Are you sure?

Cover of the 1972 Sphere Books English transla...

Cover of the 1972 Sphere Books English translation of the novella and Matryona’s Place (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“How do you get rid of a database table?” said the disembodied voice of my colleague from beyond the partition.

“DROP TABLE <tablename>” I replied.

“What about if you want to get rid of a whole database?” came the response.

“DROP DATABASE <databasename>” I replied.

After a short pause, my colleague said “Just supposing you’d dropped the wrong database – how do you get it back?”

“You can’t – unless you have a backup.”

“Oh!” he said. “It’s very easy to do isn’t it?”

The thing is, he probably saw a dialog box pop up instantly after he entered the command with those three little words; “Are you sure?” The trouble is, it only takes a heartbeat to read those words and in that brief instant, you are totally sure. After all, you just typed the command. It takes a full 5-6 seconds before you get that “Oh my God!”, heart stopping, toe-curling moment where you realise the size of your monumental cock-up. And by that time, the dialog box is long gone and the machine is busy munching its way through your hard drive.

I don’t know how many dialog boxes we see during a typical working day, but it must be a lot. 99.9% of these dialog boxes will be for something whimsical. Only so often are we doing something of such magnitude that we should pay attention to those three little words. But the trouble is, the dialog looks the same regardless of the consequences.

About to nuke your hard disk with everything on it – “Are you sure?” Of course I’m sure, do it already… Oh shit!

Also – you never get those dialog boxes when you really need them, like when you are about to send a career defining email to far too many people or when you are about to spend a load of money on a present for your wife that she’s going to hate. Or you’re about to wash some white stuff and a sneaky brightly coloured sock has sneaked in.

It would help if these dialog boxes were different in some way. Maybe they could be colour coded to indicate the scale of the consequences. Deleting a single file – no problem, you get a green dialog box. If you are about to recursively delete everything in the root directory, you get a flashing red and yellow dialog accompanied by a suitable sound – like  a klaxon.

Or maybe we could vary the text on the dialog box. We could use lines from famous films. “Go ahead punk, do you feel lucky?” or “I’ll put that down to shock, but only once. Only once can or will I let you get away with that.”

We’d probably still make the same cock-ups, but at least it would be more interesting.

Window replacement

Microsoft Windows 95 operating system cover shot

Microsoft Windows 95 operating system cover shot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Microsoft has always been an adaptable beast, constantly reinventing itself to adapt to whatever technology landscape is the current order of the day. Sometimes they are slow to adapt, such as when Bill Gates initially dismissed the internet, but they are quick to catch up.

This week, 18 years after the fanfare of Windows 95, comes the launch of Windows 8. Back in 1995, Take That and Blur were fighting for the number 1 spot in the charts. Sweden, Austria and Finland had just joined the European Union and Netscape had just gone public.

The computing landscape was very different back then. Pretty much every desktop in the world ran Windows, so Microsoft found a ready supply of customers eager to upgrade from the limitations of Windows 3.x up to the ultra modern Windows 95 with its plug and play, 32 bit support and long filenames. Although, even the ultra modern Windows 95 didn’t even come with a web browser. You had to download the “plus” pack in order to get the fledgling Internet explorer. Thus began the browser wars that led to the downfall of Netscape.

The mood of the launch was very different for Windows 95. Microsoft was very much a company in the ascendancy. They dominated the desktop with Windows and Office and there was absolutely no doubt that the new version of Windows would be a success. They chose “Start Me Up” from the Rolling Stones as a theme tune for the launch campaign as a reference to the brand new start button that nestled in the bottom left of the screen. Wisely, they recorded a new rendition where they removed the words “you make a grown man cry“.

Windows 95 was a runaway success with 1 million copies selling in the first 4 days, 40 million in the first 12 months. Microsoft will be hoping for similar commercial success with the new version of Windows. But the competitive landscape is very different. Windows 8 is not just a desktop operating system, it is also aimed at the very crowded tablet market. It’s quite a battlefield with Android and iOS holding the high ground. Also – Windows 95 was a big step forward from Windows 3.x. Windows 8 comes after a very capable Windows 7 which had little to fault.

Windows 8 has been publicly denounced by Tim Cook, the Apple CEO as an unholy union not unlike a toaster combined with a fridge. Apple have approached the market with separate operating systems for tablet and desktop and see any operating system that tries to cater to both platforms as a compromise too far.

With the cash cows of Windows and Office looking decidedly venerable, Microsoft need Windows 8 to be successful and the move to a completely new paradigm is brave (even though the old look and feel is still there if you need it). I think they deserve plaudits for that bravery and there is a good chance that just like the ribbon toolbar that came with Office 2007, people will get used to it and come to love it.

Either way – Windows 8 is a landmark event in computing history.