Andrew has been writing Anti Buzz for 4 years resulting in almost 200 articles. For the next several weeks we will revisit some of these just in case you missed it.
I will admit to a small anti-buzz hypocrisy. My job is to cut away generalities and make your understanding of technology more concrete. The best way to make an idea stick, however, is with a story, and stories are the grossest of generalities. Today I’m telling you a story. It’s the story of how you were all tricked into embracing the Unix design philosophy.
I hinted at this before when I touched on Windows 8. I also call your attention to my previous lionizing of Steve Jobs, or actually, to the interesting Malcolm Gladwell article I linked when I did. (Side note: When I originally linked that article, I unfortunately attached a link to the last page of the article, possibly robbing you of the entire experience). The key analogy I’m looking for is the three stage evolution of RMA as explained in that article. The synthesizing of information technology into warfare was first imagined by the Soviets, then prototyped by the United States, and finally used to devastating effect by Israel. The evolutionary track of the mouse, (and by proxy, the personal computer), is the birth of the idea at Standford, the implementation of the idea at Xerox, and finally the hot battle of commercializing it at Apple. Broadly: theory, practice, popularity. This track too explains how you were tricked into embracing something you didn’t even realize you embraced.
The birth of ideas often requires freedom from practicality, and freedom from pressure to produce results. Theory is exploratory, involves the study of known data, and despite ambiguous objectives, is rigorous. Good theoretical results are ones that show that a new idea is justified by existing principles. The priority is discovery, not implementation. The colloquial use of the phrase “in theory” is not far from the truth. After much analysis, the Soviets showed that, in theory, one could leverage electronics and information technology in warfare. Douglas Englebart at Standford showed that, in theory, we could slide little pieces of plastic on a table to move a pointer around a screen.
The Unix design philosophy was an idea meant to improve the quality of software tools available to software programmers. The idea, in a nutshell, is to focus on small pieces of software that do one thing well. This maximizes the power given to the user; complex tasks are accomplished by the clever merging of programs. Unix users build new small programs that do one thing well out of existing small programs that do one thing well. Or at least this is the idea.
Prototyping, or proof of concept, is the realization of the idea. The institution that has the resources to build new ideas does not always risk the resources to discover them. The United States built the tools of modern warfare. Xerox made the mouse and the personal computer a reality. This prototyping has no end goal. The United States had no pressing military conflict. Xerox had no inroads into the PC market, (but their invention justified the adoption of their other famous innovation: the laser printer).
The energies of programming enthusiasts built a lot of the small programs that populate Unix environments. More over, they organized the distribution channels for this software, creating public repositories, and standardizing the way software would be installed on any Unix system. They invented a fast, streamlined system by which users could download small, single-task-oriented software. Some of you already know the punchline. What they did is they invented the app store. But they were a group of enthusiasts. Power users. Programmers. Not the electronic laity. Even for all the inviting and egalitarian sentiment in the open-source software community, the inventors of the app store were serving themselves, not the public.
The next key step is refinement and efficiency. This requires conflict and constrained resources. Israel is a small country surrounded by belligerents. Apple was the hot young tech firm with a desire to put computers in homes, not offices. Apple again was the innovator, but the conflict and resource constraints came from elsewhere.
The cell phone market was a feature race. Cameras. Texting. Web browsers. The conflict was the feature race, and the constraint was that it had to fit into your pocket. You can’t put a computer in somebody’s pocket with the old big-software-suite model of software development and distribution because you can’t put an installation CD in a cell phone and you can’t expect a tiny computer to tolerate the rigors of Microsoft Word. With space and processing time being so tight, the discovery and installation of new software needed to be controlled – the PC paradigm at the time was to just grab executables with your web browser and install them wherever and however you wanted. The infrastructural innovation of the Unix community is what enabled the smart phone.
I also do not think it is so much of a stretch to draw the connection. Steve Jobs, upon returning to Apple, overhauled the Mac OS. Mac OS X is built on top of an open-source Unix distribution. Much of the rebranding of Apple that happened during the second Steve Jobs administration was done while under the influence of Unix. The enthusiast community had been spending decades mastering simplicity in software, the Xerox PARC of its time in a way, and once again Apple remanufactured the ideas into something you wanted to put in your home.