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Windows by Day, Linux by Night

by Tim O'Reilly
05/01/2000

That's one of the guilty secrets of the Linux community. We are embarrassed to admit it, but many of do use Windows some (or even a great deal) of the time. Maybe we use Windows at the office and hack on Linux at night; maybe we dual boot, for the times that StarOffice won't let us edit that complex presentation because it's turned a multi-object slide into a single image; maybe we run Linux on the desktop but Windows on a laptop; maybe we write and test multiplatform code or manage a heterogenous network. Whatever the reason, a great many Linux and UNIX users spend a lot more time working with Windows than they might like, or like to admit.

A few stats: the browser signatures from the logs of such open source centric sites as www.oreillynet.com, www.perl.com, oreilly.linux.com, and www.oreilly.com demonstrate just how much we all live with Windows:

www.oreillynet.com:

RankPlatform
1Windows
Windows NT
Windows 98
Windows 95
Windows 2000
Unknown Windows
Windows 32 bit
Windows 3.1
Windows 16 bit
Windows CE
2OS Unknown
3Unix
Linux
SunOS
BSD
IRIX
HP-UX
OSF1
AIX
Other Unix
4Macintosh
Macintosh PowerPC
Macintosh 68k
Unknown Macintosh
5Web TV
6OS/2
7RISC OS
8BeOS

www.perl.com:

RankPlatform
1Windows
Windows 98
Windows NT
Windows 95
Unknown Windows
Windows 32 bit
Windows 16 bit
Windows 3.1
Windows CE
2OS Unknown
3Unix
Linux
SunOS
IRIX
BSD
OSF1
AIX
Other Unix
4Macintosh
Macintosh PowerPC
Macintosh 68k
Unknown Macintosh
5OS/2
6Amiga
7RISC OS
8WebTV
9BeOS
10VMS

oreilly.linux.com:

RankPlatform
1Windows
Windows 98
Windows NT
Windows 95
Unknown Windows
Windows 2000
Windows 32 bit
Windows 16 bit
Windows CE
Windows 3.1
2Unix
Linux
SunOS
BSD
IRIX
HP-UX
OSF1
AIX
Other Unix
3OS Unknown
4Macintosh
Macintosh PowerPC
Macintosh 68k
Unknown Macintosh
5OS/2
6BeOS
7Amiga
8Open VMS
9WebTV
10RISC OS

www.oreilly.com:
(Note: oreilly.com measures platforms by percentage. These percentages appear to correspond to the stats delivered by the other sites listed above.)

31.40%Windows NT
22.78%Windows 98
21.54%Unknown Platform
11.64%Windows 95
 4.26%UNIX (Linux)
 3.02%Macintosh (PowerPC)
 1.93%UNIX (SunOS)
 1.78%Windows 95/NT (32-bit)
 0.43%Windows
 0.20%UNIX (IRIX)

That's not as different as you might expect from the net as a whole.

And because we don't admit to our use of Windows, because it's a guilty secret, we don't spend the kind of time learning how to get the most out of the system. We do what we have to, and then go home, to where we feel more comfortable.

That changed for me a year and a half ago. One of the primary authors working on our book Windows 95 in a Nutshell was having trouble producing, and I jumped in to help get the project out by its due date (which as a joke, we made our first "day and date" book--we released it on the day Windows 98 shipped.) What I found, as I had to dig into the system to get the book written, was that as I understood it better, I could get a lot more out of it. Not a big surprise, eh?

So we set out to document Windows 95 (and later Windows 98) in a way that no Microsoft manual has ever done. We created the equivalent of "man pages" for every user level program and other major user interface features of the system. These pages include:

  1. The name and path of the executable, so you can run it from the command line (either a DOS shell, or in Windows 98, the new address toolbar, or if you have a third party product like MKS Toolkit, which brings UNIX utilities to Windows, a korn shell). No need to pick through 5 layers of menu to run Solitaire any more...just type sol in the address toolbar.

  2. Any related files or directories. (One of the things you quickly learn is that many key UI features in Win95 and Win98 are controlled by the contents of some key system directories. Change the contents of those directories, and you change the system more quickly than using Microsoft's graphical configuration tools.)

  3. Key tips and gotchas for each program or feature.

We also wrote a bunch of condensed tutorial chapters on features that didn't lend themselves to man page organization--things like the boot process and the structure of the registry. This book is packed with more useful information about Windows 98 than any other book on the market.


Read sample chapters from both Windows 95 in a Nutshell and Windows 98 in a Nutshell.


Here's the comment that we got from one recent reader, which I include in its entirety because it sums up the appeal of the book:

I must confess that I would not ordinarily think of buying a windows nutshell book because I foolishly thought that I already knew a fair bit about Windows 9x and NT for that matter. However, after browsing through Windows 98 in a Nutshell in a Borders Books, I discovered that this book thoroughly covered many aspect of Win9x in a very concise and readable fashion: networking, boot process, all (and I mean all) miscellaneous and utility programs.

Each aspect is covered very nicely: syntax, command options, the effects of the choices (*very important*) and something that I found neat...often there are URLs pointed to a Web reference for a piece of shareware or freeware that either replaces the Windows functionality or supplants it with a better idea.

This is the type of book that I call a "commuter book" because you are unlikely to read it cover to cover at one sitting, but more likely to pick it up every spare moment and just cruise through it looking for a gem (and there are many tidbits).

In my case, I was on the commuter train thinking about how to automate an FTP file upload from a customer's machine to a Unix server on their network, and I looked up the DOS mode ftp program and discovered the syntax to conduct an unattended ftp session! Marvelous.

I think if you run Windows 9x you have to have this reference book. Forget all the other books that are phone book size (with a CD full of useless stuff that is out of date anyway) and get this compact and chock-a-block full guide.

(I already own Unix in a Nutshell, but I had bought that when I knew little about Unix. Now I realize that you need these books more when you THINK you know what you are doing!).

Kerry Liles

Anyway, to make a long story short, the reason I'm writing this article is that I realized we were marketing the book all wrong. We've been trying to sell it to Windows users. And yes, they've bought a few tens of thousands of copies. But the average Windows user doesn't really want to know what's under the hood. It's the UNIX and Linux users who think that way. But because they don't use Windows every day, and because they think they know enough to get by, they don't take the time to learn about Windows the way they learn about Linux. And, as a result, they fail to make the most of the time they have to spend on Windows.

I was recently looking over the shoulder of a very well-known perl hacker as he picked his way through the cascading Windows Start Menu to find a program he wanted to run. He didn't realize that if you have an Address Toolbar running as part of your Taskbar, and know the name of the program, it's as quick to run a program as it is from a UNIX shell. I gave him a copy of Windows 98 in a Nutshell to take home.

If you're stuck on Windows, and wish you were using Linux, "don't get mad, get even." Learn the things that Microsoft doesn't tell you, and make the system work for you. Add perl from ActiveState, MKS Toolkit, and this book, and you'll find you've made yourself a home away from home...you'll be a lot more comfortable, and will get a heck of a lot more done to boot.