“In the Beginning was the Command Line” by Neal Stephenson

By Deane Barker on September 9, 2002

Neal Stephenson is a hacker-novelist responsible for some of the most popular fiction among computer geeks. Recently, he wrote Cryptonomicon, which was hailed far outside geek circles as a great piece of fiction.

In 1999, Stephenson wrote an essay (a 38,000-word essay…) called “In the Beginning was the Command Line.” It’s a look back on operating systems, how they fit into our lives, and how they have become the subject of such business warfare. Stephenson talks at length about the Linux / Windows (or “Proprietary / Open Source”) battle, comparing it to selling cars. He outlines this scenario of a consumer going to buy a car (Windows) while a tank dealership (Linux) sits just across the street:

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?”

The entire essay is enlightening and will give you a lot to think about in terms of how you interact with your operating system, what you expect it to do, and why you’ve come to accept things about it that you may not have thought of before. (At the risk of massive copyright infringement, I have a really well-formatted version of the essay here.)

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