April 29, 2003

Metaphors make the operating system

- by Lee Schlesinger -
Linux per se is not a specific set of ones and zeroes, but a self-organizing Net subculture. -- Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson is a science fiction author perhaps best known for his magnum opus Cryptonomicon. I recently read and enjoyed a couple of his novels, so I was interested to discover his 1999 essay In the Beginning was the Command Line, which discusses the state of the operating system market four years ago from both a realistic and metaphorical viewpoint. Despite its age, it makes tasty food for thought.

Stephenson clearly has some hands-on experience with a variety of platforms. Some of what he talks about is obsolete (BeOS is gone, beunited.org notwithstanding) but much of what he says about Windows, MacOS, and Linux is remarkably true even today. For instance:

It is because Microsoft's excellent management has figured out that they can make more money for their stockholders by releasing stuff with obvious, known imperfections than they can by making it beautiful or bug-free.

I read that quote in a cautionary light the week after Microsoft released its first major server operating system revision in three years. However, either Stephenson is wrong or Microsoft has changed its attitude toward beauty since he wrote his essay. I think "look and feel" has been a big factor in Microsoft's success. Its desktop, icons, and typefaces have a comfy feel. And the "user experience" was the company's main target for improving its desktop operating system when it developed Windows XP. I believe a big reason Lotus's SmartSuite applications got creamed by Microsoft's Office software was that Lotus's look was clunky and two-dimensional. That sent a subconscious message to users that the underlying capabilities of the software were subpar too. (Well, Lotus struggled because of that and Microsoft's marketing machine and questionable strongarm business relationship tactics.) Open source application developers have to make their programs at least as accessible as commercial software.

Hostility towards Microsoft is not difficult to find on the Net, and it blends two strains: resentful people who feel Microsoft is too powerful, and disdainful people who think it's tacky. This is all strongly reminiscent of the heyday of Communism and Socialism, when the bourgeoisie were hated from both ends: by the proles, because they had all the money, and by the intelligentsia, because of their tendency to spend it on lawn ornaments. Microsoft is the very embodiment of modern high-tech prosperity--it is, in a word, bourgeois--and so it attracts all of the same gripes.

People who are inclined to feel poor and oppressed construe everything Microsoft does as some sinister Orwellian plot. People who like to think of themselves as intelligent and informed technology users are driven crazy by the clunkiness of Windows.

We still see this today, and it puzzles me a little. I can understand having a philosophical aversion to something -- Microsoft, veal, country music -- but you have to temper it with an objective viewpoint. Microsoft <> evil. Yes, it has played unfairly in the business arena, for which it should be punished. Yes, its products are less secure and less stable than they should be. But it weakens opponents' contentions when they argue from an emotional perspective instead of addressing the tangible problems.

Because I discount the sinister plot school of thought, does that make me the intelligentsia?

There are only two ways to sell a product: price and features. When OSes are free, OS companies cannot compete on price, and so they compete on features. This means that they are always trying to outdo each other writing code that, until recently, was not considered to be part of an OS at all: stuff like GUIs.

This is a key lesson for Linux proponents to learn. Linux is a powerful operating system -- no one argues that. But Linux started out as a difficult operating system for the average person to learn. There are far more average users than expert users out there. To grow the community, Linux must be as simple as possible to work with. A larger group of users benefits both average and expert users, so even experts should support "frills" like GUI utilities and package installation tools.

Note that I'm not advocating stripping out all of Linux's powerful features and dumbing it down. The power stays available to those who can wield it, while those who can't can rely on GUIs and helper applications. After all:

Most people who shop for OSes (if they bother to shop at all) are comparing not the underlying functions but the superficial look and feel. The average buyer of an OS is not really paying for, and is not especially interested in, the low-level code that allocates memory or writes bytes onto the disk. What we're really buying is a system of metaphors. And--much more important--what we're buying into is the underlying assumption that metaphors are a good way to deal with the world.

Much of Stephenson's essay talks about metaphors for different operating systems, and how their creators get consumers to buy into those metaphors, then goes on to talk about how the metaphors affect the companies and their customers:

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.

Linux has no one creating metaphors to help sell it. Instead, it creates its own metaphor -- brilliant Finnish student creates enterprise OS with help from worldwide community of self-motivated developers. It's smart software! Root for the underdog! It's a more sincere metaphor than those created by Apple and Microsoft, but the marketing money behind the two commercial giants is beating sincerity hands-down today.

I commend Stephenson's essay to you because it provides some interesting perspectives on operating systems and how we think of them. There's more in it than I've been able to touch on here. I'll leave you with one final tantalizing quote:

The only reason Torvalds had cheap hardware was Microsoft.

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