the paper tape announced a base hit,
he would whack the edge of the table with a pencil, creating a little sound
effect, and describe the arc of the ball as if he could actually see it. His
listeners, many of whom presumably thought that Reagan was actually at the
ballpark watching the game, would reconstruct the scene in their minds
according to his descriptions.

This is exactly how the World Wide Web works: the HTML files are the pithy
description on the paper tape, and your Web browser is Ronald Reagan. The same
is true of Graphical User Interfaces in general.

So an OS is a stack of metaphors and abstractions that stands between you and
the telegrams, and embodying various tricks the programmer used to convert the
information you're working with--be it images, e-mail messages, movies, or
word processing documents--into the necklaces of bytes that are the only
things computers know how to work with. When we used actual telegraph
equipment (teletypes) or their higher-tech substitutes ("glass teletypes," or
the MS-DOS command line) to work with our computers, we were very close to the
bottom of that stack. When we use most modern operating systems, though, our
interaction with the machine is heavily mediated. Everything we do is
interpreted and translated time and again as it works its way down through all
of the metaphors and abstractions.

The Macintosh OS was a revolution in both the good and bad senses of that
word. Obviously it was true that command line interfaces were not for
everyone, and that it would be a good thing to make computers more accessible
to a less technical audience--if not for altruistic reasons, then because
those sorts of people constituted an incomparably vaster market. It was clear
the the Mac's engineers saw a whole new country stretching out before them;
you could almost hear them muttering, "Wow! We don't have to be bound by files
as linear streams of bytes anymore, vive la revolution, let's see how far we
can take this!" No command line interface was available on the Macintosh; you
talked to it with the mouse, or not at all. This was a statement of sorts, a
credential of revolutionary purity. It seemed that the designers of the Mac
intended to sweep Command Line Interfaces into the dustbin of history.

My own personal love affair with the Macintosh began in the spring of 1984 in
a computer store in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when a friend of mine--coincidentally,
the son of the MGB owner--showed me a Macintosh running MacPaint, the
revolutionary drawing program. It ended in July of 1995 when I tried to save a
big important file on my Macintosh Powerbook and instead instead of doing so,
it annihilated the data so thoroughly that two different disk crash utility
programs were unable to find any trace that it had ever existed. During the
intervening ten years, I had a passion for the MacOS that seemed righteous and
reasonable at the time but in retrospect strikes me as being exactly the same
sort of goofy infatuation that my friend's dad had with his car.

The introduction of the Mac triggered a sort of holy war in the computer
world. Were GUIs a brilliant design innovation that made computers more
human-centered and therefore accessible to the masses, leading us toward an
unprecedented revolution in human society, or an insulting bit of audiovisual
gimcrackery dreamed up by flaky Bay Area hacker types that stripped computers
of their power and flexibility and turned the noble and serious work of
computing into a childish video game?

This debate actually seems more interesting to me today than it did in the
mid-1980s. But people more or less stopped debating it when Microsoft endorsed
the idea of GUIs by coming out with the first Windows. At this point,
command-line partisans were relegated to the status of silly old grouches, and
a new conflict was touched off, between users of MacOS and users of Windows.

There was plenty to argue about. The first Macintoshes looked different from
other PCs even when they were turned off: they consisted of one box containing
both CPU (the part of the computer that does arithmetic on bits) and monitor
screen. This was billed, at the time, as a philosophical statement of sorts:
Apple wanted to make the personal computer into an appliance, like a toaster.
But it also reflected the purely technical demands of running a graphical user
interface. In a GUI machine, the chips that draw things on the screen have to
be integrated with the computer's central processing unit, or CPU, to a far
greater extent than is the case with command-line interfaces, which until
recently didn't even know that they weren't just talking to teletypes.

This distinction was of a technical and abstract nature, but it became clearer
when the machine crashed (it is commonly the case with technologies that you
can get the best insight about how they work by watching them fail). When
everything went to hell and the CPU began spewing out random bits, the result,
on a CLI machine, was lines and lines of perfectly formed but random
characters on the screen--known to cognoscenti as "going Cyrillic." But to the
MacOS, the screen was not a teletype, but a place to put graphics; the image
on the screen was a bitmap, a literal rendering of the contents of a
particular portion of the computer's memory. When the computer crashed and
wrote gibberish into the bitmap, the result was something that looked vaguely
like static on a broken television set--a "snow crash."

And even after the introduction of Windows, the underlying differences
endured; when a Windows machine got into trouble, the old command-line
interface would fall down over the GUI like an asbestos fire curtain sealing
off the proscenium of a burning opera. When a Macintosh got into trouble it
presented you with a cartoon of a bomb, which was funny the first time you saw

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

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,


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

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

These aesthetic gaffes give one an almost uncontrollable urge to make fun of
Microsoft, but again, it is all beside the point--if Microsoft had done focus
group testing of possible alternative graphics, they probably would have found
that the average mid-level office worker associated fountain pens with effete
upper management toffs and was more comfortable with ballpoints. Likewise, the
regular guys, the balding dads of the world who probably bear the brunt of
setting up and maintaining home computers, can probably relate better to a
picture of a clawhammer--while perhaps harboring fantasies of taking a real
one to their balky computers.

This is the only way I can explain certain peculiar facts about the current
market for operating systems, such as that ninety percent of all customers
continue to buy station wagons off the Microsoft lot while free tanks are
there for the taking, right across the street.

A string of ones and zeroes was not a difficult thing for Bill Gates to
distribute, one he'd thought of the idea. The hard part was selling
it--reassuring customers that they were actually getting something in return
for their money.

Anyone who has ever bought a piece of software in a store has had the
curiously deflating experience of taking the bright shrink-wrapped box home,
tearing it open, finding that it's 95 percent air, throwing away all the
little cards, party favors, and bits of trash, and loading the disk into the
computer. The end result (after you've lost the disk) is nothing except some
images on a computer screen, and some capabilities that weren't there before.
Sometimes you don't even have that--you have a string of error messages
instead. But your money is definitely gone. Now we are almost accustomed to
this, but twenty years ago it was a very dicey business proposition. Bill
Gates made it work anyway. He didn't make it work by selling the best software
or offering the cheapest price. Instead he somehow got people to believe that
they were receiving something in exchange for their money.

The streets of every city in the world are filled with those hulking, rattling
station wagons. Anyone who doesn't own one feels a little weird, and wonders,
in spite of himself, whether it might not be time to cease resistance and buy
one; anyone who does, feels confident that he has acquired some meaningful
possession, even on those days when the vehicle is up on a lift in an auto
repair shop.

All of this is perfectly congruent with membership in the bourgeoisie, which
is as much a mental, as a material state. And it explains why Microsoft is
regularly attacked, on the Net, from both sides. People who are inclined to
feel poor and oppressed construe everything Microsoft does as some sinister
Orwellian plot. People who like to think of themselves as intelligent and
informed technology users are driven crazy by the clunkiness of Windows.

Nothing is more annoying to sophisticated people to see someone who is rich
enough to know better being tacky--unless it is to realize, a moment later,
that they probably know they are tacky and they simply don't care and they are
going to go on being tacky, and rich, and happy, forever. Microsoft therefore
bears the same relationship to the Silicon Valley elite as the Beverly
Hillbillies did to their fussy banker, Mr. Drysdale--who is irritated not so
much by the fact that the Clampetts moved to his neighborhood as by the
knowledge that, when Jethro is seventy years old, he's still going to be
talking like a hillbilly and wearing bib overalls, and he's still going to be
a lot richer than Mr. Drysdale.

