Saturday, April 01, 2000

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BOOK Reviews

My original columns from the 1970's were about "The Computer Revolution" and my column in POPULAR COMPUTING was even called that. In those days computing was done by a small high priesthood who kept control of all the resources, doled out time on the machines as they saw fit, and told you what you could and could not do (playing The Adventure Game was a firing offense in some companies, and actually working on adding to it would get you blackballed in the industry).

In 1979 I said "By the year 2000, anyone in Western Civilization will be able to get the answer to any question that has an answer." That has happened. I didn't see all the implications of that at the time, and perhaps don't now, but I did see that in order for it to happen small computers would have to win over big ones, distributed computing would have to win over centralized, distributed computing power would have to be available to all; and that would be a revolution, and that was the revolution I was writing about.

This essay started with a comment on a letter. I'll include the letter, although the essay has got farther and farther from its beginnings, and probably will grow as I thnfk of more on it. It came out as one furious burst this morning before breakfast. Taking phosphadityl has odd side effects on people my age.

Here's my starting thoughts on The New Computer Revolution. As I say, it began with a letter:

I have put the mail specifically associated with this on a responses page, and this will be very much a work in progress.

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Geoffrey McNamara []

Jerry -

I have read your articles for years. In the days of Desqview and BBS’s you were my "older brother" sharing life experiences with me... and teaching me the wiles of the world. All was good and the light shined brightly. Then a cloud appeared on the horizon. At first it loomed innocently and drifted across the sky. In was .... windows 1.0 or was it windows 2.x - no matter. The cloud grew and the sky darkened a bit as Win 3x appeared. All were concerned with its presence and began to shiver as it grew and darken with every hour. Soon the sky was filled with these clouds and the sun was obscured and my older brother was beginning to lose his health tan. Your article spoke of how successful Microsoft had become in managing the multitasking environment. Your suggestion was to put down DESQview - see the light and use Windows... I ran several BBS’s at the time under DESQview even on a LAN - seldom had problems and I could always "see" where the problems did occur. I admit it - it took a lot of work to keep things ‘stable’. I tried Windows - I beat my brains out with Win95, I lost control with Plug and play, I realized that my older brother had started going to a different church I could no longer accept his every gasp as the guiding light. I kept reading his articles though.

One day I got linux - oh, it was linux 1. something - early in the game. I couldn’t install it. But it had promises.... and besides I was very impressed with what DESQviewX had to offer - the peer application and resource control that X windows promised was very tempting to a propeller head like me... but Quarterdeck got clobbered by Microsoft and DESQviewX never progressed - besides it was a bit slow and a hog on DOS. We had pushed the envelope too far. So where was I, oh yeah, my big brother was going to a different church and so I was on my own. Maybe a year went by and I tackled linux 1. something again... this time I got it loaded... and my learning curve went straight up... no I mean... that the curve was a vertical line - like a wall. I found out UNIX is like C language (literally) - obscure, unfriendly, powerful, flexible, unforgiving, tempting, .... I am reminded of the fact that I rebuilt to Volkswagen Bug engines. Huh? What the heck does this have to do with the issue at hand? Two Volkswagen engines.... I got a book called Volkswagen for the complete idiot... It was my Bible and it saved me money by keeping a cheap car alive and well. I hated rebuilding those engines... I hurt my back taking them out of the car, I lost blood, I lost sleep, I lost my cool, I lost tools,.... but my car kept on truckin‘. And you know what? I knew everything about those bugs, I could fix any problem given the time and money, I could talk with a repair mechanic about the real problem - intelligently. I LOVED those Volkswagen bugs!

I am a Systems Administrator for a company with 12 Sun Solaris systems. We have about 30 users who use Windows 95 and WIndows NT. we have another 10 who use linux. The linux people never need me - makes sense they are propeller heads ( gotta fixit or die marines). The Windows users constantly call me - "how do I change my ... to do ...." Thirty minutes later and five menus deep is a cryptic item that does what they want but... we have to reboot your system... oh, we lost your colors but that’s easy to fix... just change your resolution, then change it back, and reboot. Thirty minutes after that we almost have it working ... but while your here can you tell me where my email is that I just wrote but when we rebooted it got lost... or that Word document I want to send to a buddy - I can’t find it. ............... I LOVED my Volkswagen. I knew all about it. I had a Bible for it.

