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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 in 1999 and later made available in book form (November 1999, ISBN 0380815931). The essay is a commentary on why the proprietary operating systems business is unlikely to remain profitable in the future because of competition from free software. It also analyzes 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 abstractions 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 luxury European car, Windows by Microsoft to a station wagon, Linux to a free 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 mindshare 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 whom many of them respect 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 instated a system similar to the Debian one, though sugar-coated so as to not ruin the vision demanded by its customers.

The essay was written before the advent of Mac OS X. In a Slashdot interview on 2004-10-20, he remarked:

I embraced OS X as soon as it was available and have never looked back. So a lot of In the Beginning...was the Command Line is now obsolete. I keep meaning to update it, but if I'm honest with myself, I have to say this is unlikely.

With Neal Stephenson's permission, Garrett Birkel responded to In the Beginning...was the Command Line in 2004, bringing it up to date and critically discussing Stephenson's argument. Birkel's response is interspersed throughout the original text, which remains untouched.

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