In the Beginning… was the Command Line

{4.5/5} “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.”

In the Beginning… was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson was published in 1999. It’s a short nonfiction book mostly about operating systems.

It’s a bit out of date, as any book about technology written in 1999 would be, but Stephenson makes lots of great points that still hold true. It’s worth reading, if you have any interest in the subject.

In terms of operating systems he mostly talks about Unix, Windows, MacOS, Linux, and BeOS. He writes in a friendly style, and feels free to bring in other topics when they suit him — such as Disney World, the internet, and monoculture. He also brings in a bit of science fiction — he uses the Morlocks and Eloi from The Time Machine as one of his comparisons, and near the end he briefly explores the idea of an operating system that can create a new universe.

He gives some historical perspective, and he also gives his own personal perspective — he has used all the operating systems that he talks about. He talks about command line versus graphical user interfaces, Microsoft versus Apple, image versus reality, and free operating systems versus ones you have to pay for.

Part of his argument — “it is the fate of operating systems to become free” — hasn’t come true, at least not yet. But big changes are yet in store for the 21st century.

The operating systems that Stephenson is a fan of are Linux and BeOS. It’s possible you might disagree with him but he’s knowledgeable and articulate — and funny.

Stephenson’s novels Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and Cryptonomicon are all brilliant and his novel The Big U is great. I’ll definitely read more of his work.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 15th, 2014 at 8:10 pm and is filed under Reviews of books. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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