True believers: The biggest cults in tech

By , InfoWorld |  Personal Tech, Linux, Palm

Spend enough time around technology and it starts to get under your skin. It could be a gizmo that changed your life, an ancient computer you loved, or a programming language that took months to master before it finally clicked. And then, nothing was ever the same again.

It became a part of you. You began to identify with it, even develop a belief system around it. You may have attended regular meetings of others similarly afflicted, and openly despised members of other groups. Before you were even aware of it, you'd joined a cult.

[ Speaking of cults, take InfoWorld's IQ tests to see if you've got what it takes to hold your own among Apple maniacs, Windows admin gurus, Linux admin cognoscenti, or the order of programmers. ]

"People develop protective and tribal feelings about the technology they use," says Michael Jolkovski, a clinical psychologist. "And the metaphor of religious wars or cults is pretty accurate -- just as a person's religion becomes the main framework for apprehending reality, so does the OS of choice."

(Jolkovski adds that he belongs to the cult of Apple and is patiently awaiting orders from the mothership on what new gadgets to buy.)

Of course, the word "cult" tends to have negative connotations -- mind control, Kool-Aid, comets -- so if it makes you feel better, call it a club. Either way, you may well belong to one or more of the many tech cults/clubs out in the wild -- perhaps even some of the following seven.

[ Did we leave out your cult of choice? Nominate your favorites in the comments section below or log onto the Adventures in IT discussion forum on IT cults. ]

Tech cult No. 1: The Way of the Palm
Established: 1996
Gathering of the tribes: The Palm Forums
Major deities:
Jeff Hawkins, Donna Dubinsky
Sacred relics: Pilot 1000 and Pilot 5000
Mantra: The Pre will set us free

When Jonathon Ezor walked into a J&R Music store in the fall of 1996 and encountered his first Pilot 1000, it wasn't exactly a religious experience, but it was life-altering. He immediately began speaking in tongues -- or, more accurately, writing in flawless Graffiti, the Pilot's handwriting recognition alphabet.

"I picked up the stylus, was able to correctly write my name on the first try, and was hooked," says Ezor, an assistant professor of law and technology at Touro Law Center and an associate writer at the PalmAddict blog. "I became an evangelist shortly after that."

[ Good news for the Palm priesthood: Palm has ordained the Pre will run "classic" Palm apps. ]

Ezor says he's owned seven Palm PDAs in his life (he currently uses a TX) and estimates he's personally converted at least 200 people to the Way of Palm. He also admits that, on the rare occasions he uses pen and paper, he sometimes finds himself writing in Graffiti.

"Palm has just always gotten how people need to work," says Ezor. "They were open from the outset with their software. They had hot-syncing. Back then if you lost your Filofax, you lost your life. I can find every note I've ever taken back to 1996. I challenge anyone who uses legal pads to do that."

You can identify true devotees because they're the ones standing around beaming contact info and free apps to each other through their Palms' IR ports, says Ezor. Another bizarre ritualistic practice: Using their Palms as TV remotes.

But it's been a difficult few years in the desert for the Palmists. After a promising start, the company was acquired, reacquired, and spun off. The original Palm prophets, Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky, left to form Handspring, then later rejoined the Palm fold. The company opened up its hardware to heretical operating systems (Windows Mobile), causing dismay among the faithful, who watched helplessly as the BlackBerry and the iPhone passed them by. Now, with the coming of the Pre smartphone and WebOS, Palm's resurrection may finally be at hand.

Of course, there are the inevitable factions and feuds. Ezor believes Palm's rivalry with Microsoft in 1990s was overblown, but he sees Pre acolytes online eyeing St. Steven's Church of the Almighty iPhone with increasing vitriol.

"I think the true believers are the ones who had the Pilot 1000 or 5000, who jumped on the Palm before it went mainstream," he says. "And the orthodox sect belongs to people who prefer Graffiti 1 over Graffiti 2."

Tech cult No. 2: Brotherhood of the Ruby
Established:
1994
Gathering of the tribes: RailsConf, RubyConf
Major deities: Matz, DHH
Mantra: MINSWAN (Matz is nice, so we are nice)

Programming language Ruby and its younger, sleeker sibling, Ruby on Rails, evoke the kind of devotion usually seen in disciples who've spent years in the wilderness, only to find themselves on the cusp of mainstream acceptance.

