Earlier this week, David Friedman proposed a new save icon to replace the antiquated floppy disk. In the ensuing discussion, many noted that with automatic revision control à la Google Docs and Mac OS X Lion becoming the norm, the whole notion of saving would become history and render the issue moot.
Whether that turns out to be the case or not, it raises several interesting questions. With so many computer icons based on specific technology, what happens when that technology fades from public consciousness? Does a lack of familiarity with that technology create usability problems with the icons? Should new icons be devised? And are they?
All English speakers understand the word window to mean an opening designed to let in air or light. But only the geeks among us know the rich history of this word. It originates from an Old Norse phrase describing an opening in a building’s roof as a wind eye. This poeticism was important early on for understandability and communicability of a new idea. But as the word took hold, it established a meaning of its own that transcended its legacy. Today, a window is no longer thought of as the metaphorical wind eye — a window is a window.
Icons are also a language, of the visual sort. In the early days of the graphical user interface, the desktop metaphor was heavily relied upon to communicate new ideas about computing. This was essential to its success, as the nascent GUI made a newbie out of everyone.
However, GUI conventions have since become engrained in our culture, and the meaning of terms like desktop, file, and trash in a computing context now transcend the original metaphors. We are in an age where people interact with digital folders much more than manila ones, where they know how to search without having ever handled a magnifying glass, and where they adjust their volume control without realizing it depicts a speaker cone.
And just as these icons live on beyond their origins, I say long live the floppy disk!