Stephenson's essay on Operating Systems

So, about ten years ago, Neal Stephenson wrote an essay titled In the Beginning was the Command Line. It's available in book form on Amazon, linked here. The topic of the essay is the operating system, and it's of a fairly nontechnical nature.

I guess first off is the main quote from the book, "it is the fate of operating systems to become free". In context, he's not talking about open source (at that point in the book), but of the monetary cost of an OS; once Windows 95 came out, Windows 3.1 wasn't a salable commodity for long, and new copies essentially became free.

The book is interesting historically, and is historically correct, even though it has large omissions. It's from 1998/1999, when Linux was just getting going, NT4 was new technology, Mac Classic was kludgy, OS/X didn't exist, BeOS might have had a chance, and Windows 98 absolutely dominated all marketshare. It leaves out the pre-Linux UNIX systems entirely, presumably because the focus is entirely on the desktop market, and doesn't delve into server OS at all.

There's an excellent section (The Interface Culture) pointing out parallels between Disney's design department and Microsoft's GUI design; they both provide interfaces to things the layman otherwise just isn't interested in. Disney provides a partially historically correct retelling of factual history, combined with loose interpretations of previously existing works of fiction, and does so in a way that the average consumer is more interested in the Disney version than they are in the previous version. Microsoft provides a graphical user interface that covers the command line interface, and in doing so, removes a lot of the power of a direct interface, but makes the computer desirable to use for an enormously larger marketshare of people.

There's an explicit statement, which I feel is very true, that Apple and Microsoft both are very, very good at aiming for their market segment. If producing software with fewer bugs, at higher cost, would net Microsoft more profit, they would pursue that more aggresively... but the bulk of Microsoft users aren't (weren't) jumping ship from Windows to anywhere else, and it was more profitable for them to do as they did. Apple aimed for the folks who wanted to view themselves as the intellectual and cultural elite, and succeeded, while not having policies much different than Microsoft. The difference in policy and marketshare came down to - in Stephenson's opinion - one major choice, which was whether or not to allow open hardware. Windows has more bugs primarily because it can use almost any hardware; Apple has fewer because of absolute control over their hardware, which also has the side effect of making Apple hardware more expensive to produce; no competition in that market.

I think Stephenson has one point I don't agree with, which happens around page 115. Essentially, he feels there's no sense being in the operating system business, and that it's a dead end from a business standpoint. As he puts it, Microsoft customers "want to believe" that they've made a good choice of operating system, but that's a fallacy. Microsoft customers don't buy Windows "because it's the best", they buy it because it's what they know, it's what everyone else is using, and the software they typically use runs on it without a hitch. If you don't use a computer for much of anything, Apple's Mac Mini is a great internet terminal... but it costs twice as much as a low end Dell that accomplishes the same task. If you're a heavier computer user, it's quite a task to figure out the equivalents for every program you use if you want to move over to Apple. If you're tech saavy enough to want to spend the time to find replacements for all of your software on OS/X... you're in the minority, and not the marketshare Microsoft aims for.

That said, Stephenson pushes hard for Linux, but admits that he's a market of one, and any company producing features that he thinks are perfect is doomed to failure. I suppose BeOS fits here, in retrospect, as they closed up doors less than a year after the book came out.

No comments: