Tools of the trade


The Hole Hawg is a cube of steel too heavy to lift with one hand. As the science fiction writer Neal Stephenson describes it, two sides are blank, one has a handle, while from another, at right angles to the handle, protrudes a chuck, and two sides have holes drilled in them. Inside is an electric motor almost powerful enough to run a lift. This is a professional construction worker's drill and dangerous even in skilled hands. Stephenson saw, while working on a building site, one man whose Hole Hawg got stuck in the wall. If the motor could not twist the bit, the bit must twist the motor housing round, so in obedience to Newton's laws the Hole Hawg twirled its user round in a full circle on the side of the building, knocking his ladder over, leaving him thrashing and dangling till help came. Stephenson himself had his hands deeply bruised and lacerated when the Hole Hawg he was using started mashing them against the laths of a ceiling he was drilling through.

"After a few such run-ins," he writes in a long essay on his website, "when I got ready to use the Hole Hawg my heart actually began to pound with atavistic terror. But I never blamed the Hole Hawg; I blamed myself." The essay is actually about operating systems, but at 40,000 words it contains a lot of information incidental to the care and nourishment of computers. At first sight it is difficult to see the connection between something so robustly physical as a builder's drill and the insubstantial bit-stream of an operating system. It's more about marketing than anything else. The Hole Hawg, Stephenson says, would not even be recognised as a drill by most of the people who buy power tools. What they want are the kinds of things you see in DIY superstores: sculpted to look powerful, stuffed with features and safety interlocks but not tremendously good at making holes in walls. Conversely, the man who uses a Hole Hawg all day would not recognise consumer drills as drills at all. They are just not powerful enough to make the holes that are needed. They can be amusing toys, but they are no more drills than a tricycle is a car.

This is the attitude, Stephenson suggests, that makes people want to push the teeth down the throat of anyone who uses Unix. For Unix is the Hole Hawg of operating systems. It does exactly what you tell it, and if the result is to twirl you round against the wall, smash up your hands and knock the ladder down, well, that's your fault. Anything less powerful is just an agreeable toy. What makes the analysis more than just name-calling between the proponents of different operating systems is that Stephenson takes marketing and human preferences seriously. He quite understands that most people do not need or want anything more than a toy, and that is why toys sell better than real tools.

That is why the iMac sells better than almost all particular brands of PC. Nonetheless, it is hugely outsold by the aggregate of all PC brands; and this is the second originality of Stephenson's essay. For the conventional explanation for Apple's decline is that it was too greedy. It wanted to make all the hardware that its software ran on, and all the profits that came from this. Being a hardware company seemed like a huge source of strength, since you can't run anything without hardware; but being the only manufacturer of the stuff turned out to be a tremendous liability in the long run. People for whom Apple hardware was either too expensive or too flaky flocked to PCs.

Stephenson sees an analogy with Microsoft. Microsoft is not much interested in hardware, though it makes mice and joysticks. Instead it wants to make all the operating systems that its application software runs on. And this may be a strategy as futile, in the long run, as Apple's. Windows is both expensive and flaky. It seems every bit as essential as hardware. Certainly I haven't yet had my fingernails torn off by installing Linux on the machine that earns my living. But in a year or two it's already obvious that Linux will do everything a professional needs from a computer, just as Windows machines now do everything you could want from a Mac except make you fashionable.

The US government's case against Microsoft has resumed this month and there is a sporting chance that it will win and the company will be broken into two or three. If that happens, it will have been because Microsoft was prepared to do almost anything to preserve the status of its operating system; but if Stephenson is right, when the company is split, the wise man will buy shares in its other half. is where you will find Stephenson's essay. It contains some of the longest paragraphs I have ever read.

12 issues for £12