Open Source

Is UNIX really the "hole hawg" of OSs?

Is command-line computing best? Neal Stephenson, author of In the Beginning...Was the Command Line, thinks it is. Erik Eckel says maybe it's not. Read this TechCetera to learn how you can enter the fray.


There must be something in the northern Pacific air. Maybe it’s in the water. The seeds of technology seem to grow best in the Pacific Northwest.

After all, Microsoft and other high-tech companies are headquartered there. Walt Disney Interactive and Electronic Arts, among others, have subsidiary offices in Seattle. And, while the region inflicted grunge dress and bad music on the world in the '90s, I won’t hold a grudge. The Northwest has also given us a few excellent writers. Seattle resident Neal Stephenson (known for In the Beginning…Was the Command Line, Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, and others) and Canadian Douglas Coupland (Microserfs, Generation X, Tales for an Accelerated Culture, and others) are two prime examples.

Stephenson explores the relationships between Apple Macintosh systems, Microsoft Windows, UNIX, and Linux in his short but intriguing essay titled In the Beginning…Was the Command Line. The book, published by Avon Books, is shown in Figure A.

Figure A
In the Beginning…Was the Command Line sells for $8.00 at Fatbrain.com.


My brother, bless his poor Mac OS soul, has been a steadfast Macintosh user for two decades. My fellow editor, Jack Wallen, prefers Linux. It’s not possible to have a conflict-free dinner with either one of them. The Mac or Linux versus Windows thing inevitably comes up.

Do you ever have the same experiences? Do you ever find yourself on the Mac/Linux side of the argument? Or, do you know why Linux creator Linus Torvalds owes a debt of gratitude to Microsoft chief Bill Gates?

Stephenson explains these mysteries, if you’re willing to listen. Most importantly, his book can help those with different platform allegiances come together (even if the text is biased toward the open-source community).

The Macintosh cult
I have long felt Macintosh users are cult-like. Don’t dare criticize AppleTalk’s inefficiencies to an Apple user. Don’t dare denigrate the cute icons. Don’t even try to discuss directory services or other new technologies.

My poor brother, brainwashed by his fellow cult members, has tried explaining all the reasons why Macintosh systems are better than Windows systems. I don’t think he’s ever worked with Windows, though. Never in his life has he experienced a blue screen. However, he’s heard others talk about all of Windows' faults.

Stephenson describes my brother, and other brainwashed digerati, elegantly. He writes that romance and image significantly influence their opinions.

“If you doubt it (and if you have a lot of spare time on your hands),” Stephenson says, “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 point is clear. Macintosh users are members of the computing minority because they like it that way.

The Linux faction
Linux enthusiasts, while cult-like, do not suffer the same delusions Macintosh owners experience. Linux aficionados actually work with a powerful, scalable operating system that shows great promise. The only thing holding Linux back is its lack of approachability, or ease of use. But, that’s how they like it.

Stephenson makes that fact clear by describing users’ desire for mediation. Mac addicts may wish to read that line again. The word is mediation, not meditation.

Most users, he writes, don’t want to use a command line. Instead, they want a simplified mediator. Stephenson explains the phenomenon by drawing comparisons between Disney’s theme parks and graphical user interfaces and the manner in which both mediate the participant’s computing experience. This GUI mediation gives rise to the common complaint I hear from the Linux community regarding Microsoft technologies: “Redmond’s programmers make too many choices for me.”

He also creates easily understood analogies that reveal why Windows earned dominant market share and why Apple didn’t. Further, Stephenson explains succinctly the fundamentals at work behind the sales of software.

As a result, In the Beginning…Was the Command Line can help Windows professionals and open-source evangelists understand one another better. By reading his essay, my Macintosh and Linux friends will better understand, if not respect, why I choose to master Windows-based technologies.

Stephenson points out that the Linux camp actually owes a debt to the brutally aggressive Microsoft corporate machine. If Microsoft, unlike Apple, hadn’t chosen to support third-party hardware components on the scale it did, the vast supply of low-cost hardware the Linux community relies on to power its operating system wouldn’t exist.

Apple, Stephenson notes, kept its hardware exclusive. Apple must carry a heavy burden as a result.

The “Hole Hawg” of OSs
You will find Stephenson’s essay is biased toward open-source software. Stephenson is like every Linux proponent I’ve met; he types one search into Microsoft’s Knowledge Base. As always, there’s trouble when the exact answer being sought doesn’t immediately appear in the browser. Sorry folks, but sometimes you have to look a little harder. This is true no matter which technology you use.

Plenty of times, I’ve searched for Linux support in an attempt to find simple drivers or solve a common problem. Often, I find nothing more than obsolete information relevant to a distribution that’s three versions old.

Stephenson does conclude that Microsoft’s online support has improved. But, he prefers the volunteerism method that motivates the open-source community.

You quickly learn the power of open-source software and UNIX in the chapter titled “The Hole Hawg of Operating Systems.” Apparently, the in-vogue thing to do is compare your operating system to a power drill (a Microsoft researcher, Stephenson notes, has his own version of the analogy). One of the book’s most entertaining passages is one in which Stephenson describes his experiences using an industrial strength drill manufactured by Milwaukee Tool Company.

He compares the drill’s massive and mindless power to that of UNIX. Operate the drill improperly, even once, and you could find yourself swinging from a second-story wall holding onto nothing but the “Hole Hawg” stuck into the side of a building, all the while wishing you had your ladder back.

Stephenson says UNIX possesses the same power. Make a keystroke error, and you could bring a network down or delete an entire directory. Thus, the OS must be approached with respect and reverence. There is no mediator to spoil the intoxicating and addictive thrill the command line offers IT professionals. There’s nothing to protect you from yourself. There’s nothing getting in your way.

But we’re not talking power tools
I say it’s the ignorant power of the tool (or UNIX) that gets you in trouble, so it’s best to put safeguards in place. You can usually remove many of them, even when working with Windows NT/2000. The choice is up to you.

My 7 1/4-inch circular saw boasts a protective shield. My 5-horsepower lawn mower blade quits spinning within a few seconds if I relax my grip on its idiot bar. My SUV’s got antilock brakes and air bags. My 32-bit OS asks me if I really want to delete these files, perform this action, etc. before a significant operation commences.

Sure, choices are made for me. But that’s bad? Windows NT/2000 provides templates, which save time by eliminating the need to configure (from scratch) one’s own policy and security settings. The provided templates can always be customized, if need requires.

Wizards simplify administration and configuration. That saves even more time.

In today’s fretful corporate IT environment, I think having a few predefined choices helps. Safeguards and simplified administration help even more. What do you think? E-mail your thoughts by April 9, 2001. I’ll select the most entertaining two and award the writers each a TechProGuild T-shirt.
The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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