7. HONEY-POT, TAR-PIT, WHATEVER


When Gates and Allen invented the idea of selling software, they ran into criticism from both hackers and sober-sided businesspeople. Hackers understood that software was just information, and objected to the idea of selling it. These objections were partly moral. The hackers were coming out of the scientific and academic world where it is imperative to make the results of one's work freely available to the public. They were also partly practical; how can you sell something that can be easily copied? Businesspeople, who are polar opposites of hackers in so many ways, had objections of their own. Accustomed to selling toasters and insurance policies, they naturally had a difficult time understanding how a long collection of ones and zeroes could constitute a salable product.

Obviously Microsoft prevailed over these objections, and so did Apple. But the objections still exist. The most hackerish of all the hackers, the Ur-hacker as it were, was and is Richard Stallman, who became so annoyed with the evil practice of selling software that, in 1984 (the same year that the Macintosh went on sale) he went off and founded something called the Free Software Foundation, which commenced work on something called GNU. Gnu is an acronym for Gnu's Not Unix, but this is a joke in more ways than one, because GNU most certainly IS Unix,. Because of trademark concerns ("Unix" is trademarked by AT&T) they simply could not claim that it was Unix, and so, just to be extra safe, they claimed that it wasn't. Notwithstanding the incomparable talent and drive possessed by Mr. Stallman and other GNU adherents, their project to build a free Unix to compete against Microsoft and Apple's OSes was a little bit like trying to dig a subway system with a teaspoon. Until, that is, the advent of Linux, which I will get to later.

But the basic idea of re-creating an operating system from scratch was perfectly sound and completely doable. It has been done many times. It is inherent in the very nature of operating systems.

Operating systems are not strictly necessary. There is no reason why a sufficiently dedicated coder could not start from nothing with every project and write fresh code to handle such basic, low-level operations as controlling the read/write heads on the disk drives and lighting up pixels on the screen. The very first computers had to be programmed in this way. But since nearly every program needs to carry out those same basic operations, this approach would lead to vast duplication of effort.

Nothing is more disagreeable to the hacker than duplication of effort. The first and most important mental habit that people develop when they learn how to write computer programs is to generalize, generalize, generalize. To make their code as modular and flexible as possible, breaking large problems down into small subroutines that can be used over and over again in different contexts. Consequently, the development of operating systems, despite being technically unnecessary, was inevitable. Because at its heart, an operating system is nothing more than a library containing the most commonly used code, written once (and hopefully written well) and then made available to every coder who needs it.

So a proprietary, closed, secret operating system is a contradiction in terms. It goes against the whole point of having an operating system. And it is impossible to keep them secret anyway. The source code--the original lines of text written by the programmers--can be kept secret. But an OS as a whole is a collection of small subroutines that do very specific, very clearly defined jobs. Exactly what those subroutines do has to be made public, quite explicitly and exactly, or else the OS is completely useless to programmers; they can't make use of those subroutines if they don't have a complete and perfect understanding of what the subroutines do.

The only thing that isn't made public is exactly how the subroutines do what they do. But once you know what a subroutine does, it's generally quite easy (if you are a hacker) to write one of your own that does exactly the same thing. It might take a while, and it is tedious and unrewarding, but in most cases it's not really hard.

What's hard, in hacking as in fiction, is not writing; it's deciding what to write. And the vendors of commercial OSes have already decided, and published their decisions.

This has been generally understood for a long time. MS-DOS was duplicated, functionally, by a rival product, written from scratch, called ProDOS, that did all of the same things in pretty much the same way. In other words, another company was able to write code that did all of the same things as MS-DOS and sell it at a profit. If you are using the Linux OS, you can get a free program called WINE which is a windows emulator; that is, you can open up a window on your desktop that runs windows programs. It means that a completely functional Windows OS has been recreated inside of Unix, like a ship in a bottle. And Unix itself, which is vastly more sophisticated than MS-DOS, has been built up from scratch many times over. Versions of it are sold by Sun, Hewlett-Packard, AT&T, Silicon Graphics, IBM, and others.

