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In the Beginning...was the Command Line Paperback – Nov 9 1999

3.9 out of 5 stars 78 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (Nov. 9 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0380815931
  • ISBN-13: 978-0380815937
  • Product Dimensions: 13.3 x 0.9 x 20.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 159 g
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars 78 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #277,418 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

From Amazon

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 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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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Absolutely brilliant book.
"In the Beginning..." cleverly disguises itself as a historical account of the nature of the various software platforms. The real meat is the discussion of GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces), the upsides, the downsides and the tension between GUIs and the lack of GUIs.
One cannot have this type of discussion without touching on the true nature of mankind. And that is exactly what Mr. Stephenson does. If you prefer organic, seemingly "unstructured" access, go with the command prompt. If you prefer popular & "easy" access with all of its shortcomings, hail the GUI. But be careful, as the folks designing the GUIs are in the business of building filters and facades. If, however, you choose no Graphical User Interface whatsoever, you have sworn yourself to great responsibility and to the integrity of the code!
I was mesmerized from the start & totally blown away & surprised by the last 10 pages. I had no idea when I picked it up that this short essay carried such enduring weight.
I recommend it to all humans who thirst for knowledge of the Root.
ps. don't mess with the kernel, it is a good way to crash your system!
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Format: Paperback
"In the Beginning... was the Command Line" is that rarest of specimens: a short book written by Neal Stephenson. In truth, "Command Line" isn't really a book. It began its life as an online post, and was only published after the fact. In it, Stephenson sketches out a brief outline of the development of computers - especially personal computers and their operating systems - during the 1980s and '90s. It is a quick and fun read, filled with Stephensonian humor and creative metaphors that both entertain and enlighten.
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.
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Format: Paperback
Neal Stephenson may be more widely known for his more serious and fictional works being Cryptonomicron, Snow Crash, Quicksilver and others, but this thought flow essay is an entertaining romp through the history of the Command Prompt and Graphical User Interface. By showing the strengths and weaknesses of each through metaphors and similies, even the least technical people can find humor in this little history; most will even feel pitty for Neal and fellow techs who have been through the last 30 years of computing.
Though most people would feel that the simplest and easiest method is always better, only the least experienced users will agree. There are more tools and control through a Command Prompt then there will ever be using a GUI(Graphica User Interface) and honestly that will never change.
The book is a great read that will keep a little smile on your face then entire time and sometimes even get a giggle. This was fun and entertaining and recomended to anyone that uses a computer.
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Format: Paperback
Romance and image are important to technology, as is interface. From the command line grew a number of applications. This book is an essay on the early history and sociology of the personal computer. The author considers Apple, Microsoft, Linux, and Be, Inc. and makes analogies.
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.
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