Even the hardware that Windows ran on, when compared to the machines put out
by Apple, looked like white-trash stuff, and still mostly does. The reason was
that Apple was and is a hardware company, while Microsoft was and is a
software company. Apple therefore had a monopoly on hardware that could run
MacOS, whereas Windows-compatible hardware came out of a free market. The free
market seems to have decided that people will not pay for cool-looking
computers; PC hardware makers who hire designers to make their stuff look
distinctive get their clocks cleaned by Taiwanese clone makers punching out
boxes that look as if they belong on cinderblocks in front of someone's
trailer. But Apple could make their hardware as pretty as they wanted to and
simply pass the higher prices on to their besotted consumers, like me. Only
last week (I am writing this sentence in early Jan. 1999) the technology
sections of all the newspapers were filled with adulatory press coverage of
how Apple had released the iMac in several happenin' new colors like Blueberry
and Tangerine.

Apple has always insisted on having a hardware monopoly, except for a brief
period in the mid-1990s when they allowed clone-makers to compete with them,
before subsequently putting them out of business. Macintosh hardware was,
consequently, expensive. You didn't open it up and fool around with it because
doing so would void the warranty. In fact the first Mac was specifically
designed to be difficult to open--you needed a kit of exotic tools, which you
could buy through little ads that began to appear in the back pages of
magazines a few months after the Mac came out on the market. These ads always
had a certain disreputable air about them, like pitches for lock-picking tools
in the backs of lurid detective magazines.

This monopolistic policy can be explained in at least three different ways.

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

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 rebels?

It is indeed the same company, and the fact that they have been able to plant
this image of themselves as creative and rebellious free-thinkers in the minds
of so many intelligent and media-hardened skeptics really gives one pause. It
is testimony to the insidious power of expensive slick ad campaigns and,
perhaps, to a certain amount of wishful thinking in the minds of people who
fall for them. It also raises the question of why Microsoft is so bad at PR,
when the history of Apple demonstrates that, by writing large checks to good
ad agencies, you can plant a corporate image in the minds of intelligent
people that is completely at odds with reality. (The answer, for people who
don't like Damoclean questions, is that since Microsoft has won the hearts and
minds of the silent majority--the bourgeoisie--they don't give a damn about
having a slick image, any more then Dick Nixon did. "I want to believe,"--the
mantra that Fox Mulder has pinned to his office wall in The X-Files--applies
in different ways to these two companies; Mac partisans want to believe in the
image of Apple purveyed in those ads, and in the notion that Macs are somehow
fundamentally different from other computers, while Windows people want to
believe that they are getting something for their money, engaging in a
respectable business transaction).

In any event, as of 1987, both MacOS and Windows were out on the market,
running on hardware platforms that were radically different from each
other--not only in the sense that MacOS used Motorola CPU chips while Windows
used Intel, but in the sense--then overlooked, but in the long run, vastly
more significant--that the Apple hardware business was a rigid monopoly and
the Windows side was a churning free-for-all.

But the full ramifications of this did not become clear until very
recently--in fact, they are still unfolding, in remarkably strange ways, as
I'll explain when we get to Linux. The upshot is that millions of people got
accustomed to using GUIs in one form or another. By doing so, they made
Apple/Microsoft a lot of money. The fortunes of many people have become bound
up with the ability of these companies to continue selling products whose
salability is very much open to question.


When Gates and Allen invented the idea of selling software, they ran into
criticism from both hackers and sober-sided businesspeople. Hackers understood
that software was just information, and objected to the idea of selling it.
These objections were partly moral. The hackers were coming out of the
scientific and academic world where it is imperative to make the results of
one's work freely available to the public. They were also partly practical;
how can you sell something that can be easily copied? Businesspeople, who are
polar opposites of hackers in so many ways, had objections of their own.
Accustomed to selling toasters and insurance policies, they naturally had a
difficult time understanding how a long collection of ones and zeroes could
constitute a salable product.

Obviously Microsoft prevailed over these objections, and so did Apple. But the
objections still exist. The most hackerish of all the hackers, the Ur-hacker
as it were, was and is Richard Stallman, who became so annoyed with the evil
practice of selling software that, in 1984 (the same year that the Macintosh
went on sale) he went off and founded something called the Free Software
Foundation, which commenced work on something called GNU. Gnu is an acronym
for Gnu's Not Unix, but this is a joke in more ways than one, because GNU most
certainly IS Unix,. Because of trademark concerns ("Unix" is trademarked by
AT&T) they simply could not claim that it was Unix, and so, just to be extra
safe, they claimed that it wasn't. Notwithstanding the incomparable talent and
drive possessed by Mr. Stallman and other GNU adherents, their project to
build a free Unix to compete against Microsoft and Apple's OSes was a little
bit like trying to dig a subway system with a teaspoon. Until, that is, the
advent of Linux, which I will get to later.

But the basic idea of re-creating an operating system from scratch was
perfectly sound and completely doable. It has been done many times. It is
inherent in the very nature of operating systems.

Operating systems are not strictly necessary. There is no reason why a
sufficiently dedicated coder could not start from nothing with every project
and write fresh code to handle such basic, low-level operations as controlling
the read/write heads on the disk drives and lighting up pixels on the screen.
The very first computers had to be programmed in this way. But since nearly
every program needs to carry out those same basic operations, this approach
would lead to vast duplication of effort.

Nothing is more disagreeable to the hacker than duplication of effort. The
first and most important mental habit that people develop when they learn how
to write computer programs is to generalize, generalize, generalize. To make
their code as modular and flexible as possible, breaking large problems down
into small subroutines that can be used over and over again in different
contexts. Consequently, the development of operating systems, despite being
technically unnecessary, was inevitable. Because at its heart, an operating
system is nothing more than a library containing the most commonly used code,
written once (and hopefully written well) and then made available to every
coder who needs it.

So a proprietary, closed, secret operating system is a contradiction in terms.
It goes against the whole point of having an operating system. And it is
impossible to keep them secret anyway. The source code--the original lines of
text written by the programmers--can be kept secret. But an OS as a whole is a
collection of small subroutines that do very specific, very clearly defined
jobs. Exactly what those subroutines do has to be made public, quite
explicitly and exactly, or else the OS is completely useless to programmers;
they can't make use of those subroutines if they don't have a complete and
perfect understanding of what the subroutines do.

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

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

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

Accordingly, most of the remainder of this essay will be about those two


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

In your high school geology class you probably were taught that all life on
earth exists in a paper-thin shell called the biosphere, which is trapped
between thousands of miles of dead rock underfoot, and cold dead radioactive
empty space above. Companies that sell OSes exist in a sort of technosphere.
Underneath is technology that has already become free. Above is technology
that has yet to be developed, or that is too crazy and speculative to be
productized just yet. Like the Earth's biosphere, the technosphere is very
thin compared to what is above and what is below.

But it moves a lot faster. In various parts of our world, it is possible to go
and visit rich fossil beds where skeleton lies piled upon skeleton, recent
ones on top and more ancient ones below. In theory they go all the way back to
the first single-celled organisms. And if you use your imagination a bit, you
can understand that, if you hang around long enough, you'll become fossilized
there too, and in time some more advanced organism will become fossilized on
top of you.

The fossil record--the La Brea Tar Pit--of software technology is the
Internet. Anything that shows up there is free for the taking (possibly
illegal, but free). Executives at companies like Microsoft must get used to
the experience--unthinkable in other industries--of throwing millions of
dollars into the development of new technologies, such as Web browsers, and
then seeing the same or equivalent software show up on the Internet two years,
or a year, or even just a few months, later.

