File: blk00255.txt

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Follow the white rabbit.
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Follow the white rabbit.
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In the Beginning was the Command Line - Part 1/6

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 it--almost:


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.


MGBs, TANKS, AND BATMOBILES

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 mystery.

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 recently.

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 music."

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?"


BIT-FLINGER


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.


GUIs


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 arithmetic.

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:

<HTML>
<HEAD>
        <TITLE> C R Y P T O N O M I C O N</TITLE>

</HEAD>
<BODY BGCOLOR="#000000" LINK="#996600" ALINK="#FFFFFF" VLINK="#663300">

<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>


<CENTER>
<TABLE BORDER="0" CELLPADDING="0" CELLSPACING="0" WIDTH="520">
<TR>

        <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">
        </TD>

</TR>

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 it.

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 distinctive.

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, self-defeating.


CLASS STRUGGLE ON THE DESKTOP

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 responsibility.

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 folder.

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 Windows.

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.


Mined by f2poolscant
Mined by AntPool sc0
Mined by AntPool bj69
Fund  aworldapart.us
ASCRIBESPOOLREGISTER
Zachary Thomas Smith
Jenna Marie Vaziri -
 to you, to be your
wife, your best frie
nd, and your home -
just as you are to m
d soul will only ref
lect you from now un
til the end of time.
ul to the Universe f
or aligning every si
ngle thing that has
led up to this momen
is endless and etern
is day forward will
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myself - Zachary Tho
mas Smith - to you,
to be your husband,
your bestfriend, and
 your home - just as
ind, body, and soul
will only reflect yo
u from now until the
orever grateful to t
he Universe for alig
ning every single th
ing that has led up
k you for all you do
. I love you and wil
l always be fun abou
3718ff5993adbfa654d5
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