I fought with OS2 to get it loaded - but it was a champ - it just cost too much and was completely unsupported by all. It still was/is a robust alternative but not practical because it is not supported - "dead" in a word.

I fought with linux to get it loaded. I have rebuilt this engine numerous times but I finally scaled the wall. I know where things are, I know how to fix them - and here’s an idea.... every program has its own config file.... is that stupid or what. Microsoft keeps it all in one place. That dies and so does your system.... I just don’t get it. ANd here’s another stupid thing... all the config files are standard ASCII readable text. But MICROSOFT uses an proprietary structure for their single failure point file called the "registry" Oh Oh no - its called "user.dat" or is it "user0.dat" and I need to edit which line to say what using their editor which I can’t get to right no because the system won’t boot up... yeah, that make sense.

I have one thing to say about Windows - it is Kryptonite - it is meant to bring a good Systems Administrator to his or her knees, beg for mercy and say - "I don’t know what’s wrong but try rebooting the machine!" We all start to look like idiots ... hmmmm "How to fix your Volkswagen for the Complete Idiot"....

I love linux - I hated getting here. It was very hard to learn... it would load or install flawlessly and it MAKES your know your hardware - I repeat, it MAKES you learn your hardware... it isn’t for the owner who just wants to jump in the car and drive and who has enough time and money to take it to a mechanic when its broken and say fixit - I don’t know what’s wrong but fix it. No - it for the sports car enthusiast who wants to "feel the road" and who will tinker. And it for a the environment that NEEDS stability, yes, someone needs to be with it that KNOWS the hardware. Imagine that.

Linux - Running Linux is the bible... keep it on your night stand. Linux is DESQview with an attitude. It is UNIX with a friendly face - why? because it has taken the best from every UNIX out there and added it in (even improved it in most cases). It is stable... not perfect but better than OS/2. You will reboot often - not because you have to, only because you don’t know how to do it fix it without rebooting (yet). It isn’t friendly enough to be on every desktop - but they is slooooowly (actually faster than I like) changing. The GUI interface is not yet under control in any operating system and it is terribly unproductive to use a mouse for keyboard centric input. Eventually we will all see a new way... linux is just another step towards getting there.

I never once mentioned that it is free and the source code belongs to you.... that’s another thing all together.

It is good to keep beating your head against the wall... stick in there and you may end up loving the end results but it will be a bloody mess getting there.

What prompted me to write this? I have watched my older brother go to this new church called MIcrosoft and slowly I watched the life sapped out of his veins. I read your latest internet web postings on the trials and tribulations on linux installations... I’ve been there.... except I had Running Linux as my first linux book... still, I’ve been there. I am moved enough to encourage you to stay with it... beat it up but stick with it. I LOVED my Volkswagen.

Interesting. Fascinating, in fact, because I see precisely what you are getting at. DESQview with an attitude is as good a description as any I have seen of what Linux is.

This didn't start as an essay with a title but it has sort of become one:

The Second Computer Revolution

Jerry Pournelle


Microsoft continues to build or buy and absorb (like the Borg) the major applications one needs to get things done. It also builds an operating system that has lagged far behind that capability. At the same time it did open to everyone that which had previously been far more difficult: networking. It doesn't do it well, it certainly doesn't do it with any security, but it does it, and allows users to build simple networks in hours, without having to learn Lantastic or Novell or Network Eye, or anything else. I recall the days you speak of. I used to run Windows in a DESQview "window" because there were one or two applications that ran on Windows only, and I wanted them, but I didn't want to be bothered with Windows.

It was "Windows for Work Groups", i.e. Windows with networking, that finally got me to switch over, and I wasn't happy about it, but overall it was the right way to go if you are trying to get something done. Or was. The alternative was to go to entirely different hardware, and become a propeller head. The trouble with that was that the computer revolution was sweeping up many people who were far too old to become technoweenies, and who weren't about to try, who weren't part of a huge organization and thus had no resident guru, and yet who needed a bunch of applications including networking.

In those days the computer revolution wasn't complete. There was still the danger that the old dinosaur keepers who wanted one big centralized system under the complete control of System Administrators and despised the very notion of distributed computing.

