August 20th, 2003

Stephenson's "In The Beginning..."

In a comment over at veryty's, technomom recommended Neal Stephenson's In The Beginning Was The Command Line, a work I had heard about but never checked out. My flatmate arnulf has a copy, so I gobbled it up during several ten-minute breaks and a couple of hours of insomnia in the past 24 hours.

Although the material covered (operating systems and their evolution, basically) is quite familiar, and I am completely fluent in the technical aspects of the story, his viewpoint was interesting and his prose limpid. I recommend it to anyone interested in understanding how Windows got to be this way, what Apple did wrong, and why things are not as simple as they may seem. Despite the latter phrase, Stephenson himself occasionally oversimplified, in my opinion, or let his metaphors run wild; but by and large, his reasoning is easy to follow and makes sense. Here's a typical passage:
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.

The text, by the way, is freely available from Stephenson's Web site.
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