posted by Kostis Kapelonis on Mon 29th Nov 2004 18:55 UTC

"High level computing, Page 2/2"

Shifting the workload to the computer

Nobody expects computers to act like a washing machine or require zero experience. After all if you want to drive a car legally you need to have a driving license which is obtained after driving lessons. The car however, takes some decisions behind your back. For example the onboard embedded computer controls automatically the fuel injection process. It regulates the fuel flow to the engine in order to minimize the harmful emissions and maximize performance. This happens transparently from the user. No driver cares about such low level decisions. All drivers want to reach their destination safe and fast.

In a similar manner computers need to do some things automatically. We don't have to create the ideal user experience but we can take small and important steps slowly and gradually. Why have a defragging application on its own? Why doesn't the computer defrag itself when idle? It is not a technical problem (see most UNIX filesystems). Automation is not something exotic or new. If you spend some time calculating how much time you spend in front of the computer doing actual work and how much time you spend on unneeded management, administration and maintenance you will be surprised.

Why do we have a save function in Word 2003? The same function existed 9 years ago in Word 6. Thousands of users have lost their documents during blackouts. Thousands more will lose their work in the future. Saving can be automatic. I am not talking about partial solutions (like Vi and Emacs do) which protect the user from losing work. I am talking about the whole idea of saving. Why torture the user with the save function at all? The application should save the document at all times keeping different versions and revisions. The whole .doc file should contain all user actions on the document (think CVS in a single file).Opening the file would be a simple question. Open the latest version or edit the version of a specific date/time. The Word application should not have a save menu/button anywhere on the interface. The user doesn't care about this. (Ok, ok maybe a "save as... which just relocates the document file but you get the idea).

Making money by adding complexity

Now we reach the key point of this article. The situation is horrible simply because the companies behind the scenes are greedy. I am not talking about Microsoft (only).I mean the mafia of software and hardware companies which act as they see fit. Money, money and more money. Helping the user is an afterthought. What really pushed me to write this article is the new digital photography era.

It is no secret that with the boom of digital cameras a lot of people bought computers in order to edit and store their photos. The simplest approach (from the user's point of view) is to have some kind of "disk" where photos are stored. Digital cameras write this "disk" and then computers can read this "disk" in order to edit the photos. The "disk" is universally accepted. Joe User can take his "disk" to Jenny User and insert it into her computer. No fuss no problem. Now take a look at the real situation. We have compactflash, SD, smartmedia, memory stick and so on. Each format is supported from different companies. Why oh why? Why make the life of the user a living hell? Why make money from all the adapters that have flooded the market? Why do I have to buy a "4 in 1" card reader? Why?

This is a classic situation which shows that things are organized around companies and not around people. Coming back to computer interfaces the situation is similar. Each operating system is just a platform. Each company creates different applications which have a different purpose. There are thousands of applications and thousand of file formats. The user needs to find the correct application for his high level task. Sometimes two or three applications are needed for one high level task. The whole IT sector is centered around companies and not around the end users. Things work so that companies make money, while in reality users get little job done.

Google mail: one small step ...

The "high level computing" dream is not hard to achieve. We can reach it with simple steps which make the user suffer less and give more work to the computer. The latest example is the Google email (gmail).

Gmail offers 1GB of storage data. Everyone is impressed by this number. Some people have already created several utilities for accessing this space remotely (1GB internet drive).This is not however the important news. The side effects are more critical for the users. By giving away 1GB and encouraging users not to delete emails but to archive them instead, the end users have one less constraint. Think Aunt Tillie. No more "you have blah,blah space left in you mail account". No more "I have to free some space in my email account". Mail management with Gmail gets one level higher. "I send and I get emails". There is no "I delete emails" in the picture or "I monitor my account space". One less problem for Aunt Tillie. This is the "high level computing" I am talking about!

The same approach can be applied to user interface, consumer electronics,compression algorithms, image formats (do we need all of them?) and most other areas of IT and computing in general.Think the user first! I could write a load more about autonomous computing, the amount of money companies get from technical support or even several other interesting ideas that have recently appeared (ratpoison, ion and friends) but this is just a simple article and nothing more. Food for your brain....

About the author
Kapelonis Kostis is a computer science graduate. He believes that all operating systems suck and envisions a day where computers work like those in the movies. They are fast, simple and easy to use. They are user-centric and they help users get on with their lives rather than wasting time in trivial details and low level decisions.
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