Commanding

Since I started using Linux as my everyday operating system in 1995 or so I’ve always done quite a bit from the command line. It appealed to me as long as I can remember: I liked the idea of being able to log in to a machine remotely and do substantive work directly. That made much more sense than other schemes of remote manipulation (downloading files to work on them, then uploading changes; keeping copies of files on a local hard drive and synchronizing, etc). I like command history, being able to combine simple commands into complex ones, and most of all not taking my hands away from the keyboard to use the mouse. When Mac OS X was announced, the presence of a command line was the clincher which convinced me it would be worth using, and adding Terminal to the Dock is one of the first things I’ve always done when reinstalling or configuring a Mac. And when I want to write intensively, I often boot my Linux box without the GUI and get to work.

Jeff Atwood recently wrote that the browser is the new command line. The post is a retread, and I’m not sure that analogy plays 100% of the way through. Regardless, as is often the case with Coding Horror, the comments point to good things, like Goosh, a shell-like interface to Google, and Vimperator, a Firefox extension which replaces the toolbars and menus with Vim-like commands. Very funny. (There’s even Conkeror, just in case Vi/Emacs holy wars weren’t enough.)

Playing with Goosh a few minutes shows just how limited Atwood’s argument is: the “commands” he suggests are little more than search queries or Google shortcuts. Maybe we could say that “bloomberg” is the command that brings up Bloomberg.com–but even this is mediated by Google. The browser address bar isn’t much of a command line if you use a standard Windows install, which pushes stuff typed into Explorer to Microsoft search engines which have far fewer bells and whistles than Google (though maybe this is changing with Bing). And Atwood doesn’t mention real browser commands like about:plugins, again browser-specific. More to the point, my guess is most people have a very limited number of “commands” in their arsenal, as URLs get more and more irrelevant. I’ve watched people whose only command is “google”. They don’t see the URL at all. Much the same way, I imagine, they never imagine a command line, since it’s all but vanished from contemporary interfaces.

Even Google is downplaying these commands as separate from graphical interfaces. They’ve moved several advanced search operators from display as search query terms to control via the “Options” sidebar which appears on the left of results. Operators like daterange:, link:, and related: still function, but Google’s advanced search form implements them without the use of these complex queries. Too bad. We don’t need to weaken the URL any further: that, more than anything, is what makes the browser address bar invisible to most people, much less a command line.

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