"It helps that we're better than everyone else," jokes Obie Fernandez, author of one of the cult's sacred texts, "The Rails Way," and CEO of Hashrocket, a Ruby on Rails development house. "One of the main ingredients for cult devotion is a sense of superiority. Also, from the beginning we faced a lot of resistance. That persecution complex definitely helped sow the seeds of cultishness."

[ See which IDE is best for Ruby on Rails in the InfoWorld Test Center's comparison of nine tools. ]

Ruby was created in 1994 by the Zen-like Yukihiro Matsumoto, known simply as "Matz." He wanted to create a scripting language he described as "more powerful than Perl, more object oriented than Python." An open source community soon formed around Ruby, along with the philosophy of MINSWAN, or "Matz is nice, so we are nice."

In 2004, David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH) developed Ruby on Rails, an application framework based on Ruby that enables rapid-fire development of sleek-looking Web sites. Unlike Matz, DHH has been known to drop the F-bomb on people at conferences and other public events. Nonetheless, RoR quickly garnered tens of thousands of acolytes, including several at Fortune 500 companies.

"Thanks to a groundswell of open source support, Rails is very mature right now," says Fernandez. "The amount of enthusiasm in the community has created a richness of libraries and plug-ins around the framework, making it both powerful and productive."

While there is some rivalry between Rubyists and members of the Python cult, Fernandez says both are sworn enemies of the compiler clan. Being a dynamic language, Ruby doesn't require compiling before being run, leading to less coding and fewer errors, he says. (Followers of static compiled languages like Java and .Net may not-so-respectfully disagree, he acknowledges.)

The Ruby cult is also fiercely Mac-centric. Brandishing a Windows PC within view of a Rubyist can become a life-altering event, and not in a good way. "From the beginning we've taken a page from Apple playbook and concentrated on being superior," adds Fernandez. "We're not afraid to show off and look more polished than everyone else."

Tech cult No. 3: The Ubuntu tribe
Established:
2004
Gathering of the tribes: Ubuntu Developer Summits
Major deity: Linus Torvalds
Minor deity:
Mark Shuttleworth
Animal spirit guides: Breezy badgers, dapper drakes, feisty fawns, gutsy gibbons, hardy herons, intrepid ibexes, jaunty jackalopes

An offshoot from the Debian clan, Ubuntu may be the largest of the many Linux pagan belief systems, says Scott Steinberg, publisher of gadget site Digital Trends, in part because it's more accessible to less tech-savvy geeks.

"Ubuntu is one of the more robust and user-friendly builds of Linux available, and one that -- at odds with typical elitist mentalities -- comes with a community that's generally receptive and friendly to beginner- and intermediate-level users," he says. "Audience participation is welcomed and invited, and sincere efforts have been made to ensure appeal to a wide demographic."

[ Is Ubuntu as slick and user-friendly as its tribe claims? Find out in Neil McAllister's first look at Ubuntu 9.04. ]

Ubuntu code is governed by a council of more than 120 Masters of the Universe (MOTU), who handle development chores for the Universe and Multiverse repositories, plus another 55 mystics (core developers) and thousands of lay-programmers, says Ryan Troy, founder of Ubuntuforums.org. However, it is ruled by a single shaman: Mark Shuttleworth, CEO of Ubuntu's commercial sponsor Canonical, but more commonly known as Self-Appointed Benevolent Dictator for Life.

Although the word "Ubuntu" derives from an African philosophy meaning "I am what I am because of who we all are," disagreements abound among the faithful. Troy admits there's "a pretty good amount of drama" in the Ubuntu user forums, but says that overall the Ubuntu community is tightly knit and well governed. However, holy wars with followers of Windows, Mac, and other Linux distros continue to rage.

Tech cult No. 4: The Commodorians
Established:
1982
Gathering of the tribes: CommVEx, C4 Expo, World of Commodore
Major deity: Jack Tramiel
Minor deity:
Jim Butterfield (1936-2007)
Sacred relic: Commodore C65 

Commodorians know there is only one true path, and it is 8 bits wide.

