As an opening caveat, I should say that this is the first in what is likely to be a series of reviews of assigned readings. I read this book because one of my professors said to, rather than through any choice of my own. Arguably, I did make a higher-level choice to take the course, but since I’m writing a review of a book rather than the course, the caveat is still important.
I will say that I was delighted at the assignment.
This is the same author as Snow Crash, Diamond Age, and Cryptonomicon, all of which I loved. Stephenson has also written a variety of other books that I have not read, and given that this book came out in 1999 and I’m only just now reading it because it’s assigned, it should be evident that while I like this author, I choose books that I think look interesting rather than reading just anything he’s written as I do for a couple of other authors.
My first reaction is that this is a really useful introduction to the history of the personal computer. Despite the speed at which computer development happens, or maybe because of it, it’s a useful to understand what computer operating systems are and how they’ve developed and what the competing market pressures have been regarding them.
On the other hand, I’m reminded of why I am wary of interacting with authors and actors as people rather than simply enjoying their work. There are often occasions when I like a book or movie or whatever and don’t want that enjoyment to be tainted by the fact that I don’t care for the author or actor. (Robert Heinlein, I’m thinking of you. And, oh, Tom Cruise. Tom, Tom, Tom. Why?)
Stephenson isn’t too bad though. He seems like an okay sort of guy even when he’s writing a nonfiction essay and not writing with the voice of characters developed specifically to be sympathetic. However, there were multiple times when I wanted to argue back at the book and explain that while I didn’t understand the details of computers that he obviously does, a couple of his metaphors were still poorly applied and had internal inconsistencies, and the motives that he projects onto the people who act more like me than like him are not the motives that I actually have for my actions.
So, over all, this is not the most perfect book ever that simply, clearly, and correctly explains the history of operating systems. If you know such a book, please let me know, but I’m guessing it’s a logical impossibility. Instead, it makes a good attempt, succeeds at a good portion of it, introduces some interesting ideas to think about even if I don’t agree with all of them and does so with a sprinkling of fun, geeky humor.
Incidentally, the book is only 150 pages long and while it can be purchased from Amazon (which I did) or various physical bookstores, it’s also available online for free. If you’re interested in understanding more about computers without reading a computer book, go and read In the Beginning… was the Command Line.