Book Review: Showstopper! by Zachary

Showstopper! by G. Pascal Zachary chronicles the development of the Windows NT operating system released in 1993.

Showstopper! shows what a monumental project the NT kernel was. Lead by Dave Cutler, the Windows NT project was the first Microsoft operating system to use the NTFS filesystem and fully take advantage of 32-bit memory.

The main focus of the book is the personal effort of so many of the team members involved. Zachary himself went through a huge effort interviewing over a hundred people directly involved with the project and it shines through this book, giving a detailed view of the inner workings of the NT team.

The title of this book is apt and refers to the type of bug introduced in software that is so devastating that it pretty much causes it to be unusable in a typical use case. The project had so many of these bugs and lesser bugs as well numbering into the tens of thousands that it is fascinating to read the superhuman effort that went into fixing them, as well as introducing a bunch of new features as well.

I found this book particularly fascinating because I grew up using DOS, Windows 3.1, and later versions up until XP, after which I switched to Linux. My only wish is that it was a bit more technical in places. For example, there is a rather funny description of how an operating system works via an analogy to a wealthy family living in a house with a bunch of servants. Also, the author uses the word “personality” for the userspace of an OS that to me seemed rather confusing, and I think the book would have been clearer had it just used the appropriate precise terminology. At certain times when bugs or features were described, I would have liked to have a bit more of a technical description of those problems and their solutions, and perhaps less biographical details of some of the characters. Aside from these minor details, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book.

I heartily recommend this book for anyone interested in software development or computers.

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