- Paperback: 160 pages
- Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (Nov. 9 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780380815937
- ISBN-13: 978-0380815937
- ASIN: 0380815931
- Product Dimensions: 13.3 x 0.9 x 20.3 cm
- Shipping Weight: 159 g
- Average Customer Review: 65 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #85,169 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
In the Beginning.was the Command Line Paperback – Nov 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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In the course of "Command Line," Stephenson briefly touches on the basics of programming before moving on to discuss the history of operating systems over the last twenty years. He looks at the main operating systems out there (specifically Mac, Windows, Linux, BeOS), how they evolved, and their attractions and advantages. His main points are that "it is the fate of operating systems to become free" and that Microsoft's commitment to maintaining its own closed operating system will cripple its broader software development activities, much in the way Apple was hurt by its insistence on producing its own hardware. Though not much is developed, there is a lot of interesting food for thought in these few pages.
Stephen works largely through metaphors, and "Command Line" is written for the layperson. Few people should have any difficulty getting through the book, even without computer experience. Amazon's insistence that the book was written "for an audience of coders and hackers" strikes me as bizarre. There is almost nothing technical in "Command Line," and what is technical (a brief discussion of the Linux file tree is the only topic that comes to mind) is not critical to understanding any of his points and arguments.
In addition to summarizing the history of operating systems, Stephenson also considers some related cultural topics, such as the significance of the graphical user interface as opposed to the command line. Although some of this was interesting, there were a few digressions I thought didn't work particularly well, and which I would have expected to be edited out (or at least significantly revised) before publishing.
Although "Command Line" was written five years ago (a long time in the computer world), its age does not damage it much (especially in the historical sections). If you're interested in the history of personal computing over the last twenty years, "In the Beginning... was the Command Line" is a quick read that can serve as an entertaining introduction. Although it doesn't have much substance, it still manages to make many interesting points. Unless you are a hard-core Stephenson fanatic, "Command Line" is probably not worth purchasing. Since it was originally nothing more than a post on the Internet, it can still easily be found online.
HTML files are just telegrams. The introduction of the Mac started a sort of holy war in the computer world. Even after the introduction of Windows, the underlying differences remained. Microsoft's disregard of aesthetics was discussed at length by Mac users.
Some people think Microsoft is too powerful, others that it is too tacky. Bill Gates did not make Microsoft work by selling the best software or by selling it at the cheapest price. Apple is wedded to harware, Microsoft to its OS, operating system. Perhaps both should jetison these areas. Microsoft is more successful in software applications. The operating systems market is a death trap.
Americans have a preference for mediated experience. Contemporary culture is a two-tiered system. A minority of people run the show. The minority understands how everything works. The OS has become an intellectual labor-saving device. One should, however, be wary. The GUIs, graphic user interfaces, use bad metaphors. For instance, the document is lost forever when the computer crashes. The GUI has become a sort of meta interface for household items and everyday thinking.
Apple created a machine that discouraged hacking. The price had fallen drastically for IBM compatible PCs by the mid nineties, and they could be hacked. Stephenson found that Unix was hard to learn. A sort of acculturation takes place. After the crash of his powerbook and the loss of a large and important file, he sought to use Linux. He notes that Linus Torvalds deserves a lot of credit, but he could not have created Linux without the help of other people. Linux is open source software. Editor, compiler, and linker form the core of a software development system. Linux deals with errors better than the commercial systems the author used in the past.
This book is a wonderful compilation of PC history and practice for the general technically-challenged reader. An overview of the industry in terms of business and marketing issues is presented. Bravo!
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