From 1982 to 1994, the Commodore 64 was the most successful personal computer ever made. More than 30 million units were sold, and many are still in use today. It's probably the only machine to have a "nerdcore" rap band named after it or to have inspired a revival band (Press Play on Tape) that plays nothing but rock versions of themes from C64 games.

[ Relive the Commodore 64's 25th birthday celebration. ]

There are dozens of Web sites and multiple conferences devoted to the C64 (and its more recent sibling, the Commodore 128), as well as a small but thriving community of developers, says Jim Brain, an applications architect for a Fortune 500 life insurance firm. Brain says he started out with a VIC-20 in 1983 and graduated to a Commodore 64 before he "downgraded to a PC" in 1992. He develops new hardware for the Commodore Business Machines platform and contracts with overseas manufacturers to build the units.

"The Commodore 8-bit crowd is the computer world's analogy to old-time Volkswagen bug fanciers in the car world," says Eric W. Brown, president of Saugus.net, whose ShellTown operation provides Net access via shell for old hardware like the C64 and C128. "Believe it or not people are still writing new software for the C64/128, and these days there are people who handle all their e-mail and even surf the Web via their old C128 boxes."

"It's hard to distinguish among retro-folks, but I do think [Commodore 8-bitters] stand out as a collective group," adds Brain. "They appreciate game play over glitzy graphics, appear to be more willing to tear into something that is broken rather than just pitch it and buy something new. They like to modify things, and they tend to come up with creative solutions to problems."

Their most sacred relic: the Commodore 65, an improved version of the C64 that never made it past the prototype stage. Yet many Commodorians reject the notion of being a part of a cult; they tend to see themselves more as keepers of the eternal C64/128 flame.

"The cult is the Amigans," says one closely placed source who requested his name not be revealed. "These are people who worship the Commodore Amiga operating system and expect that one day its superiority will cause it to rise again. Some of them are really annoyingly crazy."

Tech cult No. 5: The Order of the Lisp
Established:
1958
Gathering of the tribes: International Lisp Conference
Major deity: John McCarthy
Minor deities: Paul Graham, Peter Norvig
Holy Scripture: "Paradigms in Artificial Intelligence Programming"

Like warrior monks driven into hiding, the Order of the Lisp was once a powerful force that lived at the heart of next-generation computing. Closely allied with artificial intelligence and expert systems, the Lisp (or List Processing) language fell into disrepute as those concepts became allied with the dark side in the late 1970s.

A backlash against overhyped rule-based expert systems led to the so-called "AI winter," notes Dan Weinreb, chairman of the International Lisp Conference (ILC). "The phrase 'artificial intelligence' became almost a dirty word, and the Lisp language was dragged down with it."

The language splintered into dozens of dialects as its practitioners dispersed across the Net. But it remained a potent force in academic circles and on message boards. Slava Akhmechet, a doctoral student in computer science at Stony Brook University, encountered Lisp on a programming bulletin board at the age of 16; he's been a devoted practitioner ever since.

He describes his conversion from skeptic to Skywalker in his Defmacro blog: "It was a journey on an endless lake of frustration. I turned my mind inside out, rinsed it, and put it back in place. I went through seven rings of hell and came back. And then I got it. The enlightenment came instantaneously. One moment I understood nothing, and the next moment everything clicked into place. ... I've achieved an almost divine state of mind, an instantaneous enlightenment experience that turned my view of computer science on its head in less than a single second."

Despite its being more than 50 years old, interest in Lisp is on the rise, says Weinreb. The International Lisp conference at MIT last March drew more than 200 attendees -- nearly twice as many as ILC 2007. The language is still in commercial use, though Weinreb says "there are companies using Lisp now who keep that fact a secret, feeling that they would be discredited to some extent if their use of Lisp were known, which is pretty silly."

Akhmechet says you can identify true believers by their contrarian nature and their love for things of great beauty, regardless of age.