By continuing to develop new technologies and add features onto their products
they can keep one step ahead of the fossilization process, but on certain days
they must feel like mammoths caught at La Brea, using all their energies to
pull their feet, over and over again, out of the sucking hot tar that wants to
cover and envelop them.

Survival in this biosphere demands sharp tusks and heavy, stomping feet at one
end of the organization, and Microsoft famously has those. But trampling the
other mammoths into the tar can only keep you alive for so long. The danger is
that in their obsession with staying out of the fossil beds, these companies
will forget about what lies above the biosphere: the realm of new technology.
In other words, they must hang onto their primitive weapons and crude
competitive instincts, but also evolve powerful brains. This appears to be
what Microsoft is doing with its research division, which has been hiring
smart people right and left (Here I should mention that although I know, and
socialize with, several people in that company's research division, we never
talk about business issues and I have little to no idea what the hell they are
up to. I have learned much more about Microsoft by using the Linux operating
system than I ever would have done by using Windows).

Never mind how Microsoft used to make money; today, it is making its money on
a kind of temporal arbitrage. "Arbitrage," in the usual sense, means to make
money by taking advantage of differences in the price of something between
different markets. It is spatial, in other words, and hinges on the
arbitrageur knowing what is going on simultaneously in different places.
Microsoft is making money by taking advantage of differences in the price of
technology in different times. Temporal arbitrage, if I may coin a phrase,
hinges on the arbitrageur knowing what technologies people will pay money for
next year, and how soon afterwards those same technologies will become free.
What spatial and temporal arbitrage have in common is that both hinge on the
arbitrageur's being extremely well-informed; one about price gradients across
space at a given time, and the other about price gradients over time in a
given place.

So Apple/Microsoft shower new features upon their users almost daily, in the
hopes that a steady stream of genuine technical innovations, combined with the
"I want to believe" phenomenon, will prevent their customers from looking
across the road towards the cheaper and better OSes that are available to
them. The question is whether this makes sense in the long run. If Microsoft
is addicted to OSes as Apple is to hardware, then they will bet the whole farm
on their OSes, and tie all of their new applications and technologies to them.
Their continued survival will then depend on these two things: adding more
features to their OSes so that customers will not switch to the cheaper
alternatives, and maintaining the image that, in some mysterious way, gives
those customers the feeling that they are getting something for their money.

The latter is a truly strange and interesting cultural phenomenon.


A few years ago I walked into a grocery store somewhere and was presented with
the following tableau vivant: near the entrance a young couple were standing
in front of a large cosmetics display. The man was stolidly holding a shopping
basket between his hands while his mate raked blister-packs of makeup off the
display and piled them in. Since then I've always thought of that man as the
personification of an interesting human tendency: not only are we not offended
to be dazzled by manufactured images, but we like it. We practically insist on
it. We are eager to be complicit in our own dazzlement: to pay money for a
theme park ride, vote for a guy who's obviously lying to us, or stand there
holding the basket as it's filled up with cosmetics.

I was in Disney World recently, specifically the part of it called the Magic
Kingdom, walking up Main Street USA. This is a perfect gingerbready Victorian
small town that culminates in a Disney castle. It was very crowded; we
shuffled rather than walked. Directly in front of me was a man with a
camcorder. It was one of the new breed of camcorders where instead of peering
through a viewfinder you gaze at a flat-panel color screen about the size of a
playing card, which televises live coverage of whatever the camcorder is
seeing. He was holding the appliance close to his face, so that it obstructed
his view. Rather than go see a real small town for free, he had paid money to
see a pretend one, and rather than see it with the naked eye he was watching
it on television.

And rather than stay home and read a book, I was watching him.

Americans' preference for mediated experiences is obvious enough, and I'm not
going to keep pounding it into the ground. I'm not even going to make snotty
comments about it--after all, I was at Disney World as a paying customer. But
it clearly relates to the colossal success of GUIs and so I have to talk about
it some. Disney does mediated experiences better than anyone. If they
understood what OSes are, and why people use them, they could crush Microsoft
in a year or two.

In the part of Disney World called the Animal Kingdom there is a new
attraction, slated to open in March 1999, called the Maharajah Jungle Trek. It
was open for sneak previews when I was there. This is a complete
stone-by-stone reproduction of a hypothetical ruin in the jungles of India.
According to its backstory, it was built by a local rajah in the 16th Century
as a game reserve. He would go there with his princely guests to hunt Bengal
tigers. As time went on it fell into disrepair and the tigers and monkeys took
it over; eventually, around the time of India's independence, it became a
government wildlife reserve, now open to visitors.

The place looks more like what I have just described than any actual building
you might find in India. All the stones in the broken walls are weathered as
if monsoon rains had been trickling down them for centuries, the paint on the
gorgeous murals is flaked and faded just so, and Bengal tigers loll amid
stumps of broken columns. Where modern repairs have been made to the ancient
structure, they've been done, not as Disney's engineers would do them, but as
thrifty Indian janitors would--with hunks of bamboo and rust-spotted hunks of
rebar. The rust is painted on, or course, and protected from real rust by a
plastic clear-coat, but you can't tell unless you get down on your knees.

In one place you walk along a stone wall with a series of old pitted friezes
carved into it. One end of the wall has broken off and settled into the earth,
perhaps because of some long-forgotten earthquake, and so a broad jagged crack
runs across a panel or two, but the story is still readable: first, primordial
chaos leads to a flourishing of many animal species. Next, we see the Tree of
Life surrounded by diverse animals. This is an obvious allusion (or, in
showbiz lingo, a tie-in) to the gigantic Tree of Life that dominates the
center of Disney's Animal Kingdom just as the Castle dominates the Magic
Kingdom or the Sphere does Epcot. But it's rendered in historically correct
style and could probably fool anyone who didn't have a Ph.D. in Indian art

The next panel shows a mustachioed H. sapiens chopping down the Tree of Life
with a scimitar, and the animals fleeing every which way. The one after that
shows the misguided human getting walloped by a tidal wave, part of a
latter-day Deluge presumably brought on by his stupidity.

The final panel, then, portrays the Sapling of Life beginning to grow back,
but now Man has ditched the edged weapon and joined the other animals in
standing around to adore and praise it.

It is, in other words, a prophecy of the Bottleneck: the scenario, commonly
espoused among modern-day environmentalists, that the world faces an upcoming
period of grave ecological tribulations that will last for a few decades or
centuries and end when we find a new harmonious modus vivendi with Nature.

Taken as a whole the frieze is a pretty brilliant piece of work. Obviously
it's not an ancient Indian ruin, and some person or people now living deserve
credit for it. But there are no signatures on the Maharajah's game reserve at
Disney World. There are no signatures on anything, because it would ruin the
whole effect to have long strings of production credits dangling from every
custom-worn brick, as they do from Hollywood movies.

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

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

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 thing!

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

And not only do these people feel some responsibility to their own children,
but to the country as a whole. Some of the upper class are vile and cynical,
of course, but many spend at least part of their time fretting about what
direction the country is going in, and what responsibilities they have. And so
issues that are important to book-reading intellectuals, such as global
environmental collapse, eventually percolate through the porous buffer of mass
culture and show up as ancient Hindu ruins in Orlando.

You may be asking: what the hell does all this have to do with operating
systems? As I've explained, there is no way to explain the domination of the
OS market by Apple/Microsoft without looking to cultural explanations, and so
I can't get anywhere, in this essay, without first letting you know where I'm
coming from vis-a-vis contemporary culture.

