By Donald A. Norman
The UNIX-HATERS Handbook? Why? Of what earthly good could it be?
Who is the audience? What a perverted idea.
But then again, I have been sitting here in my living room—still wearing
my coat—for over an hour now, reading the manuscript. One and one-half
hours. What a strange book. But appealing. Two hours. OK, I give up: I
like it. It’s a perverse book, but it has an equally perverse appeal. Who
would have thought it: Unix, the hacker’s pornography.
When this particular rock-throwing rabble invited me to join them, I
thought back to my own classic paper on the subject, so classic it even got
reprinted in a book of readings. But it isn’t even referenced in this one.
Well, I’ll fix that:
Norman, D. A. The Trouble with Unix: The User Interface is Horrid.
Datamation, 27 (12) 1981, November. pp. 139-150. Reprinted in
Pylyshyn, Z. W., & Bannon, L. J., eds. Perspectives on the Computer
Revolution, 2nd revised edition, Hillsdale, NJ, Ablex, 1989.
What is this horrible fascination with Unix? The operating system of the
1960s, still gaining in popularity in the 1990s. A horrible system, except
that all the other commercial offerings are even worse. The only operating
system that is so bad that people spend literally millions of dollars trying to
improve it. Make it graphical (now that’s an oxymoron, a graphical user
interface for Unix).
You know the real trouble with Unix? The real trouble is that it became so
popular. It wasn’t meant to be popular. It was meant for a few folks working
away in their labs, using Digital Equipment Corporation’s old PDP-11
computer. I used to have one of those. A comfortable, room-sized machine.
Fast—ran an instruction in roughly a microsecond. An elegant instruction
set (real programmers, you see, program in assembly code). Toggle
switches on the front panel. Lights to show you what was in the registers.
You didn’t have to toggle in the boot program anymore, as you did with the
PDP-1 and PDP-4, but aside from that it was still a real computer. Not like
those toys we have today that have no flashing lights, no register switches.
You can’t even single-step today’s machines. They always run at full
The PDP-11 had 16,000 words of memory. That was a fantastic advance
over my PDP-4 that had 8,000. The Macintosh on which I type this has
64MB: Unix was not designed for the Mac. What kind of challenge is there
when you have that much RAM? Unix was designed before the days of
CRT displays on the console. For many of us, the main input/output device
was a 10-character/second, all uppercase teletype (advanced users had 30-
character/second teletypes, with upper- and lowercase, both). Equipped
with a paper tape reader, I hasten to add. No, those were the real days of
computing. And those were the days of Unix. Look at Unix today: the remnants
are still there. Try logging in with all capitals. Many Unix systems
will still switch to an all-caps mode. Weird.
Unix was a programmer’s delight. Simple, elegant underpinnings. The user
interface was indeed horrible, but in those days, nobody cared about such
things. As far as I know, I was the very first person to complain about it in
writing (that infamous Unix article): my article got swiped from my computer,
broadcast over UUCP-Net, and I got over 30 single-spaced pages of
taunts and jibes in reply. I even got dragged to Bell Labs to stand up in
front of an overfilled auditorium to defend myself. I survived. Worse, Unix
Unix was designed for the computing environment of then, not the
machines of today. Unix survives only because everyone else has done so
badly. There were many valuable things to be learned from Unix: how
come nobody learned them and then did better? Started from scratch and
produced a really superior, modern, graphical operating system? Oh yeah,
and did the other thing that made Unix so very successful: give it away to
all the universities of the world.
I have to admit to a deep love-hate relationship with Unix. Much though I
try to escape it, it keeps following me. And I truly do miss the ability (actually,
the necessity) to write long, exotic command strings, with mysterious,
inconsistent flag settings, pipes, filters, and redirections. The continuing
popularity of Unix remains a great puzzle, even though we all know that it
is not the best technology that necessarily wins the battle. I’m tempted to
say that the authors of this book share a similar love-hate relationship, but
when I tried to say so (in a draft of this foreword), I got shot down:
“Sure, we love your foreword,” they told me, but “The only truly irksome
part is the ‘c’mon, you really love it.’ No. Really. We really do hate it. And
don’t give me that ‘you deny it—y’see, that proves it’ stuff.
I remain suspicious: would anyone have spent this much time and effort
writing about how much they hated Unix if they didn’t secretly love it? I’ll
leave that to the readers to judge, but in the end, it really doesn’t matter: If
this book doesn’t kill Unix, nothing will.
As for me? I switched to the Mac. No more grep, no more piping, no more
SED scripts. Just a simple, elegant life:
“Your application has unexpectedly
quit due to error number –1. OK?”
Donald A. Norman
Apple Computer, Inc.
And while I’m at it:
Professor of Cognitive Science, Emeritus
University of California, San Diego