I realized the other day that, while I do almost all of my development “in *nix”, I don’t actually meaningfully program in what I traditionally have thought of as “*nix” anymore. And, if things like Hacker News, Lobsters, and random dotfiles I come across on GitHub are any indication, then there are many developers like me.
“I work on *nix” can mean a lot of very different things, depending on who you ask. To some, it honestly just means they’re on the command line: being in
cmd.exe on Windows, despite utterly different (and not necessarily inferior!) semantics, might qualify. To others, it means a rigid adherence to POSIX, even if GNU’s incompatible variants might rule the day on the most common Linux distros. To others, it truly means working on an actual, honest-to-goodness Unix derivative, such as some of the BSDs—or perhaps a SunOS or Solaris derivative, like OpenIndiana.
To me, historically, it’s meant that I build on top of the tooling that Unix provides. Even if I’m on Windows, I might be developing “in *nix” as long as I’m using
awk, shell scripts, and so on, to get what I need to do done. The fact I’m on Windows doesn’t necessarily matter; what matters is the underlying tooling.
But the other day, I realized that I’ve replaced virtually all of the traditional tooling. I don’t use
find; I use
fd. I don’t use
sed; I use
du is gone for
tmux, and so on. Even the venerable
awk are replaced by not one, but two tools, and not in a one-for-one: depending on my ultimate goal,
angle-grinder replace either or both tools, sometimes in concert, and sometimes alone.
I’m not particularly interested in a discussion on whether these tools are “better”; they work better for me, so I use them. Based on what I see on GitHub, enough other people feel similarly that all of these incompatible variations on a theme must be heavily used.
My concern is that, in that context, I think the meaning of “I write in *nix” is starting to blur a bit. The API for Windows is defined in terms of C (or perhaps C++, if you squint). For Linux, it’s syscalls. For macOS, some combo of C and Objective-C. But for “*nix”, without any clarifying context, I for one think in terms of shell scripts and their utilities. And the problem is that my own naïve scripts, despite being written on a legit *nix variant, simply will not run on a vanilla Linux, macOS, or *BSD installation. They certainly can—I can install fish, and
ripgrep, and whatever else I’m using, very easily—but those tools aren’t available out-of-the-box, any more than, I dunno, the PowerShell 6 for Linux is. (Or MinGW is for Windows, to turn that around.) It amounts to a gradual ad-hoc breakage of the traditional ad-hoc “*nix” API, in favor of my own, custom, bespoke variant.
I think, in many ways, what we’re seeing is a good thing.
awk, and the other traditional tools all have (let’s be honest) major failings. There’s a reason that
awk, despite recent protestations, was legitimately replaced by Perl. (At least, until people forgot why that happened in the first place.) But I do worry about the API split, and our poor ability to handle it. Microsoft, the paragon of backwards compatibility, has failed repeatedly to actually ensure that compatibility, even when armed with much richer metadata than vague, non-version-pinned plain-text shell-scripts calling ad-hoc, non-standard tooling. If we all go to our own variants of traditional Unix utilities, I worry that none of my scripts will meaningfully run in a decade.
Or maybe they will. Maybe my specific preferred forks of Unix utilities rule the day and all of my scripts will go through unscathed.