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In the Beginning...Was the Command Line Paperback – 1 Nov 1999

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Product details

  • Paperback: 151 pages
  • Publisher: Avon Books (1 Nov. 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0380815931
  • ISBN-13: 978-0380815937
  • Product Dimensions: 13.3 x 0.9 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 106,634 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author



Neal Town Stephenson (born October 31, 1959) is an American writer, known for his speculative fiction works, which have been variously categorized science fiction, historical fiction, maximalism, cyberpunk, and postcyberpunk. Stephenson explores areas such as mathematics, cryptography, philosophy, currency, and the history of science. He also writes non-fiction articles about technology in publications such as Wired Magazine, and has worked part-time as an advisor for Blue Origin, a company (funded by Jeff Bezos) developing a manned sub-orbital launch system.

Born in Fort Meade, Maryland (home of the NSA and the National Cryptologic Museum) Stephenson came from a family comprising engineers and hard scientists he dubs "propeller heads". His father is a professor of electrical engineering whose father was a physics professor; his mother worked in a biochemistry laboratory, while her father was a biochemistry professor. Stephenson's family moved to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois in 1960 and then to Ames, Iowa in 1966 where he graduated from Ames High School in 1977. Stephenson furthered his studies at Boston University. He first specialized in physics, then switched to geography after he found that it would allow him to spend more time on the university mainframe. He graduated in 1981 with a B.A. in Geography and a minor in physics. Since 1984, Stephenson has lived mostly in the Pacific Northwest and currently resides in Seattle with his family.

Neal Stephenson is the author of the three-volume historical epic "The Baroque Cycle" (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World) and the novels Cryptonomicon, The Diamond Age, Snow Crash, and Zodiac. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

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Amazon Review

You may well ask what light cyberpunk maestro Neal Stephenson can shed on the subject of operating systems and interface design. He's better known for his novels: Snow Crash, a dystopian not-too-distant future of avatars, linguistic software viruses and rent-a-nukes; The Diamond Age in which Victorian values come a cropper of nanotechnology; and Cryptonomicon, his 900 page opus spanning the development of hacking from before Bletchley Park to a contemporary data haven in Southeast Asia, complete with an (imaginary, obviously) gay love scene in the woods outside New Haven involving cryptography pioneer Alan Turing.

No one could read a Stephenson novel and not recognise his frighteningly powerful grasp of social and political history, and of technology that underpins all his stories. Read the liner notes on Snow Crash and you'll realise this is a man who probably considers Apple's Human Interface Guidelines to be soothing bedtime reading.

In the Beginning...Was the Command Line gives Stephenson an opportunity to flex his own non-fictional muscles. Part memoir, part developer's history of operating systems, it trawls through CLIs (command line interfaces) such as MS-DOS to GUIs (graphical user interfaces), the then-as now--revolutionary Macintosh OS, and everything since: Windows 98 (note: purist Stephenson doesn't even consider this an OS), Unix and Linux.

By the end of his enlightening, exhaustive elucidation of these and other TLAs, you too may suffer the subject of one of the book's final chapters: "geek fatigue". Not to worry--if there's one thing of which you can be certain it's that Stephenson never takes himself, or his subject, too seriously, and anything that cites Dilbert cartoons and H. G. Wells as source material has got to be a giant step forward. --Liz Bailey