People have, in other words, been re-writing basic OS code for so long that all of the technology that constituted an "operating system" in the traditional (pre-GUI) sense of that phrase is now so cheap and common that it's literally free. Not only could Gates and Allen not sell MS-DOS today, they could not even give it away, because much more powerful OSes are already being given away. Even the original Windows (which was the only windows until 1995) has become worthless, in that there is no point in owning something that can be emulated inside of Linux--which is, itself, free.

In this way the OS business is very different from, say, the car business. Even an old rundown car has some value. You can use it for making runs to the dump, or strip it for parts. It is the fate of manufactured goods to slowly and gently depreciate as they get old and have to compete against more modern products.

But it is the fate of operating systems to become free.

Microsoft is a great software applications company. Applications--such as Microsoft Word--are an area where innovation brings real, direct, tangible benefits to users. The innovations might be new technology straight from the research department, or they might be in the category of bells and whistles, but in any event they are frequently useful and they seem to make users happy. And Microsoft is in the process of becoming a great research company. But Microsoft is not such a great operating systems company. And this is not necessarily because their operating systems are all that bad from a purely technological standpoint. Microsoft's OSes do have their problems, sure, but they are vastly better than they used to be, and they are adequate for most people.

Why, then, do I say that Microsoft is not such a great operating systems company? Because the very nature of operating systems is such that it is senseless for them to be developed and owned by a specific company. It's a thankless job to begin with. Applications create possibilities for millions of credulous users, whereas OSes impose limitations on thousands of grumpy coders, and so OS-makers will forever be on the shit-list of anyone who counts for anything in the high-tech world. Applications get used by people whose big problem is understanding all of their features, whereas OSes get hacked by coders who are annoyed by their limitations. The OS business has been good to Microsoft only insofar as it has given them the money they needed to launch a really good applications software business and to hire a lot of smart researchers. Now it really ought to be jettisoned, like a spent booster stage from a rocket. The big question is whether Microsoft is capable of doing this. Or is it addicted to OS sales in the same way as Apple is to selling hardware?

Keep in mind that Apple's ability to monopolize its own hardware supply was once cited, by learned observers, as a great advantage over Microsoft. At the time, it seemed to place them in a much stronger position. In the end, it nearly killed them, and may kill them yet. The problem, for Apple, was that most of the world's computer users ended up owning cheaper hardware. But cheap hardware couldn't run MacOS, and so these people switched to Windows.

Replace "hardware" with "operating systems," and "Apple" with "Microsoft" and you can see the same thing about to happen all over again. Microsoft dominates the OS market, which makes them money and seems like a great idea for now. But cheaper and better OSes are available, and they are growingly popular in parts of the world that are not so saturated with computers as the US. Ten years from now, most of the world's computer users may end up owning these cheaper OSes. But these OSes do not, for the time being, run any Microsoft applications, and so these people will use something else.

To put it more directly: every time someone decides to use a non-Microsoft OS, Microsoft's OS division, obviously, loses a customer. But, as things stand now, Microsoft's applications division loses a customer too. This is not such a big deal as long as almost everyone uses Microsoft OSes. But as soon as Windows' market share begins to slip, the math starts to look pretty dismal for the people in Redmond.

This argument could be countered by saying that Microsoft could simply re-compile its applications to run under other OSes. But this strategy goes against most normal corporate instincts. Again the case of Apple is instructive. When things started to go south for Apple, they should have ported their OS to cheap PC hardware. But they didn't. Instead, they tried to make the most of their brilliant hardware, adding new features and expanding the product line. But this only had the effect of making their OS more dependent on these special hardware features, which made it worse for them in the end.

Likewise, when Microsoft's position in the OS world is threatened, their corporate instincts will tell them to pile more new features into their operating systems, and then re-jigger their software applications to exploit those special features. But this will only have the effect of making their applications dependent on an OS with declining market share, and make it worse for them in the end.

The operating system market is a death-trap, a tar-pit, a slough of despond. There are only two reasons to invest in Apple and Microsoft. (1) each of these companies is in what we would call a co-dependency relationship with their customers. The customers Want To Believe, and Apple and Microsoft know how to give them what they want. (2) each company works very hard to add new features to their OSes, which works to secure customer loyalty, at least for a little while.

Accordingly, most of the remainder of this essay will be about those two topics.

In The Beginning Was The Command Line
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