- Paperback: 160 pages
- Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks; First Edition edition (November 9, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0380815931
- ISBN-13: 978-0380815937
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.4 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (131 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #671,772 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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In the Beginning...was the Command Line Paperback – November 9, 1999
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Neal Stephenson, author of the sprawling and engaging Cryptonomicon, has written a manifesto that could be spoken by a character from that brilliant book. Primarily, In the Beginning ... Was the Command Line discusses the past and future of personal computer operating systems. "It is the fate of manufactured goods to slowly and gently depreciate as they get old," he writes, "but it is the fate of operating systems to become free." While others in the computer industry express similarly dogmatic statements, Stephenson charms the reader into his way of thinking, providing anecdotes and examples that turn the pages for you.
Stephenson is a techie, and he's writing for an audience of coders and hackers in Command Line. The idea for this essay began online, when a shortened version of it was posted on Slashdot.org. The book still holds some marks of an e-mail flame gone awry, and some tangents should have been edited to hone his formidable arguments. But unlike similar writers who also discuss technical topics, he doesn't write to exclude; readers who appreciate computing history (like Dealers of Lightning or Fire in the Valley) can easily step into this book.
Stephenson tackles many myths about industry giants in this volume, specifically Apple and Microsoft. By now, every newspaper reader has heard of Microsoft's overbearing business practices, but Stephenson cuts to the heart of new issues for the software giant with a finely sharpened steel blade. Apple fares only a little better as Stephenson (a former Mac user himself) highlights the early steps the company took to prepare for a monopoly within the computer market--and its surprise when this didn't materialize. Linux culture gets a thorough--but fair--skewering, and the strengths of BeOS are touted (although no operating system is nearly close enough to perfection in Stephenson's eyes).
As for the rest of us, who have gladly traded free will and an intellectual understanding of computers for a clutter-free, graphically pleasing interface, Stephenson has thoughts to offer as well. He fully understands the limits nonprogrammers feel in the face of technology (an example being the "blinking 12" problem when your VCR resets itself). Even so, within Command Line he convincingly encourages us as a society to examine the metaphors of technology--simplifications that aren't really much simpler--that we greedily accept. --Jennifer Buckendorff
From Publishers Weekly
After reading this galvanizing essay, first intended as a feature for Wired magazine but never published there, readers are unlikely to look at their laptops in quite the same mutely complacent way. Stephenson, author of the novel Cryptonomicon, delivers a spirited commentary on the aesthetics and cultural import of computer operating systems. It's less an archeology of early machines than a critique of what Stephenson feels is the inherent fuzziness of graphical user interfacesAthe readily intuitable "windows," "desktops" and "browsers" that we use to talk to our computers. Like Disney's distortion of complicated historical events, our operating systems, he argues, lull us into a reductive sense of reality. Instead of the visual metaphors handed to us by Apple and Microsoft, Stephenson advocates the purity of the command line interface, somewhat akin to the DOS prompt from which most people flee in a technophobic panic. Stephenson is an advocate of Linux, the hacker-friendly operating system distributed for free on the Internet, and of BeOS, a less-hyped paradigm for the bits-and-bytes future. Unlike a string of source code, this essay is user-friendlyAoccasionally to a fault. Stephenson's own set of extended metaphors can get a little hokey: Windows is a station wagon, while Macs are sleek Euro-sedans. And Unix is the Gilgamesh epic of the hacker subculture. Nonetheless, by pointing out how computers define who we are, Stephenson makes a strong case for elegance and intellectual freedom in computing. (Nov.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
Stephenson presents, first of all, a rather simplified version of the history of PC computing world and the operating systems that have helped define and advance (or impede) the development of the PC from something that only a geek could love to a ubiquitous near-appliance. His definition of what an operating system is matches what most programmers, using common sense, would call an operating system: a suite of low level tools that perform the mundane tasks of interpreting what an application wants to do to the physical realm of reading/writing memory, disk files, displaying graphics, etc. This is not a trivial point, as the current insistence by Microsoft that its operating system is inclusive of web browsers, audio/video players, and other application-level programs is a key item in its anti-trust defense. However, Stephenson bypasses the relevance of this in favor of defining the differences between the MacOS, Windows, UNIX, and BeOS. For this purpose he uses a highly useful (and sometimes funny) metaphor defining each OS as a car dealership, each of whom sells their type of product to a different type of customer.
One of his major points is the idea that an OS is a saleable product, even though in essence it is nothing but a long string of 1's and 0's, information only, and not a physical item, represents a paradigm shift, on the order of trying to sell a car's driving interface (steering wheel, brakes, etc) as a product separate from, and having intrinsic value in its own right, the car itself. Given the obvious nonsense of this separation in the case of the car, he makes the case that operating systems should all eventually be given away free, ala Linux, and that businesses that depend on OS income are treading a very dangerous path.
He shows a definite preference for those OSs that allow the user to 'get under the hood' and tweak its operating parameters, such as Linux, and includes a long discourse on the whole concept of simplified, pre-packaged interfaces as culturally defining/defined, including some good analogies with what Disney does to make complex, detailed subjects immediately comprehensible to Joe Six-Pack.
All of this makes for easy, enjoyable reading, whether you are a power user or just someone who wants to send e-mails. But his conclusions about which OS is best and the future direction of OS evolution is definitely skewed towards the power user, someone who is comfortable in dealing with all the inner complexities of computers and software. As such, he sometimes forgets that computers are a tool (even though he devotes a section to different levels of tools in terms of quality , power and user skill levels), of no use to the user except insofar as they provide something that user wants and needs, and it is that end result the user wants, at the absolute minimum of fuss on his part.
A thought provoking essay, whether you agree with him or not.
I can't go back and read/review this when it was first published. I wish I could, but I can't. I can only review it as I enjoyed it current day.
It is an argument to the strength of Stephenson's prose that a shallow, dated essay on GUIs and command line operating systems even gets 3 stars 5 years after being published. Analogy and whimsy are well-used by Mr. Stephenson here in discussing the different types of users and how they wish to interact with the machine. He makes a dry subject entertaining.
Unfortunately, this many years past publication the world has move greatly on. Yes the command line vs. GUI worldviews have not changed, but neither has the freeing of OS's happened either.
Additionally, beneath the whimsy and wordplay are only some nifty, but not fleshed out ideas almost laid down as truths. Stephenson needed to back up his ideas with some more evidence rather than thought experiment.
Despite those faults though, it is an enjoyable, but now purposeless, read.
As a computer person and programmer, I really enjoyed the content and writing style.