A note on computer notation: hieroglyphics

The Business Section of the New York Times for December 14, 2006, has a review of Microsoft’s new Vista offering by David Pogue, Vista Wins on Looks. As for Lacks …. Near the start it says:

So after five years, how is Windows Vista? Microsoft’s description, which you’ll soon be seeing in millions of dollars’ worth of advertising, is “Clear, Confident, Connected.” But a more truthful motto would be “Looks, Locks, Lacks.”

Further on, we find some observations that led to my writng this post:

Looks

Windows Vista is beautiful. Microsoft has never taken elegance so seriously before. Discreet eye candy is partly responsible. Windows and menus cast subtle shadows. A new typeface gives the whole affair a fresh, modern feeling. Subtle animations liven up the proceedings.

If the description so far makes Vista sound a lot like the Macintosh, well, you’re right. You get the feeling that Microsoft’s managers put Mac OS X on an easel and told the programmers, “Copy that.”

Here are some of the grace notes that will remind you of similar ones on the Mac: A list of favorite PC locations appears at the left side of every Explorer window, which you can customize just by dragging folders in or out. You now expand or collapse lists of folders by clicking little flippy triangles. When you’re dragging icons to copy them, a cursor “badge” appears that indicates how many you’re moving. The Minimize, Maximize and Close buttons glow when your cursor passes over them. There’s now a keystroke (Alt+up arrow) to open the current folder’s parent window, the one that contains it.

One of the most perceptive observations I’ve ever heard about graphical user interfaces, especially as personified by Windows, was made many years ago by one of my colleagues at NYU (I think it was Ed Schonberg.). Here it is, with some additions of my own.

Isn’t is odd that after thousands of years perfecting the written alphabet, and especially in the form of the Unix command line, we now find that to use a computer we have to understand hieroglyphics, or “icons,” each of which has a special meaning that is supposed to be obvious, but all to often isn’t?

With that thought at mind, let’s go over some of the symbolism mentioned by Pogue:

“Windows and menus cast subtle shadows.”

Who knows? “The Shadow knows.” I don’t care if the screen is subtle — I just want the software to work.

“Subtle animations liven up the proceedings”

Let’s save animated for discussions, not programming, please.

“You now expand or collapse lists of folders by clicking little flippy triangles.”

“Flippy triangles!” What is the semantics of that? Did someone at Microsoft flip out?

“When you’re dragging icons to copy them, a cursor “badge” appears that indicates how many you’re moving.”

Badge? How many man-years went into implementing this? No wonder this software is so late.

“The Minimize, Maximize and Close buttons glow when your cursor passes over them.”

Glow? In the dark? To paraphrase Chubby Checker, “how low can you glow.” (See Moving up the long tail

I especially wonder how folks who have trouble with their eyesight, either in accuity or color vision, are going to deal with this. How to you inform such a user that the mouse has just passed over a “flippy little triangle,” or that “this button is glowing”? (I hope the glow is not caused by polonium.)

I’ve always found it hard to deal with icons. Many non-Unix programs present oodles of them, yet I find myself using only a few, and try to use just the keyboard whenever I can, or the menu options otherwise.

That is the great appeal of Unix and Linux. You spend your time writing, in a cycle of editing and then commands issued on the “command line,” where you just type command names and provide arguments, all in simple, typed text. No need for a degree in ancient history or archeology, just plain, ordinary, text.

Plain text worked for Dante and Shakespeare. It worked for Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, and all the others who brought us Unix. It works today for Linus, Andrew Morton and all the others who are making Linux better each and every day.

What went wrong?

I’m not sure. But a good way to gain some insight is to read In the Beginning was the Command Line, by Neal Stephenson. It’s written in plain text – not an icon or hieroglyphic in sight.

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