Contemporary culture is a two-tiered system, like the Morlocks and the Eloi in
H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, except that it's been turned upside down. In
The Time Machine the Eloi were an effete upper class, supported by lots of
subterranean Morlocks who kept the technological wheels turning. But in our
world it's the other way round. The Morlocks are in the minority, and they are
running the show, because they understand how everything works. The much more
numerous Eloi learn everything they know from being steeped from birth in
electronic media directed and controlled by book-reading Morlocks. So many
ignorant people could be dangerous if they got pointed in the wrong direction,
and so we've evolved a popular culture that is (a) almost unbelievably
infectious and (b) neuters every person who gets infected by it, by rendering
them unwilling to make judgments and incapable of taking stands.

Morlocks, who have the energy and intelligence to comprehend details, go out
and master complex subjects and produce Disney-like Sensorial Interfaces so
that Eloi can get the gist without having to strain their minds or endure
boredom. Those Morlocks will go to India and tediously explore a hundred
ruins, then come home and built sanitary bug-free versions: highlight films,
as it were. This costs a lot, because Morlocks insist on good coffee and
first-class airline tickets, but that's no problem because Eloi like to be
dazzled and will gladly pay for it all.

Now I realize that most of this probably sounds snide and bitter to the point
of absurdity: your basic snotty intellectual throwing a tantrum about those
unlettered philistines. As if I were a self-styled Moses, coming down from the
mountain all alone, carrying the stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments
carved in immutable stone--the original command-line interface--and blowing
his stack at the weak, unenlightened Hebrews worshipping images. Not only
that, but it sounds like I'm pumping some sort of conspiracy theory.

But that is not where I'm going with this. The situation I describe, here,
could be bad, but doesn't have to be bad and isn't necessarily 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.


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"
is used.

The overarching concept of the MacOS was the "desktop metaphor" and it
subsumed any number of lesser (and frequently conflicting, or at least mixed)
metaphors. Under a GUI, a file (frequently called "document") is metaphrased
as a window on the screen (which is called a "desktop"). The window is almost
always too small to contain the document and so you "move around," or, more
pretentiously, "navigate" in the document by "clicking and dragging" the
"thumb" on the "scroll bar." When you "type" (using a keyboard) or "draw"
(using a "mouse") into the "window" or use pull-down "menus" and "dialog
boxes" to manipulate its contents, the results of your labors get stored (at
least in theory) in a "file," and later you can pull the same information back
up into another "window." When you don't want it anymore, you "drag" it into
the "trash."

There is massively promiscuous metaphor-mixing going on here, and I could
deconstruct it 'til the cows come home, but I won't. Consider only one word:
"document." When we document something in the real world, we make fixed,
permanent, immutable records of it. But computer documents are volatile,
ephemeral constellations of data. Sometimes (as when you've just opened or
saved them) the document as portrayed in the window is identical to what is
stored, under the same name, in a file on the disk, but other times (as when
you have made changes without saving them) it is completely different. In any
case, every time you hit "Save" you annihilate the previous version of the
"document" and replace it with whatever happens to be in the window at the
moment. So even the word "save" is being used in a sense that is grotesquely
misleading---"destroy one version, save another" would be more accurate.

Anyone who uses a word processor for very long inevitably has the experience
of putting hours of work into a long document and then losing it because the
computer crashes or the power goes out. Until the moment that it disappears
from the screen, the document seems every bit as solid and real as if it had
been typed out in ink on paper. But in the next moment, without warning, it is
completely and irretrievably gone, as if it had never existed. The user is
left with a feeling of disorientation (to say nothing of annoyance) stemming
from a kind of metaphor shear--you realize that you've been living and
thinking inside of a metaphor that is essentially bogus.

So GUIs use metaphors to make computing easier, but they are bad metaphors.
Learning to use them is essentially a word game, a process of learning new
definitions of words like "window" and "document" and "save" that are
different from, and in many cases almost diametrically opposed to, the old.
Somewhat improbably, this has worked very well, at least from a commercial
standpoint, which is to say that Apple/Microsoft have made a lot of money off
of it. All of the other modern operating systems have learned that in order to
be accepted by users they must conceal their underlying gutwork beneath the
same sort of spackle. This has some advantages: if you know how to use one GUI
operating system, you can probably work out how to use any other in a few
minutes. Everything works a little differently, like European plumbing--but
with some fiddling around, you can type a memo or surf the web.

Most people who shop for OSes (if they bother to shop at all) are comparing
not the underlying functions but the superficial look and feel. The average
buyer of an OS is not really paying for, and is not especially interested in,
the low-level code that allocates memory or writes bytes onto the disk. What
we're really buying is a system of metaphors. And--much more important--what
we're buying into is the underlying assumption that metaphors are a good way
to deal with the world.

Recently a lot of new hardware has become available that gives computers
numerous interesting ways of affecting the real world: making paper spew out
of printers, causing words to appear on screens thousands of miles away,
shooting beams of radiation through cancer patients, creating realistic moving
pictures of the Titanic. Windows is now used as an OS for cash registers and
bank tellers' terminals. My satellite TV system uses a sort of GUI to change
channels and show program guides. Modern cellular telephones have a crude GUI
built into a tiny LCD screen. Even Legos now have a GUI: you can buy a Lego
set called Mindstorms that enables you to build little Lego robots and program
them through a GUI on your computer.

So we are now asking the GUI to do a lot more than serve as a glorified
typewriter. Now we want to become a generalized tool for dealing with reality.
This has become a bonanza for companies that make a living out of bringing new
technology to the mass market.

Obviously you cannot sell a complicated technological system to people without
some sort of interface that enables them to use it. The internal combustion
engine was a technological marvel in its day, but useless as a consumer good
until a clutch, transmission, steering wheel and throttle were connected to
it. That odd collection of gizmos, which survives to this day in every car on
the road, made up what we would today call a user interface. But if cars had
been invented after Macintoshes, carmakers would not have bothered to gin up
all of these arcane devices. We would have a computer screen instead of a
dashboard, and a mouse (or at best a joystick) instead of a steering wheel,
and we'd shift gears by pulling down a menu:

PARK --- REVERSE --- NEUTRAL ---- 3 2 1 --- Help...

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

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

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

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
of Unix.

In other words, the first thing that Apple's hackers had done when they'd got
the MacOS up and running--probably even before they'd gotten it up and
running--was to re-create the Unix interface, so that they would be able to
get some useful work done. At the time, I simply couldn't get my mind around
this, but: as far as Apple's hackers were concerned, the Mac's vaunted
Graphical User Interface was an impediment, something to be circumvented
before the little toaster even came out onto the market.

Even before my Powerbook crashed and obliterated my big file in July 1995,
there had been danger signs. An old college buddy of mine, who starts and runs
high-tech companies in Boston, had developed a commercial product using
Macintoshes as the front end. Basically the Macs were high-performance
graphics terminals, chosen for their sweet user interface, giving users access
to a large database of graphical information stored on a network of much more
powerful, but less user-friendly, computers. This fellow was the second person
who turned me on to Macintoshes, by the way, and through the mid-1980's we had
shared the thrill of being high-tech cognoscenti, using superior Apple
technology in a world of DOS-using knuckleheads. Early versions of my friend's
system had worked well, he told me, but when several machines joined the
network, mysterious crashes began to occur; sometimes the whole network would
just freeze. It was one of those bugs that could not be reproduced easily.
Finally they figured out that these network crashes were triggered whenever a
user, scanning the menus for a particular item, held down the mouse button for
more than a couple of seconds.