You may or may nor recall that I did a column for OS/2 Professional for more than two years, and that in it I kept trying to steer IBM toward doing the right thing with OS/2. In one of those columns I compared IBM and Gates/Microsoft. Gates's vision was easily stated: "A computer on every desk, and in every home, and in every classroom." He didn't add "running lots of Microsoft software," but that was implied. The IBM vision was "About 1,000 customers, each one about the size of IBM, each one running exclusively IBM software, and each one having a single System Administrator dealing with a single IBM Customer Engineer."

The choice between those two visions was pretty easy. Meanwhile RMS and his GNU project tried to keep some of the early spirit of small computers alive, and much of that now surfaces in the Linux movement. Be glad.

But the Linux movement is possible only because the hardware is now cheap enough that you can have big powerful systems dedicated to nothing but development of what was for a long time an intense hobby whose goal was to revamp the computer revolution. And that powerful hardware is affordable only because it became ubiquitous, and CHEAP; and this was due entirely to the fulfillment of Gates's goal, a huge market, computers on every desk and in every home and in every classroom, creating competitiveness and economies of scale beyond the wildest dreams of everyone except, I sometimes think, Gates, and me, and maybe Bill Godbout back in the 70's and early 80's.

It could have happened different. I just ran across an old 1987 BYTE and read my column. In it I tell the story of Hackers Two, the second Hackers Convention, where I met Steve Capps and Bill Atkinson. They had been at the first Hackers 2 years earlier, where I had been critical of the original Mac. "Tell me," they said, "do you NOW think the Mac will survive?"

Proud of themselves, they were. (And with reason. QuickDraw was revolutionary.) But after all I had said the 128K Mac was doomed.

And I could say "Sure, with its new keyboard, networking capability, hard disk, and memory expandability, why shouldn't it?" But remember that the original 128K Mac not only lacked those features, but Apple was adamant about never providing them; and you had to develop programs for it on the Lisa, which was overpriced and perhaps the slowest development machine in existence.

There's a point to this: the Mac didn't become the computer for the rest of us because the first Macs were too limited and the next generation which could have been that were at prices the rest of us couldn't afford. It took Windows -- unreliable, limited, slick looking but finicky, wasteful of resources -- to get computers on every desk and in every home and in every classroom.

That's done, now, though. The rest of us can afford several computers. And now, perhaps, the LINUX movement can bring computing power down to where every would be propeller head and technoweenie can learn it, use it, contribute to it, and eventually make that available to all.

There was a time when the ability to read made one leader, if not an aristocrat then an official. To be a Scribe in Biblical times was a Big Deal. Prior to the computer revolution, the ability to use a computer was a Big Deal. But eventually writing came down to the rest of us. Everyone can write now. It's not the same, writing well, as writing, but the sheer ability to write is no longer anything special and guarantees no one any special position in the world. It's WHAT you write that counts.

The same has happened to computers: the sheer ability to make the little machines do SOMETHING is no longer important. Aunt Minnie can do that, now. It's WHAT you do that counts. But there's an interesting twist to this: in addition to "everything else" -- writing books, keeping accounts, building data bases, writing encyclopedias, developing educational programs, keeping files, transferring money, buying stocks, etc. etc. that people do with computer applications, generally without knowing how any of it is done, there is a new speciality that's rapidly growing: keeping farms of little dinosaurs rather than one great big one; and developing new strains of dinosaur, and teaching the little devils new tricks. That's becoming important, and interestingly, is no longer the province of the computer scientist.

Even SYSTEMS PROGRAMMING, which was once done only by High Priests in the Holy of Holies perhaps once a year, is now something the rest of us can contemplate doing. THAT I think is the real impact of the Linux movement, and will be its most important development: not that everyone will learn to do systems programming, or even to use anything like half the features of UNIX/LINUX, but that it makes it possible for anyone who is smart and willing to do so. And that will begin a new phase in the computer revolution, and I see I have just written about half the speech I was going to give at COMDEX this year.

Thanks for making me put it on paper. And do note, it WOULD NOT HAVE HAPPENED had we not got computers -- multiple -- on every desk and in every home and in every classroom; and that would not have happened without affordable computers for the rest of us; and THAT would certainly not have happened by now without Windows.

And I have the Linux books in my bathroom. And this remains a work in progress.





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