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Polyglot

Week of August 8, 2003

It's hard to believe the world we live in is so young. If you're going to be technical about it, it's only ten years old.

Computer science is less than 100 years old. MS-DOS is less than 25 years old.

How many people remember what the CP/M acronym 'PIP' stands for? How many people ever handled a CP/M floppy? How many people appreciate PC console modes and how they relate to Gary Kildall's formatting choices? How many people have worked with COBOL code sheets, with punch cards, with EBCDIC?

Users and programmers - there's always been a wide berth, but the last ten years have ushered in a new meaning to the former term. Concepts such as 'issue the FORMAT command' are over their heads today. Instead we write - time and time again, as if this can never be simplified - 'type in 'FORMAT' and then hit <Enter>'. As if the sequence of events is meaningless, as if the user is today incapable of learning anything at all, even something as empty headed as this.

Typing itself is undertaken by the user only grudgingly and with resentment. Operations that require more than one mouse click are frowned upon - they're 'too technical', not 'user-friendly'.

It's a different world. The flounder can't just teach the man to fish; it has to catch the fish itself, clean it, fry it, set the table, put a bib on the man and spoon feed him - and then clean the table and do the dishes.

But simultaneously it's a world more polyglot than before. It is no longer sufficient to be able to boot a Windows machine, run Office applications, and surf the net - those who do not understand computer basics are hopelessly out of touch and will sooner or later find themselves helplessly out of work.

And the adept user must today also be familiar with - Unix. Thanks to Linus, Unix is getting where it belongs, and as frightening as it appears to the click and drool crowd, it is finally coming to stay. Every user must today know what Unix is; where Linux fits in; what KDE, GNOME, and Ximian are; and last but certainly not least: what Darwin is, what FreeBSD is (what 'BSD' stands for), and what OS X looks like (fabulous).

Ordinary die-hard users are today diversifying. Today they speak a smattering of Windows, a bit of Unix, and they do their day to day work on an Apple PowerBook.

Slash Dot, that bastion of open source and Linux, is today run from Apple machines. James Gosling, Sun Microsystems doyen and father of Java, runs his work from a PowerBook. Peter Coffee of eWeek does all his work on the same. And they're still tinkering with Windows and Linux, with the Win32 API and KDE and GNOME and C++ and Ximian all the time.

In today's world you have to be polyglot to survive.

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