"Remember the part of 'Star Wars' where Luke is introduced to the light-saber?" he says. "Obi Wan says, 'It's an elegant weapon, from a more civilized age.' That's how we feel about Lisp. It was designed in the 1960s by people who truly loved their craft and is an improvement not only on its predecessors, but also on most of its successors. It has certain elegance and beauty to it that mathematicians recognize in some of their formulas, poets in their poems, and physicists in their theories."

Tech cult No. 6: Monks of the Midrange
Established: 1960
Gathering of the tribes: Common 2009
Major deity: Dr. Frank Soltis
Holy scriptures: The IBM Redbook
Sacred relic: Original AS/400

Like their elder brethren devoted to IBM mainframes, the monks of IBM's midrange systems congregate to celebrate the IBM i, iSeries, i5/OS, AS/400 and related solutions, says Randy Dufault, president of the Common Users Group. Although the group traces its history back to the day vacuum tubes vanished from modern computers, it still boasts more than 4,000 members, who meet annually to keep the power systems flame alive.

Dufault says the cult's bizarre rituals include chanting "Market the 'i'!" whenever other IBMers are around, checking the Web site to see if IBM has changed the system's name again, and making regular pilgrimages to Rochester, Minn., birthplace of the Application System/400 family.

You can identify midrange monks by the way they're always collecting paper handouts from presentations, storing them for decades, and never looking at them until their spouse threatens to throw them all away, says Dufault. "Then they look through them and store them in another place until the spouse finds them again, usually in another five to seven years."

Although cultlike in their devotion, Commoners are both collaborative and flexible, says Dufault, and willing to incorporate newer technologies like AIX and Linux into their ancient beliefs.

Tech cult No. 7: The Tao of Newton
Established: 1993
Gathering of the tribes:
Worldwide Newton Conference
Major deity: John Sculley
Minor deities: Too many to name; many are listed in MSU's unofficial Newton Hall of Fame
Holy scripture: The Newton FAQ
The Antichrist: Steve Jobs

How is it that a thing can die and yet live on?

Ponder this paradox, grasshopper, as we tell of perhaps the most slavishly devoted tech cult of all: the Apple Newton MessagePad, aka God's PDA.

Debuting to lavish hype in 1993, the Newton was arguably the beginning of the larger Apple cult and its aura of impeccable coolness. From the Newton's loins sprang most of what we think of as Apple chic today; many Newtonians draw a direct line from the original PDA to today's iPhone.

[ Have or want tech icons from the early days, such as a Newton, Mac 128, or early IBM PC? See what it's worth in InfoWorld's vintage-tech gift guide. ]

So what happened? The original Newton was bulky and expensive, with a few glitches, most famously its less-than-letter-perfect handwriting recognition (ruthlessly parodied by Doonesbury's Gary Trudeau). The smaller, nimbler, cheaper PalmPilot soon dominated the market. A few months after Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he killed the device, earning the permanent enmity of the Newton faithful, who would hold up their MessagePads in silent protest during Jobs' keynote speeches.

Bowed but unbeaten, Newtonians continued to develop software as open source projects. MessagePad hackers added support for MP3s, Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth; the Einstein Project created Newton OS emulators for devices like the Sharp Zaurus and Nokia 770, as well as Apple Macs and Windows PCs. Each year the Newton faithful gather at the Worldwide Newton Conference.

Meditative rituals for the cult include "installing software, replacing backlights, endlessly discussing rumors of a new Apple tablet device, complaining that the PalmPilot stole our thunder, and correcting commoners' assumptions that non-Newton devices are true PDAs," notes Grant Hutchinson, who maintains the NewtonTalk mailing list (as well as a chronological list of every haircut he's had since 1998, if that tells you anything).

He says Newtonians can be spotted by the transcendental glow cast by their MessagePads' green backlights. And they live for the day the Newton will rise again -- perhaps in the form of that oft-rumored tablet, the existence of which Apple steadfastly denies.

"The echo of cult-likeness might be in the wish to stop time, to deny the reality of loss," notes psychologist Mike Jolkovski. "For a while, the Newtonians kept hope that the gizmo would rejoin the Apple product line -- much as people pined for the reunion of the Beatles. But no, the Beatles aren't getting back together, the Newton is gone and will stay that way, and we are all going to die."

But, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. Wasn't it Steve Wozniak who said that?

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