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The Death of an Icon

Calendar July 6, 2016 | User Paul Saunders

This blog post first appeared in the July/August 2016 edition of the Aircraft IT MRO eJournal.

Did you hear the story about the guy who dug a floppy disk out from his attic and showed it to his teenage son?

“Cool – you 3D printed a save icon.”

was the hilariously earnest response.

Material devices of my youth are becoming an increasing rarity in computing these days. The comedic reactions of our offspring when encountering artifacts that some of us take for granted are often priceless. I remember when my son, then aged around 7 or 8, first saw a vinyl record, his reaction was:

“Wow – you could get a million songs on there!”

I have found that the same confusion exists with more abstract technology artifacts… In particular files. Saving and printing in my household is a painful exercise that occurs almost every day thanks to school homework. I learned all about files and file systems the hard way back in the early 90s. If anyone has ever tried writing a ten thousand word dissertation on a shared computer, with a fraction of the memory that my watch has, they’ll attest to my student mantra of “back-up, don’t f*** up.” My kids unfortunately don’t understand files one bit.

My kids can work on a project in whatever media of their choosing and switch seamlessly between devices plus distribute to the web without ever having to encounter the concept of a file. They don’t need to save anything, as the application remembers everything they’ve done. They don’t need to store the project in a tangible location when setting the work down, as the application simply presents to them what they were recently working on. For crying out loud! They don’t even need a search function.

So when they need to do something alien like print out a document or save it onto something portable to take into school, it’s a total rigmarole. Whilst the process of getting homework authored on an iPad onto the one PC connected to a printer in our household is the subject of scorn for my kids, it’s second nature to their old man. It’s not the print icon that sucks for them – it’s the save icon.

The whole concept of files and saving is becoming increasingly irrelevant. It’s now a reassuring UI component akin to a comfort blanket that tends to mean, ‘I’m done’; rather than explicitly saving the thing I’m working on. With web applications and collaborative systems, the notion of a file is somewhat outmoded, so ‘saving’ is a completely different concept under the hood and the button itself is a placebo. When storage and bandwidth was relatively expensive in the early days of the cloud, a save button was a sensible alternative to frequent auto-saves and micro-versions, but those days are long behind us. However, I must admit that it does feel odd using modern software that doesn’t provide a save button, but in the same way that I am now comfortable with driving a car without a handbrake, it’s something you get used to.

I’m not opposed to seeing that tiny bit of screen real-estate ring-fenced for our old friend the save icon, but I do have a greater appreciation for what it’s actually doing for me… I’m publishing, sharing, distributing, or simply closing my work rather than writing ones and zeros to a spinning magnetic disk inside a three and a half inch square of plastic… or at least that’s how I see IT.

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