Fundamentally, the MacOS could only do one thing at a time. Drawing a menu on
the screen is one thing. So when a menu was pulled down, the Macintosh was not
capable of doing anything else until that indecisive user released the button.

This is not such a bad thing in a single-user, single-process machine
(although it's a fairly bad thing), but it's no good in a machine that is on a
network, because being on a network implies some kind of continual low-level
interaction with other machines. By failing to respond to the network, the Mac
caused a network-wide crash.

In order to work with other computers, and with networks, and with various
different types of hardware, an OS must be incomparably more complicated and
powerful than either MS-DOS or the original MacOS. The only way of connecting
to the Internet that's worth taking seriously is PPP, the Point-to-Point
Protocol, which (never mind the details) makes your computer--temporarily--a
full-fledged member of the Global Internet, with its own unique address, and
various privileges, powers, and responsibilities appertaining thereunto.
Technically it means your machine is running the TCP/IP protocol, which, to
make a long story short, revolves around sending packets of data back and
forth, in no particular order, and at unpredictable times, according to a
clever and elegant set of rules. But sending a packet of data is one thing,
and so an OS that can only do one thing at a time cannot simultaneously be
part of the Internet and do anything else. When TCP/IP was invented, running
it was an honor reserved for Serious Computers--mainframes and high-powered
minicomputers used in technical and commercial settings--and so the protocol
is engineered around the assumption that every computer using it is a serious
machine, capable of doing many things at once. Not to put too fine a point on
it, a Unix machine. Neither MacOS nor MS-DOS was originally built with that in
mind, and so when the Internet got hot, radical changes had to be made.

When my Powerbook broke my heart, and when Word stopped recognizing my old
files, I jumped to Unix. The obvious alternative to MacOS would have been
Windows. I didn't really have anything against Microsoft, or Windows. But it
was pretty obvious, now, that old PC operating systems were overreaching, and
showing the strain, and, perhaps, were best avoided until they had learned to
walk and chew gum at the same time.

The changeover took place on a particular day in the summer of 1995. I had
been San Francisco for a couple of weeks, using my PowerBook to work on a
document. The document was too big to fit onto a single floppy, and so I
hadn't made a backup since leaving home. The PowerBook crashed and wiped out
the entire file.

It happened just as I was on my way out the door to visit a company called
Electric Communities, which in those days was in Los Altos. I took my
PowerBook with me. My friends at Electric Communities were Mac users who had
all sorts of utility software for unerasing files and recovering from disk
crashes, and I was certain I could get most of the file back.

As it turned out, two different Mac crash recovery utilities were unable to
find any trace that my file had ever existed. It was completely and
systematically wiped out. We went through that hard disk block by block and
found disjointed fragments of countless old, discarded, forgotten files, but
none of what I wanted. The metaphor shear was especially brutal that day. It
was sort of like watching the girl you've been in love with for ten years get
killed in a car wreck, and then attending her autopsy, and learning that
underneath the clothes and makeup she was just flesh and blood.

I must have been reeling around the offices of Electric Communities in some
kind of primal Jungian fugue, because at this moment three weirdly
synchronistic 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.


Unix has always lurked provocatively in the background of the operating system
wars, like the Russian Army. Most people know it only by reputation, and its
reputation, as the Dilbert cartoon suggests, is mixed. But everyone seems to
agree that if it could only get its act together and stop surrendering vast
tracts of rich agricultural land and hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war
to the onrushing invaders, it could stomp them (and all other opposition)

It is difficult to explain how Unix has earned this respect without going into
mind-smashing technical detail. Perhaps the gist of it can be explained by
telling a story about drills.

The Hole Hawg is a drill made by the Milwaukee Tool Company. If you look in a
typical hardware store you may find smaller Milwaukee drills but not the Hole
Hawg, which is too powerful and too expensive for homeowners. The Hole Hawg
does not have the pistol-like design of a cheap homeowner's drill. It is a
cube of solid metal with a handle sticking out of one face and a chuck mounted
in another. The cube contains a disconcertingly potent electric motor. You can
hold the handle and operate the trigger with your index finger, but unless you
are exceptionally strong you cannot control the weight of the Hole Hawg with
one hand; it is a two-hander all the way. In order to fight off the
counter-torque of the Hole Hawg you use a separate handle (provided), which
you screw into one side of the iron cube or the other depending on whether you
are using your left or right hand to operate the trigger. This handle is not a
sleek, ergonomically designed item as it would be in a homeowner's drill. It
is simply a foot-long chunk of regular galvanized pipe, threaded on one end,
with a black rubber handle on the other. If you lose it, you just go to the
local plumbing supply store and buy another chunk of pipe.

During the Eighties I did some construction work. One day, another worker
leaned a ladder against the outside of the building that we were putting up,
climbed up to the second-story level, and used the Hole Hawg to drill a hole
through the exterior wall. At some point, the drill bit caught in the wall.
The Hole Hawg, following its one and only imperative, kept going. It spun the
worker's body around like a rag doll, causing him to knock his own ladder
down. Fortunately he kept his grip on the Hole Hawg, which remained lodged in
the wall, and he simply dangled from it and shouted for help until someone
came along and reinstated the ladder.

I myself used a Hole Hawg to drill many holes through studs, which it did as a
blender chops cabbage. I also used it to cut a few six-inch-diameter holes
through an old lath-and-plaster ceiling. I chucked in a new hole saw, went up
to the second story, reached down between the newly installed floor joists,
and began to cut through the first-floor ceiling below. Where my homeowner's
drill had labored and whined to spin the huge bit around, and had stalled at
the slightest obstruction, the Hole Hawg rotated with the stupid consistency
of a spinning planet. When the hole saw seized up, the Hole Hawg spun itself
and me around, and crushed one of my hands between the steel pipe handle and a
joist, producing a few lacerations, each surrounded by a wide corona of deeply
bruised flesh. It also bent the hole saw itself, though not so badly that I
couldn't use it. After a few such run-ins, when I got ready to use the Hole
Hawg my heart actually began to pound with 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

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 systems seriously.


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

/usr /etc /var /bin /proc /boot /home /root /sbin /dev /lib /tmp

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

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

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 in Egypt.

You can suck Linux right out of the air, as it were, by downloading the right
files and putting them in the right places, but there probably are not more
than a few hundred people in the world who could create a functioning Linux
system in that way. What you really need is a distribution of Linux, which
means a prepackaged set of files. But distributions are a separate thing from
Linux per se.

Linux per se is not a specific set of ones and zeroes, but a self-organizing
Net subculture. The end result of its collective lucubrations is a vast body
of source code, almost all written in C (the dominant computer programming
language). "Source code" just means a computer program as typed in and edited
by some hacker. If it's in C, the file name will probably have .c or .cpp on
the end of it, depending on which dialect was used; if it's in some other
language it will have some other suffix. Frequently these sorts of files can
be found in a directory with the name /src which is the hacker's Hebraic
abbreviation of "source."

Source files are useless to your computer, and of little interest to most
users, but they are of gigantic cultural and political significance, because
Microsoft and Apple keep them secret while Linux makes them public. They are
the family jewels. They are the sort of thing that in Hollywood thrillers is
used as a McGuffin: the plutonium bomb core, the top-secret blueprints, the
suitcase of bearer bonds, the reel of microfilm. If the source files for
Windows or MacOS were made public on the Net, then those OSes would become
free, like Linux--only not as good, because no one would be around to fix bugs
and answer questions. Linux is "open source" software meaning, simply, that
anyone can get copies of its source code files.