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Around the time that Jobs, Wozniak, Gates, and Allen were dreaming up these unlikely schemes, I was a teen living in Ames, Iowa. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By R. G. Milner on 9 Jan. 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is an excellent book, a very entertaining and worthwhile read if you are at all interested in modern computer operating systems.
However, like all computer science books, the technological aspect of it has already dated considerably, reducing its relevance as a survey. This is of course inevitable in such a fast-moving field. I would be very interested to read an updated edition taking into account the current situation in the OS marketplace.
Stephenson primarily contrasts Windows(tm), Linux, MacOS and BeOS. Out of these systems, BeOS is basically dead, MacOS has undergone a sea change (to a considerable extent building on BeOS and Linux), Linux has grown in sophistication and user-friendliness, and Windows is... still basically Windows with some extra knobs on it.
The book should not be ignored, though. The fundamental issue Stephenson comments on - whether it's possible to control complex equipment through simplified interfaces - is never going to disappear. It's also an entertaining read simply for the author's wonderful use of language.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Toon Van de Putte on 27 Dec. 2001
Format: Paperback
This is an amazingly fast read, and it has a lot of thought-provoking views. It's just a shame it isn't very thorough and sometimes even superficial. The book covers more or less the entire history of Operating Systems and reads like a rollercoaster ride through computer history.
The book is a very interesting thought excercise, but it feels more like a Wired article that got published in book form. At the low price though, it's a tasty intellectual snack along the road, you can probably finish it in three or four commuter train rides.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Philip Deme on 15 Aug. 2009
Format: Paperback
This book is an enjoyable read especially if you know a bit about the history of operating systems and their features. Neal Stephenson gives his own metaphors of what each OS represents and criticizes software from the writer's point of view. A nice read if you don't get too picky about the OS wars and a few technical details. It gets more enjoyable if you also read Garrett Birkel's response to Neal Stephenson in 2004 at the former's website!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 7 April 2000
Format: Paperback
Neal Stephenson tells (sometimes rants) his view of the Mac vs Windows vs Linux vs BeOS debate with his typical erudite and witty up-to-the-minute style. And he has insights and experiences to make it more than just a flame war on paper. The GUI becomes more than screen candy: its a symbol of our culture's mediated reality: a metaphore for the way we experience our lives in the age of hi-tec entertainment. In the last chapter (I'm giving nothing away here, you'll have to read it yourself) he turns the magic mirror around so we see ourselves and the choices we have...
I went into my local bookshop to buy either Snow Crash or The Diamond Age because I felt like re-reading them. They were't there but this was so I bought it without even looking at the blurb on the back. Yeah, you can download the whole thing from cryptonomicon.com but this is one paperback to read in the bath/bus/bed.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Patrick Shepherd on 14 Sept. 2009
Format: Paperback
As a hardware/software engineer I have worked with MS-DOS, Windows, MacOS, and UNIX for many years. Reading this fairly short, critical, and sometimes hysterically funny essay was an enjoyable experience, albeit I had some major reservations about some of Neal's suppositions and conclusions.

Stephenson presents, first of all, a rather simplified version of the history of PC computing world and the operating systems that have helped define and advance (or impede) the development of the PC from something that only a geek could love to a ubiquitous near-appliance. His definition of what an operating system is matches what most programmers, using common sense, would call an operating system: a suite of low level tools that perform the mundane tasks of interpreting what an application wants to do to the physical realm of reading/writing memory, disk files, displaying graphics, etc. This is not a trivial point, as the current insistence by Microsoft that its operating system is inclusive of web browsers, audio/video players, and other application-level programs is a key item in its anti-trust defense. However, Stephenson bypasses the relevance of this in favor of defining the differences between the MacOS, Windows, UNIX, and BeOS. For this purpose he uses a highly useful (and sometimes funny) metaphor defining each OS as a car dealership, each of whom sells their type of product to a different type of customer.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 3 May 2001
Format: Paperback
What a fantastic book! interesting look at 3 different business models for Software development a must read for the business minded geek I picked it up at 9 AM and had it finished by 1:pm .. really .. buy this book .. no don't wait .. buy it now .. then read Snow Crash :)
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By Jeremy Walton TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 7 Mar. 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In this little book (whose length is more befitting of an essay), Neal Stephenson displays an impressive depth of technical knowledge about how computers work, particularly in the area of user interfaces: the means by which we make them do the things we want. He uses that as a jumping-off point to tease out the differences between typing commands and manipulating objects on a screen, and what that means for how we think about what we're doing. It's a characteristically stimulating collection of ideas - thus, at one point, he suggests an analogy between a graphical user interface (GUI) and Disney World: both "are in the same business: short-circuiting laborious, explicit verbal communication with expensively designed interfaces." He's concerned that an overuse of a GUI leads us into an unfamiliarity with the written word - in roughly the same way, I imagine, that a commentator of fifty years ago would contend that watching too much television leaves less time for reading books, and hence increasing levels of illiteracy.

It's an interesting observation, even if the technological examples he uses have inevitably become dated since the book was first published in 1999. This of course is an inevitable consequence of writing about the current state of a fast-moving technical landscape (for example, he says his favourite user interface is BeOS, whose development company was to be dissolved two years after this book came out). But the ideas contained in the book are stimulating enough to have persisted for longer than the technology, and there's been at least one attempt (not written by the original author) to update its examples and observations. One of the reasons this has been possible is that the text is apparently freely available on the net. But it's still nice to have the book.
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