The software tools philosophy was an important and integral concept in the initial design and development of Unix (of which Linux and GNU are essentially clones).
Many people carry a Swiss Army knife around in their pants pockets (or purse). A Swiss Army knife is a handy tool to have: it has several knife blades, a screwdriver, tweezers, toothpick, nail file, corkscrew, and perhaps a number of other things on it. For the everyday, small miscellaneous jobs where you need a simple, general purpose tool, it’s just the thing.
On the other hand, an experienced carpenter doesn’t build a house using a Swiss Army knife. Instead, he has a toolbox chock full of specialized tools—a saw, a hammer, a screwdriver, a plane, and so on. And he knows exactly when and where to use each tool; you won’t catch him hammering nails with the handle of his screwdriver.
The Unix developers at Bell Labs were all professional programmers and trained computer scientists. They had found that while a one-size-fits-all program might appeal because there’s only one program to use, in practice such programs are
- difficult to write,
- difficult to maintain and debug, and
- difficult to extend to meet new situations.
Instead, they felt that programs should be specialized tools. In short, each program “should do one thing well.” No more and no less. Such programs are simpler to design, write, and get right—they only do one thing.
Furthermore, they found that with the right machinery for hooking programs together, that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. By combining several special purpose programs, you could accomplish a specific task that none of the programs was designed for, and accomplish it much more quickly and easily than if you had to write a special purpose program.