Your computer doesn't want source code any more than you do; it wants object
code. Object code files typically have the suffix .o and are unreadable all
but a few, highly strange humans, because they consist of ones and zeroes.
Accordingly, this sort of file commonly shows up in a directory with the name
/bin, for "binary."

Source files are simply ASCII text files. ASCII denotes a particular way of
encoding letters into bit patterns. In an ASCII file, each character has eight
bits all to itself. This creates a potential "alphabet" of 256 distinct
characters, in that eight binary digits can form that many unique patterns. In
practice, of course, we tend to limit ourselves to the familiar letters and
digits. The bit-patterns used to represent those letters and digits are the
same ones that were physically punched into the paper tape by my high school
teletype, which in turn were the same one used by the telegraph industry for
decades previously. ASCII text files, in other words, are telegrams, and as
such they have no typographical frills. But for the same reason they are
eternal, because the code never changes, and universal, because every text
editing and word processing software ever written knows about this code.

Therefore just about any software can be used to create, edit, and read source
code files. Object code files, then, are created from these source files by a
piece of software called a compiler, and forged into a working application by
another piece of software called a linker.

The triad of editor, compiler, and linker, taken together, form the core of a
software development system. Now, it is possible to spend a lot of money on
shrink-wrapped development systems with lovely graphical user interfaces and
various ergonomic enhancements. In some cases it might even be a good and
reasonable way to spend money. But on this side of the road, as it were, the
very best software is usually the free stuff. Editor, compiler and linker are
to hackers what ponies, stirrups, and archery sets were to the Mongols.
Hackers live in the saddle, and hack on their own tools even while they are
using them to create new applications. It is quite inconceivable that superior
hacking tools could have been created from a blank sheet of paper by product
engineers. Even if they are the brightest engineers in the world they are
simply outnumbered.

In the GNU/Linux world there are two major text editing programs: the
minimalist vi (known in some implementations as elvis) and the maximalist
emacs. I use emacs, which might be thought of as a thermonuclear word
processor. It was created by Richard Stallman; enough said. It is written in
Lisp, which is the only computer language that is beautiful. It is colossal,
and yet it only edits straight ASCII text files, which is to say, no fonts, no
boldface, no underlining. In other words, the engineer-hours that, in the case
of Microsoft Word, were devoted to features like mail merge, and the ability
to embed feature-length motion pictures in corporate memoranda, were, in the
case of emacs, focused with maniacal intensity on the deceptively
simple-seeming problem of editing text. If you are a professional
writer--i.e., if someone else is getting paid to worry about how your words
are formatted and printed--emacs outshines all other editing software in
approximately the same way that the noonday sun does the stars. It is not just
bigger and brighter; it simply makes everything else vanish. For page layout
and printing you can use TeX: a vast corpus of typesetting lore written in C
and also available on the Net for free.

I could say a lot about emacs and TeX, but right now I am trying to tell a
story about how to actually install Linux on your machine. The hard-core
survivalist approach would be to download an editor like emacs, and the GNU
Tools--the compiler and linker--which are polished and excellent to the same
degree as emacs. Equipped with these, one would be able to start downloading
ASCII source code files (/src) and compiling them into binary object code
files (/bin) that would run on the machine. But in order to even arrive at
this point--to get emacs running, for example--you have to have Linux actually
up and running on your machine. And even a minimal Linux operating system
requires thousands of binary files all acting in concert, and arranged and
linked together just so.

Several entities have therefore taken it upon themselves to create
"distributions" of Linux. If I may extend the Egypt analogy slightly, these
entities are a bit like tour guides who meet you at the airport, who speak
your language, and who help guide you through the initial culture shock. If
you are an Egyptian, of course, you see it the other way; tour guides exist to
keep brutish outlanders from traipsing through your mosques and asking you the
same questions over and over and over again.

Some of these tour guides are commercial organizations, such as Red 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

I use a distribution called Debian (the word is a contraction of "Deborah" and
"Ian") which is non-commercial. It is organized (or perhaps I should say "it
has organized itself") along the same lines as Linux in general, which is to
say that it consists of volunteers who collaborate over the Net, each
responsible for looking after a different chunk of the system. These people
have broken Linux down into a number of packages, which are compressed files
that can be downloaded to an already functioning Debian Linux system, then
opened up and unpacked using a free installer application. Of course, as such,
Debian has no commercial arm--no distribution mechanism. You can download all
Debian packages over the Net, but most people will want to have them on a
CD-ROM. Several different companies have taken it upon themselves to decoct
all of the current Debian packages onto CD-ROMs and then sell them. I buy mine
from Linux Systems Labs. The cost for a three-disc set, containing Debian in
its entirety, is less than three dollars. But (and this is an important
distinction) not a single penny of that three dollars is going to any of the
coders who created Linux, nor to the Debian packagers. It goes to Linux
Systems Labs and it pays, not for the software, or the packages, but for the
cost of stamping out the CD-ROMs.

Every Linux distribution embodies some more or less clever hack for
circumventing the normal boot process and causing your computer, when it is
turned on, to organize itself, not as a PC running Windows, but as a "host"
running Unix. This is slightly alarming the first time you see it, but
completely harmless. When a PC boots up, it goes through a little self-test
routine, taking an inventory of available disks and memory, and then begins
looking around for a disk to boot up from. In any normal Windows computer that
disk will be a hard drive. But if you have your system configured right, it
will look first for a floppy or CD-ROM disk, and boot from that if one is

Linux exploits this chink in the defenses. Your computer notices a bootable
disk in the floppy or CD-ROM drive, loads in some object code from that disk,
and blindly begins to execute it. But this is not Microsoft or Apple code,
this is Linux code, and so at this point your computer begins to behave very
differently from what you are accustomed to. Cryptic messages began to scroll
up the screen. If you had booted a commercial OS, you would, at this point, be
seeing a "Welcome to MacOS" cartoon, or a screen filled with clouds in a blue
sky, and a Windows logo. But under Linux you get a long telegram printed in
stark white letters on a black screen. There is no "welcome!" message. Most of
the telegram has the semi-inscrutable menace of graffiti tags.

Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev syslogd 1.3-3#17: restart. Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev
kernel: klogd 1.3-3, log source = /proc/kmsg started. Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev
kernel: Loaded 3535 symbols from /System.map. Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel:
Symbols match kernel version 2.0.30. Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: No module
symbols loaded. Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Intel MultiProcessor
Specification v1.4 Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: Virtual Wire compatibility
mode. Dec 14 15:04:15 theRev kernel: OEM ID: INTEL Product ID: 440FX APIC at:
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 #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 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[87]: Unable to open options
file /etc/diald/diald.options: No such file or directory Dec 15 11:58:09
theRev diald[87]: No device specified. You must have at least one device! Dec
15 11:58:09 theRev diald[87]: You must define a connector script (option
'connect'). Dec 15 11:58:09 theRev diald[87]: You must define the remote ip
address. Dec 15 11:58:09 theRev diald[87]: You must define the local ip
address. Dec 15 11:58:09 theRev diald[87]: Terminating due to damaged

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


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

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

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 I know.

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 submit@bugs.debian.org. 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

This is, in other words, another feature of the OS market that simply makes no
sense unless you view it in the context of culture. What Microsoft is selling
through Pay Per Incident isn't technical support so much as the continued
illusion that its customers are engaging in some kind of rational business
transaction. It is a sort of routine maintenance fee for the upkeep of the
fantasy. If people really wanted a solid OS they would use Linux, and if they
really wanted tech support they would find a way to get it; Microsoft's
customers want something else.

