Ramblings & ephemera

Cultural differences between Unix and Windows

From Joel Spolsky’s “Biculturalism” (Joel on Software: 14 December 2003):

What are the cultural differences between Unix and Windows programmers? There are many details and subtleties, but for the most part it comes down to one thing: Unix culture values code which is useful to other programmers, while Windows culture values code which is useful to non-programmers.

This is, of course, a major simplification, but really, that’s the big difference: are we programming for programmers or end users? Everything else is commentary. …

Let’s look at a small example. The Unix programming culture holds in high esteem programs which can be called from the command line, which take arguments that control every aspect of their behavior, and the output of which can be captured as regularly-formatted, machine readable plain text. Such programs are valued because they can easily be incorporated into other programs or larger software systems by programmers. To take one miniscule example, there is a core value in the Unix culture, which Raymond calls “Silence is Golden,” that a program that has done exactly what you told it to do successfully should provide no output whatsoever. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just typed a 300 character command line to create a file system, or built and installed a complicated piece of software, or sent a manned rocket to the moon. If it succeeds, the accepted thing to do is simply output nothing. The user will infer from the next command prompt that everything must be OK.

This is an important value in Unix culture because you’re programming for other programmers. As Raymond puts it, “Programs that babble don’t tend to play well with other programs.” By contrast, in the Windows culture, you’re programming for Aunt Marge, and Aunt Marge might be justified in observing that a program that produces no output because it succeeded cannot be distinguished from a program that produced no output because it failed badly or a program that produced no output because it misinterpreted your request.

Similarly, the Unix culture appreciates programs that stay textual. They don’t like GUIs much, except as lipstick painted cleanly on top of textual programs, and they don’t like binary file formats. This is because a textual interface is easier to program against than, say, a GUI interface, which is almost impossible to program against unless some other provisions are made, like a built-in scripting language. Here again, we see that the Unix culture values creating code that is useful to other programmers, something which is rarely a goal in Windows programming.

Which is not to say that all Unix programs are designed solely for programmers. Far from it. But the culture values things that are useful to programmers, and this explains a thing or two about a thing or two. …

The Unix cultural value of visible source code makes it an easier environment to develop for. Any Windows developer will tell you about the time they spent four days tracking down a bug because, say, they thought that the memory size returned by LocalSize would be the same as the memory size they originally requested with LocalAlloc, or some similar bug they could have fixed in ten minutes if they could see the source code of the library. …

When Unix was created and when it formed its cultural values, there were no end users. Computers were expensive, CPU time was expensive, and learning about computers meant learning how to program. It’s no wonder that the culture which emerged valued things which are useful to other programmers. By contrast, Windows was created with one goal only: to sell as many copies as conceivable at a profit. …

For example, Unix has a value of separating policy from mechanism which, historically, came from the designers of X. This directly led to a schism in user interfaces; nobody has ever quite been able to agree on all the details of how the desktop UI should work, and they think this is OK, because their culture values this diversity, but for Aunt Marge it is very much not OK to have to use a different UI to cut and paste in one program than she uses in another.

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