With Snow Leopard set to debut tomorrow (except for all my industry friends who already have it that is), I’ve been pondering a lot as to the true value of new/improved operating systems. In a nutshell for SL it seems to be $30 to improve the overall performance of existing Leopard installations. That makes sense as a value proposition (for only $30, my $1000 laptop will perform better than it does today? count me in). Windows 7 is coming soon, which seems primed as a substantial improvement over Vista (insert cheap shot here), and again I ponder as to the alignment between market needs and product offerings.
My basic assertion is we’ve reached a plateau in the cycle of improving computer/OS/Internet experiences, and the investment should be more oriented on basic performance and reliability, as well as dramatic improvements in simple ease of use. As a simple assertion, it’s my belief that the average computer user (PC and Mac) is still challenged to perform tasks as “basic” as locating downloaded files, upgrading software, and virtually any kind of networking function. And for those of you reading and slowly sticking your nose in the air in a mocking fashion, your snobbery does not benefit those who use computers day-in and day-out, and in the long run is costing you time and money.
Here’s my target list of what fixes would help the bulk of computer users today and tomorrow:
- Expert Mode.
The steepest challenge in most systems is helping novices while empowering expert users. When it comes to as big a system as the core OS to a computer, the challenge is close to insurmountable. As a result, features that many people would want to use are buried into hard-to-find places or unknown keyboard shortcuts (command-shift-3 to screenshot? come on). In the short term, letting a user “flip a switch” to go into expert mode after getting comfortable with basic OS usage could be the easiest way to improve overall usability. Then, all sorts of helpful tooltips, modal alerts, and more could be used to help new/novice users learn the basics.
- The Download – Save – Install sequence.
Good examples: Firefox extensions and AIR applications.
Bad examples: everything else.
I am still stunned at the complexity of most installers, and I’m not even talking about the poorly designed installation wizards. The number of ZIPs, SITs, DMGs, RARs, and more that sit on desktops and download folders without getting opened is awful and reflects poorly not on users, but on the developers who built these systems. I get it that we need protection against viruses and malware, but can’t there be a smarter way to deal with this? Yes we can.
- Taking Screenshots.
If making screenshots was as simple for people to use as it should be, my hunch is tech support costs for application developers would drop dramatically. Instead, it’s a highly buried feature in both Windows and OS X, and it doesn’t look like that’s going away anytime soon.
- Integrated support for removable storage (semi-permanent vs not).
There are literally hundreds of millions of removable storage drives, both USB thumb sticks and external hard drives. Yet almost no basic set of applications have native support for the concept of a “semi-permanent” drive (one that sits on your office desk, for example, but not at home). Sure most apps can use data on these drives, but it’s always in a semi-dysfunctional manner. iPhoto, for example, retains thumbnails on the local hard drive, but at no point informs the user that the full resolution image won’t be available until the drive is reconnected. There should be utter clarity to the user, at all times, as to which files are where, and how to properly manage stuff. For a follow-up example with iPhoto, I should be able to “move” folders/events to removable drives (as my iPhoto Library is the biggest space consumer on my hard drive), and it should act smartly about it.
- Browser speed!
Okay, this is happening in Snow Leopard anyway, but I still wanted to iterate it. The bulk of time spent on computers is inside the browser these days, so the more the browser can natively be fast, the more productivity we have.
- File sharing.
I fundamentally believe that Finder and File Explorer still represent the worst aspect of computing. Watching people try to upload photos to sites like Tumblr is such an easy example of the brokenness of it all. The analog of folders/file folders is simply broken, as is the entire concept of what files, shortcuts, applications, etc are. If tied in to my earlier comment on “expert mode”, then the creation of a “novice” file browser could be a huge step forward. In the interim, the more the OS can help promote local search, the better.
Everybody (and I use the term fairly literally now) wants to use webcams. Whether its for dating, remote working and productivity (disclosure: Team Apart is a client of Stage Two Consulting), or staying in touch with friends or family, the webcam is probably the most useful accessory I can think of. So why did it take me over an hour to get my father’s working with Skype? Whatever needs to happen in regards to drivers, API, and other common technology components to make Webcams work all the time needs to happen, and soon.
Both Windows and OS X include backup capabilities. Both are better than they’ve ever been. Neither are good enough. If I had to make a wager on impending individualized technology crises, I’d bet that a lot of good people are going to suffer some serious data loss in the coming years. Backup should be more than just “an option”, but an annoying, pestering reminder that prevents users from doing much without properly configuring backups. Further, backup should be enabled on a per-file, per-folder, per-application basis (like Time Machine does, but even moreso).
- Automatic Document Saving & Versioning.
Technically this really lies within Office applications more than the OS, but it could happen at any level. The entire concept of “saving” a file is ridiculous. When you write on a piece of paper, it’s “saved”. You can opt to discard it, which you’d have to pro-actively do. If you want to easily retrieve it from a stack of others, you might put some special tag or label on it, or put it in a specific drawer or file cabinet that you have, which you’ve probably organized fairly easily. Electronic files must work the same way! The entire concept that one could write a document, then accidentally click a single button to destroy hours of work is utterly idiotic. The mere act of typing a new document should save, and every edit you make should also save, and every version of every edit should be retrievable (especially considering apps like Stickies and sites like WordPress do this natively). Instead of renaming documents, there should simply be a visual timeline and an easy-to-use slider that lets you use Time Machine-like visuals to see prior versions.
If the computer guys want to stop the mobile guys and social networking guys from owning my transactions, they need to step it up soon. A built-in wallet to more rapidly enable e-commerce and microtransactions is a logical evolution of the operating system, not a third-party Website.
Unfortunately there seems to be a bit too much energy into “video desktop backgrounds” instead. Ah well, one can dream. Any other “basic wants” people have to improve computing, please share in the comments!