I’ve been on a history kick lately, inspired by the fact that the
foundation of the Unix operating system was created just 40 years ago
this summer, starting with software written by Ken Thompson at Bell
Laboratories. He wrote an OS, a shell, an editor, and an assembler
all in just one month, in assembly language, to run a DEC PDP-7
The outcome of that work changed the future course of
digital history. From that original foundation ,which he called Unics,
enlarged and modified time and again, sprang Minix, Linux, Mac OS X,
BSD, and Solaris, together with corresponding server OS’s and a raft
of short-lived but briefly popular variants.
Scanning through some of the Unix entries on Wikipedia, I came across
a fascinating essay written ten years ago by Neal Stephenson, the real
award-winning science fiction author behind the pen name Stephen
Bury. It’s titled “In the Beginning was the Command Line,” but in
addition to its core message it is a concise sociological assessment
of the state of the Microsoft-Apple-Linux balance in that epoch.
In Stephenson’s signature prose – a rich mix of humor, scholarship, and
insight – he zeroes in on the cultural forces which, even more
powerfully than technical merit and aggressive advertising, have
created the relative market share of the Three Great Systems.
read a full copy of the long essay online at his website.)
What struck me more than anything else was the degree to which the
current situation matches that of a decade ago. Ten years is an
eternity in the digital world, yet that paper written in January 1999
describes triumphs and shortfalls of the three systems that are eerily
similar to the ones endlessly argued and extolled on blogs today.
He describes the positive feedback Microsoft’s dominant position creates
in persuading coders to write applications for Windows PCs (currently
referred to as the Microsoft Tax), and the premium price of the only
hardware that will run Mac (see the latest PC – MAC ads), as well as
the Linux Is For Geeks perception (even now scarcely beginning to
All of this could persuade me that the major players are
locked into some crazy Red Queen’s race in which the technology
streaks ahead at blinding speed yet leaves the runners in the same
And that’s almost exactly what Stephenson said ten years ago: that it
is the human reaction to technology, not the mechanical-electronic-digital miracles it can work, that determines what will barely succeed, what will fail outright, and what will decisively triumph.
Human attitudes change on a more leisurely timescale than technology does, so the natural frequency of the market feedback loop is very little different now than it was in the days when telephones and electricity and cars and television first came into being.
Reading Stephenson’s paper was a sobering experience – though some of
his comments are laugh-out-loud humorous – because I can’t look at my
monitor anymore without a nagging suspicion that, rich as the
experience is, there could be much more there of real value if a lot more
people would support it.