As of this writing (Jan. 1999), something like 32,000 bugs have been reported
to the Debian Linux bug database. Almost all of them have been fixed a long
time ago. There are twelve "critical" bugs still outstanding, of which the
oldest was posted 79 days ago. There are 20 outstanding "grave" bugs of which
the oldest is 1166 days old. There are 48 "important" bugs and hundreds of
"normal" and less important ones.

Likewise, BeOS (which I'll get to in a minute) has its own bug database
(http://www.be.com/developers/bugs/index.html) with its own classification
system, including such categories as "Not a Bug," "Acknowledged Feature," and
"Will Not Fix." Some of the "bugs" here are nothing more than Be hackers
blowing off steam, and are classified as "Input Acknowledged." For example, I
found one that was posted on December 30th, 1998. It's in the middle of a long
list of bugs, wedged between one entitled "Mouse working in very strange
fashion" and another called "Change of BView frame does not affect, if BView
not attached to a BWindow."

This one is entitled

R4: BeOS missing megalomaniacal figurehead to harness and focus developer rage

and it goes like this:


Be Status: Input Acknowledged BeOS Version: R3.2 Component: unknown

Full Description:

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


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

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

Accordingly, it was the case until recently that the people who wrote manuals
and created customer support websites for commercial OSes seemed to have been
barred, by their employers' legal or PR departments, from admitting, even
obliquely, that the software might contain bugs or that the interface might be
suffering from the blinking twelve problem. They couldn't address users'
actual difficulties. The manuals and websites were therefore useless, and
caused even technically self-assured users to wonder whether they were going
subtly insane.

When Apple engages in this sort of corporate behavior, one wants to believe
that they are really trying their best. We all want to give Apple the benefit
of the doubt, because mean old Bill Gates kicked the crap out of them, and
because they have good PR. But when Microsoft does it, one almost cannot help
becoming a paranoid conspiracist. Obviously they are hiding something from us!
And yet they are so powerful! They are trying to drive us crazy!

This approach to dealing with one's customers was straight out of the Central
European totalitarianism of the mid-Twentieth Century. The adjectives
"Kafkaesque" and "Orwellian" come to mind. It couldn't last, any more than the
Berlin Wall could, and so now Microsoft has a publicly available bug database.
It's called something else, and it takes a while to find it, but it's there.

They have, in other words, adapted to the two-tiered Eloi/Morlock structure of
technological society. If you're an Eloi you install Windows, follow the
instructions, hope for the best, and dumbly suffer when it breaks. If you're a
Morlock you go to the website, tell it that you are "advanced," find the bug
database, and get the truth straight from some anonymous Microsoft 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 believe.


Once the Linux machine has finished spitting out its jargonic opening
telegram, it prompts me to log in with a user name and a password. At this
point the machine is still running the command line interface, with white
letters on a black screen. There are no windows, menus, or buttons. It does
not respond to the mouse; it doesn't even know that the mouse is there. It is
still possible to run a lot of software at this point. Emacs, for example,
exists in both a CLI and a GUI version (actually there are two GUI versions,
reflecting some sort of doctrinal schism between Richard Stallman and some
hackers who got fed up with him). The same is true of many other Unix
programs. Many don't have a GUI at all, and many that do are capable of
running from the command line.

Of course, since my computer only has one monitor screen, I can only see one
command line, and so you might think that I could only interact with one
program at a time. But if I hold down the Alt key and then hit the F2 function
button at the top of my keyboard, I am presented with a fresh, blank, black
screen with a login prompt at the top of it. I can log in here and start some
other program, then hit Alt-F1 and go back to the first screen, which is still
doing whatever it was when I left it. Or I can do Alt-F3 and log in to a third
screen, or a fourth, or a fifth. On one of these screens I might be logged in
as myself, on another as root (the system administrator), on yet another I
might be logged on to some other computer over the Internet.

Each of these screens is called, in Unix-speak, a tty, which is an
abbreviation for teletype. So when I use my Linux system in this way I am
going right back to that small room at Ames High School where I first wrote
code twenty-five years ago, except that a tty is quieter and faster than a
teletype, and capable of running vastly superior software, such as emacs or
the GNU development tools.

It is easy (easy by Unix, not Apple/Microsoft standards) to configure a Linux
machine so that it will go directly into a GUI when you boot it up. This way,
you never see a tty screen at all. I still have mine boot into the
white-on-black teletype screen however, as a computational memento mori. It
used to be fashionable for a writer to keep a human skull on his desk as a
reminder that he was mortal, that all about him was vanity. The tty screen
reminds me that the same thing is true of slick user interfaces.

The X Windows System, which is the GUI of Unix, has to be capable of running
on hundreds of different video cards with different chipsets, amounts of
onboard memory, and motherboard buses. Likewise, there are hundreds of
different types of monitors on the new and used market, each with different
specifications, and so there are probably upwards of a million different
possible combinations of card and monitor. The only thing they all have in
common is that they all work in VGA mode, which is the old command-line screen
that you see for a few seconds when you launch Windows. So Linux always starts
in VGA, with a teletype interface, because at first it has no idea what sort
of hardware is attached to your computer. In order to get beyond the glass
teletype and into the GUI, you have to tell Linux exactly what kinds of
hardware you have. If you get it wrong, you'll get a blank screen at best, and
at worst you might actually destroy your monitor by feeding it signals it
can't handle.

When I started using Linux this had to be done by hand. I once spent the
better part of a month trying to get an oddball monitor to work for me, and
filled the better part of a composition book with increasingly desperate
scrawled notes. Nowadays, most Linux distributions ship with a program that
automatically scans the video card and self-configures the system, so getting
X Windows up and running is nearly as easy as installing an Apple/Microsoft
GUI. The crucial information goes into a file (an ASCII text file, naturally)
called XF86Config, which is worth looking at even if your distribution creates
it for you automatically. For most people it looks like meaningless cryptic
incantations, which is the whole point of looking at it. An Apple/Microsoft
system needs to have the same information in order to launch its GUI, but it's
apt to be deeply hidden somewhere, and it's probably in a file that can't even
be opened and read by a text editor. All of the important files that make
Linux systems work are right out in the open. They are always ASCII text
files, so you don't need special tools to read them. You can look at them any
time you want, which is good, and you can mess them up and render your system
totally dysfunctional, which is not so good.

At any rate, assuming that my XF86Config file is just so, I enter the command
"startx" to launch the X Windows System. The screen blanks out for a minute,
the monitor makes strange twitching noises, then reconstitutes itself as a
blank gray desktop with a mouse cursor in the middle. At the same time it is
launching a window manager. X Windows is pretty low-level software; it
provides the infrastructure for a GUI, and it's a heavy industrial
infrastructure. But it doesn't do windows. That's handled by another category
of application that sits atop X Windows, called a window manager. Several of
these are available, all free of course. The classic is twm (Tom's Window
Manager) but there is a smaller and supposedly more efficient variant of it
called fvwm, which is what I use. I have my eye on a completely different
window manager called Enlightenment, which may be the hippest single
technology product I have ever seen, in that (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

There are many good pieces of Unix software that do not have GUIs at all. This
might be because they were developed before X Windows was available, or
because the people who wrote them did not want to suffer through all the
hassle of creating a GUI, or because they simply do not need one. In any
event, those programs can be invoked by typing their names into the command
line of an xterm window. The whoami command, mentioned earlier, is a good
example. There is another called wc ("word count") which simply returns the
number of lines, words, and characters in a text file.

The ability to run these little utility programs on the command line is a
great virtue of Unix, and one that is unlikely to be duplicated by pure GUI
operating systems. The wc command, for example, is the sort of thing that is
easy to write with a command line interface. It probably does not consist of
more than a few lines of code, and a clever programmer could probably write it
in a single line. In compiled form it takes up just a few bytes of disk space.
But the code required to give the same program a graphical user interface
would probably run into hundreds or even thousands of lines, depending on how
fancy the programmer wanted to make it. Compiled into a runnable piece of
software, it would have a large overhead of GUI code. It would be slow to
launch and it would use up a lot of memory. This would simply not be worth the
effort, and so "wc" would never be written as an independent program at all.
Instead users would have to wait for a word count feature to appear in a
commercial software package.

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

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 use.

Sometimes, in other words, I just want to go to Disneyland.

The ideal OS for me would be one that had a well-designed GUI that was easy to
set up and use, but that included terminal windows where I could revert to the
command line interface, and run GNU software, when it made sense. A few years
ago, Be Inc. invented exactly that OS. It is called 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 suck?

Like an upgrade to an old building, cruft always seems like a good idea when
the first layers of it go on--just routine maintenance, sound prudent
management. This is especially true if (as it were) you never look into the
cellar, or behind the drywall. But if you are a hacker who spends all his time
looking at it from that point of view, cruft is fundamentally disgusting, and
you can't avoid wanting to go after it with a crowbar. Or, better yet, simply
walk out of the building--let the Leaning Tower of Pisa fall over--and go make
a new one THAT DOESN'T LEAN.

For a long time it was obvious to Apple, Microsoft, and their customers that
the first generation of GUI operating systems was doomed, and that they would
eventually need to be ditched and replaced with completely fresh ones. During
the late Eighties and early Nineties, Apple launched a few abortive efforts to
make fundamentally new post-Mac OSes such as Pink and Taligent. When those
efforts failed they launched a new project called Copland which also failed.
In 1997 they flirted with the idea of acquiring Be, but instead they acquired
Next, which has an OS called NextStep that is, in effect, a variant of Unix.
As these efforts went on, and on, and on, and failed and failed and failed,
Apple's engineers, who were among the best in the business, kept layering on
the cruft. They were gamely trying to turn the little toaster into a
multi-tasking, Internet-savvy machine, and did an amazingly good job of it for
a while--sort of like a movie hero running across a jungle river by hopping
across crocodiles' backs. But in the real world you eventually run out of
crocodiles, or step on a really smart one.

Speaking of which, Microsoft tackled the same problem in a considerably more
orderly way by creating a new OS called Windows NT, which is explicitly
intended to be a direct competitor of Unix. NT stands for "New Technology"
which might be read as an explicit rejection of cruft. And indeed, NT is
reputed to be a lot less crufty than what MacOS eventually turned into; at one
point the documentation needed to write code on the Mac filled something like
24 binders. Windows 95 was, and Windows 98 is, crufty because they have to be
backward-compatible with older Microsoft OSes. Linux deals with the cruft
problem in the same way that Eskimos supposedly dealt with senior citizens: if
you insist on using old versions of Linux software, you will sooner or later
find yourself drifting through the Bering Straits on a dwindling ice floe.
They can get away with this because most of the software is free, so it costs
nothing to download up-to-date versions, and because most Linux users are

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

The only real question about BeOS is whether or not it is doomed.

Of late, Be has responded to the tiresome accusation that they are doomed with
the assertion that BeOS is "a media operating system" made for media content
creators, and hence is not really in competition with Windows at all. This is
a little bit disingenuous. To go back to the car dealership analogy, it is
like the Batmobile dealer claiming that he is not really in competition with
the others because his car can go three times as fast as theirs and is also
capable of flying.

Be has an office in Paris, and, as mentioned, the conversation on Be mailing
lists has a strongly European flavor. At the same time they have made
strenuous efforts to find a niche in Japan, and Hitachi has recently begun
bundling BeOS with their PCs. So if I had to make wild guess I'd say that they
are playing Go while Microsoft is playing chess. They are staying clear, for
now, of Microsoft's overwhelmingly strong position in North America. They are
trying to get themselves established around the edges of the board, as it
were, in Europe and Japan, where people may be more open to alternative OSes,
or at least more hostile to Microsoft, than they are in the United 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,

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.


In his book The Life of the Cosmos, which everyone should read, Lee Smolin
gives the best description I've ever read of how our universe emerged from an
uncannily precise balancing of different fundamental constants. The mass of
the proton, the strength of gravity, the range of the weak nuclear force, and
a few dozen other fundamental constants completely determine what sort of
universe will emerge from a Big Bang. If these values had been even slightly
different, the universe would have been a vast ocean of tepid gas or a hot
knot of plasma or some other basically uninteresting thing--a dud, in other
words. The only way to get a universe that's not a dud--that has stars, heavy
elements, planets, and life--is to get the basic numbers just right. If there
were some machine, somewhere, that could spit out universes with randomly
chosen values for their fundamental constants, then for every universe like
ours it would produce 10^229 duds.

Though I haven't sat down and run the numbers on it, to me this seems
comparable to the probability of making a Unix computer do something useful by
logging into a tty and typing in command lines when you have forgotten all of
the little options and keywords. Every time your right pinky slams that ENTER
key, you are making another try. In some cases the operating system does
nothing. In other cases it wipes out all of your files. In most cases it just
gives you an error message. In other words, you get many duds. But sometimes,
if you have it all just right, the computer grinds away for a while and then
produces something like emacs. It actually generates complexity, which is
Smolin's criterion for interestingness.

Not only that, but it's beginning to look as if, once you get below a certain
size--way below the level of quarks, down into the realm of string theory--the
universe can't be described very well by physics as it has been practiced
since the days of Newton. If you look at a small enough scale, you see
processes that look almost computational in nature.

I think that the message is very clear here: somewhere outside of and beyond
our universe is an operating system, coded up over incalculable spans of time
by some kind of hacker-demiurge. The cosmic operating system uses a
command-line interface. It runs on something like a teletype, with lots of
noise and heat; punched-out bits flutter down into its hopper like drifting
stars. The demiurge sits at his teletype, pounding out one command line after
another, specifying the values of fundamental constants of physics:

universe -G 6.672e-11 -e 1.602e-19 -h 6.626e-34 -protonmass 1.673e-27....

and when he's finished typing out the command line, his right pinky hesitates
above the ENTER key for an aeon or two, wondering what's going to happen; then
down it comes--and the WHACK you hear is another Big Bang.

Now THAT is a cool operating system, and if such a thing were actually made
available on the Internet (for free, of course) every hacker in the world
would download it right away and then stay up all night long messing with it,
spitting out universes right and left. Most of them would be pretty dull
universes but some of them would be simply amazing. Because what those hackers
would be aiming for would be much more ambitious than a universe that had a
few stars and galaxies in it. Any run-of-the-mill hacker would be able to do
that. No, the way to gain a towering reputation on the Internet would be to
get so good at tweaking your command line that your universes would
spontaneously develop life. And once the way to do that became common
knowledge, those hackers would move on, trying to make their universes develop
the right kind of life, trying to find the one change in the Nth decimal place
of some physical constant that would give us an Earth in which, say, Hitler
had been accepted into art school after all, and had ended up his days as a
street artist with cranky political 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

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.