Chad Perrin: SOB

30 September 2009

About Those IT Concepts You Might Not Get

Filed under: Geek — apotheon @ 06:04

I recently read Ten IT Concepts That Non-IT People Don’t Get. Aside from the fact I noticed inconsistency between the capitalization scheme for the “title” of the first of the ten concepts and those that followed, I also felt a burning desire to respond to several of the points. What follows is a summary of my thoughts on each of these concepts that, apparently, Non-IT People Don’t Get.

By the way, if you don’t read the original first, parts of this might not make much sense.

  1. When to Click and When to Double-Click

    This point is pretty much summed up in one question: “Can you make rules for when to click and when to double-click?” It gets more specific with “Why do you double-click an icon to perform the action, but only single-click a button?”

    The answer to the second question is actually pretty simple: you double-click an icon because there might be a reason to single-click it just to select the button. The only reason in normal usage for selecting a button without clicking it is to be able to “click” it using the keyboard, so you don’t have to use the mouse — say, using the Tab key to cycle through buttons until you get the one you want. If you’re going to use the mouse to select it, you might as well just use the mouse to click it. You might want to select an icon to copy it, to get the full text below the icon to show up (as in cases of long names for desktop shortcuts that get truncated when the icon isn’t selected), and so on.

    There’s another reason for the difference, too: a button on a GUI is a metaphorical representation of a physical button, which one would likely reason only requires one click to work. The same does not apply to an icon.

    I think a simple explanation of this theory of how to determine when to single-click and when to double-click could help immensely. Of course, this is the logical approach. Some UI designers don’t stick to the logical approach, and we can’t really blame users if they have difficulty navigating the confusing waters of bad UI design.

  2. Hierarchical Folders

    “Folders” are just stupid icons used in GUIs to represent filesystem directories. They should never have been called “folders” in official application documentation in the first place. The confusion engendered by hierarchically arranging “folders”, which are generally not arranged that way with real, physical folders, is a direct result of some idiot thinking the system needed to be dumbed down to the user’s level by abandoning the term “directory”. Maybe the schmuck thought “directory” had too many syllables in it.

    The problem of inconsistent representations is a big one, and could easily be mitigated (if not entirely solved) by ensuring there’s always an available hierarchical representation of the filesystem location of a given directory. I still haven’t figured out why I need to explicitly open Windows Explorer, in default configuration, to get a hierarchical view of the filesystem while browsing through it; browsing the same stuff by opening My Computer gives you a completely different view, with different behavior. Bad UI design strikes again. Inconsistency not only of appearance, but also of functionality, when there is no reasonable explanation for it, is not good design.

  3. Using Add/Remove Programs

    The unobviousness of linking unwanted software with Add/Remove Programs is largely the fault of the fact that it’s not really a universal software management system. In this respect, MS Windows could definitely learn a thing or two from open source Unix-like operating systems such as any mainstream Linux distribution or BSD Unix system. When you expect all software, by default, to come from your software management system, it makes sense to expect all software to be removed through the software management system’s interface as well — and the exceptions should be fairly clear.

    When you have something like the Add/Remove Programs software management system on MS Windows, though, installation (and all too often uninstallation as well) is handled separately from that interface. As a result, users never really become used to thinking of that as the logical place to check for how to uninstall software. Even worse, trying to use Add/Remove Programs to uninstall software sometimes fails or even breaks the smooth operation of the system in nonobvious ways.

    As for keeping software but stopping it from starting automatically — this is a big issue. I have yet to encounter a centralized, simple interface for managing this sort of thing that doesn’t run afoul of confounding exceptions far too often. FreeBSD, Debian GNU/Linux, and MS Windows are all guilty of this sort of problem.

  4. Installing Bundled Software Hurts

    Yeah. I wish hardware didn’t come with crapware. Even supposed experts like me have been stung by this problem from time to time. This is not something that is a problem because “Non-IT People Don’t Get” it. This is something that’s just a problem, period. In some respects, I guess, it’s a good thing hardware and software vendors rarely write software that runs on something other than MS Windows, because otherwise this problem would exist on Linux distributions and BSD Unix systems as well.

  5. That There Is A Choice Of Software

    I have nothing to add here, other than that it goes far beyond browsers. This was written using Vim in XTerm on FreeBSD. The guy who originally wrote Ten IT Concepts That Non-IT People Don’t Get has probably never used any of those, and probably has some kind of deep-seated belief that, really, he doesn’t have the option of using them — for reasons of some excuse or other.

