Courier

Perhaps I’m just jaded, but I can’t get excited over the two videos Gizmodo has put up demonstrating Microsoft’s Courier concept. First of all, Gizmodo is treating it as if it is a unique, unforeseen vision for a tablet computer. What exactly makes it so innovative? Is it the folding, two-page form factor? I don’t think so. Last year saw Negroponte’s announcement of the second-generation OLPC XO: the XO-2.

OLPC XO-2

And there was the Canovo that made the rounds in 2007.

Canovo

Then, of course, we’ve seen the dual screen eReaders by ASUS (2009) and iRiver (2007).

ASUS Eee Reader

iRiver E-BOOk

Well, then, is it the stylus? Surely not—we’ve had tablets and PDAs for years that have those. The iPhone was revolutionary for doing away with the stylus. Okay, could it be the multi-touch? Obviously not, as we’ve seen that in the iPhone, Surface, and any number of other demonstrations. And the combination of the two is already available in tablets such as Panasonic’s Toughbooks.

I’ve ruled out the form factor and input methods, so it isn’t the device itself or the technology behind it. Is the user interface especially innovative? There are some interesting ideas in it. Using the spine as a place to tuck things that you want to move from one page to another is a clever implementation of cut and paste, but beyond that, I don’t see any interaction patterns that I haven’t seen before. Quite frankly, I don’t find the scenarios to be very compelling. The UI has that “visionary concept” quality to it that suggests it hasn’t been fleshed out much beyond the script. The handwriting recognition is flawless, the screens show only the controls that provide access to the features showcased, and complex actions, such as selecting and copying a graphic and two columns of a 3-column table, are accomplished with a single touch of a finger.

Yes, it’s an interesting concept, and yes, there is value in creating such visionary explorations. However, I’ve seen far too many of these that don’t result in anything other than inspiration (not to say there is anything wrong with that), and Microsoft in particular has a horrible track record of delivering innovative products. Please pardon me for some uncharacteristic pessimism. I’m not going to take a deep breath, let alone hold it.

The Immortal Floppy

We Interaction Designers have a skeleton in our collective closet. Back when the desktop metaphor became king of the GUI, it made perfect sense to use a graphic representation of the storage medium to represent the “save” command. Thus, the floppy disk save icon was born. It served us well, and it gracefully made the switch from 5 1/4 to 3 1/2 inch floppies. Then computers, starting with the iMac, began shipping without floppy drives. Iomega Zip disks were popular for a few years, and then we pretty much saw the end of disk-based removable media. USB flash drives, solid state cards, and CD-RWs have subsumed the role that the floppy once filled.

And yet, if you look at the tool bar in your Office applications, there it is—the shrine to the ghost of computers past. We have new generations of computer users that have never seen, let alone used, a floppy disk. Sure, they will learn that the icon means “save”, but the visual metaphor is completely lost on them. I’m guilty as an accomplice in the perpetuation of this design crime. I have used the floppy icon liberally in the applications I have designed over the past ten years.

But what can it be replaced with? If there were an obvious answer to this question, it would already have happened. “Saving” is an abstract concept, so creating a generic icon to represent it is not easy.

What is more likely to happen is that the concept of saving will metamorphose into something different. We are already seeing it happen on the web. Entered data is often saved in small pieces, rather than requiring an explicit save at the “document” level. I have designed a few applications already that implicitly save changes as the user works. Sugar, the OS on the OLPC, automatically saves information to a journal based on time—there is no save button.

I predict that we will eventually see the “save” command fade away, and the floppy disk icon will take its final bow. In the mean time, I think I’ll try to repent and design a relevant icon.