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In the Beginning...was the Command Line

In the Beginning...was the Command Line is a lengthy essay by Neal Stephenson which was originally published online and later made available in book form. The essay is a commentary on why the operating system's business is unlikely to remain profitable in the future because of competition from free software. It also lucidly analyses the corporate/collective culture of the Microsoft, Macintosh, and free software communities. Stephenson explores the GUI as a metaphor in terms of the increasing interposition of metaphors between humans and the actual workings of devices (in a similar manner to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) and explains the beauty hackers feel in good-quality tools. He does this with a car analogy. He compares four operating systems, Mac OS by Apple Computer to a fine European luxury car, Windows by Microsoft to a station wagon, Linux to a tank, and BeOS to a batmobile. Stephenson argues that people continue to buy the station wagon despite free tanks being given away, because people do not want to learn how to operate a tank; they know that the station wagon dealership has a machine shop that they can take their car to when it breaks down. Because of this attitude, Stephenson argues that Microsoft is not really a monopoly, as evidenced by the free availability of other choice OS's, but rather has simply accrued enough mental shares among the people to have them coming back. He compares Microsoft to Disney, in that both are selling a vision to their customers, who in turn "want to believe" in that vision.

Stephenson spends some time discussing Debian and its impressive bug-tracking system in the essay. Debian developers were extremely pleased to find out that an author that many of them enjoy uses and approves of their work. He also gives Microsoft's view on bug tracking. Initially it is impossible to find any mention of specific bugs on Microsoft's website, but later he notices that Microsoft has enstated a system similar to the Debian one, though sugar-coated so as to not ruin the vision demanded by its customers.

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