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The Art of Unix Programming
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Unix Programming - What Unix Gets Right - Unix Is Fun to Hack

Unix Is Fun to Hack

People who pontificate about Unix's technical superiority often don't mention what may ultimately be its most important strength, the one that underlies all its successes. Unix is fun to hack.

Unix boosters seem almost ashamed to acknowledge this sometimes, as though admitting they're having fun might damage their legitimacy somehow. But it's true; Unix is fun to play with and develop for, and always has been.

There are not many operating systems that anyone has ever described as ‘fun’. Indeed, the friction and labor of development under most other environments has been aptly compared to kicking a dead whale down the beach.[8] The kindest adjectives one normally hears are on the order of “tolerable” or “not too painful”. In the Unix world, by contrast, the operating system rewards effort rather than frustrating it. People programming under Unix usually come to see it not as an adversary to be clubbed into doing one's bidding by main effort but rather as an actual positive help.

This has real economic significance. The fun factor started a virtuous circle early in Unix's history. People liked Unix, so they built more programs for it that made it nicer to use. Today people build entire, production-quality open-source Unix systems as a hobby. To understand how remarkable this is, ask yourself when you last heard of anybody cloning OS/360 or VAX VMS or Microsoft Windows for fun.

The ‘fun’ factor is not trivial from a design point of view, either. The kind of people who become programmers and developers have ‘fun’ when the effort they have to put out to do a task challenges them, but is just within their capabilities. ‘Fun’ is therefore a sign of peak efficiency. Painful development environments waste labor and creativity; they extract huge hidden costs in time, money, and opportunity.

If Unix were a failure in every other way, the Unix engineering culture would be worth studying for the ways it keeps the fun in development — because that fun is a sign that it makes developers efficient, effective, and productive.


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The Art of Unix Programming
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