  6. What Updates Do

    Here, the guy seems to be saying he’s Non-IT People. He seems to be saying he, too, doesn’t know What Updates Do. I really don’t know what to say about that.

  7. Software Licensing

    “We need to put aside a discussion of whether software should be free or not for this one, and let’s just assume that people are happy paying for software for now.”

    Actually, we don’t need to put that aside. I think he utterly fails to understand the difference between open source software and free (as in beer) software. If people are, as he puts it, “happy paying for software”, they can do so even if the software is open source. Certain open source licenses make this sort of thing more difficult than others, and in fact some of them are particularly well suited to corporate monopolistic practices.

    Frankly, software with simple copyfree licenses such as the BSD and MIT/X11 licenses and the Open Works License solve this problem quite neatly. They’re even understandable by people who aren’t lawyers.

  8. What Memory (RAM) Is For

    Yeah . . . that’s a tough one. I can always try explaining, one person at a time, what RAM does — but without getting OS and windowing system developers to make it easier to view information about memory usage, and easier to understand it, there isn’t really a systematic solution to this problem.

  9. How To Use Networking

    OpenSSH is awesome. Everybody in the world should learn how to use it, and every general purpose desktop system should have it readily available. Copying across a network using OpenSSH utilities such as scp would help people start getting a grasp of How To Use Networking pretty quickly, I think. Too bad MS Windows doesn’t want its users to understand that stuff.

    Turning computers off when not in direct use all the time seems to be more of an outgrowth of the penny-ante system architecture of MS Windows, really. The damned thing needs to be rebooted so often one might as well just turn it off every time one goes to the bathroom, just to cover the bases. More stable systems that don’t require regular reboot for things like configuration changes to take effect do not train their users to turn them off just because they’re heading to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.

    Dropbox may be convenient, but I’m skeptical of its security. Also, y’know, it does much the same thing as sshfs — a network filesystem that uses the SSH protocol — except that it’s entirely in someone else’s hands. Not my idea of a must-have tool.

  10. The Display Is Not The Computer

    Do people still have this problem? Seriously?

    Frankly, if things are as bad as the way they’re explained here, I think we’re going to see a lot of people dying as the Singularity approaches just for sheer failure to adapt to a changing world. Maybe we shouldn’t waste too much time on a class of people who won’t survive the next fifteen years anyway.

    Okay, I’m kidding. Mostly.


  1. What Memory (RAM) Is For

    For all these things I use the information factory analogy for the computer. It is not perfect, not nearly, but it works.

    hard drive = warehouse

    ram = workshop

    cpu = assemblyline

    software = tenants who use the factory space.

    MS windows = the landlord software

    MS office = a tenant software who is a cousin of the landlord


    Comment by sickmind — 1 October 2009 @ 02:14

  2. I tend to prefer the “person at a desk” analogy. Given a person sitting at a desk:

    1. His brain is the CPU.

    2. His hands are RAM.

    3. The desk is the hard drive.

      • The flat surface directly in front of the person is the swap partition or pagefile.

      • The shelves along the back of the desk and the desk drawers (including the file drawer) comprise the rest of the hard drive.

    Adding more RAM is like adding more hands. Adding more CPUs is like adding more people (especially since one normally ends up with more RAM as well). Adding more CPU cores is just adding more brains.

    Of course, if you end up with a person that has four brains and eight hands, that’s not really human any longer — but then, a modern computer with a quad-core processor and 4GB of RAM isn’t quite the same as the original IBM PC.

    Comment by apotheon — 1 October 2009 @ 04:50

  3. I used to own an IBM PC330. (:

    Intel Pentium 90 x386 512MB HDD and some insanely small amount of RAM.

    Needless to say I installed a second harddrive (even though the model didn’t support more then one), overclocked the CPU and ran RedHat 6.2 through 7.2 (after 7.2 RedHat became increasingly crappy for my uses).

    Comment by Joseph A Nagy Jr — 2 October 2009 @ 09:09

  4. That’s pretty funny, I haven’t come across anyone yet that thinks the display is the “computer”. I really hope that I don’t too. ;)

    Comment by Chris — 24 November 2009 @ 05:21

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All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License