Must focus… Ooh look! A butterfly.

“Facebook notifications iPad UX FAIL” $FB #iOS...

“Facebook notifications iPad UX FAIL” $FB #iOS #opinions / SML.20130111.SC.NET.Facebook.iOS.iPad.Notification.UX.FAIL.Opinions (Photo credit: See-ming Lee 李思明 SML)

I don’t know when the rot set in, but I do know it started happening a long time ago. In my first office job, we had two different types of computer. One was a fully fledged PC which sat in the middle of the office. Everyone in the office shared that one PC. When you needed to use it, you took your place, did what you needed to and left it.

You could only do one thing at a time and it was easy to focus.

The other kind of computer wasn’t really a computer at all. It was a dumb terminal, connected by cable to the massive beast of a mainframe in the basement. Again, you could only do one thing at a time and almost everything involved submitting a job that would get executed overnight. In the morning, you received a print out of the results. When things happen that slowly, you make damned sure you don’t make mistakes.

When I started programming, it was a similar story. At first, I wrote Adabas Natural programs on the mainframe. Everything I did took place on a terminal screen. Later, I moved on to program PCs, but they still ran DOS so there was little or no scope for multi-tasking.

Along came Windows with its promise of releasing the shackles of single-threading. When it first came out, it was so unstable that trying to do two things at once was like playing Russian roulette. On an operating system that crashed if you left it alone long enough, let alone loading it up with running applications, saving your work every 10 seconds became second nature.

But slowly and steadily, Windows improved and applications along with it. Instead of Single Document Interfaces (SDIs), now applications could have many windows open. The first web browsers could only show one website at a time. When tabbed browsers came out, you could have loads open.

Somewhere along the way came email. Then social networks. Somewhere in between came notifications. Most applications now have some sort of auto-update feature.

Someone’s sent me an email. Adobe Acrobat needs updating. Auntie Maud has posted on Facebook; she’s lost her cat. Ooh look, Stephen Fry‘s following me on Twitter. Ooh – another email. Windows needs to apply updates. A reminder – I have a meeting to go to. Another email. It’s OK, Auntie Maud’s found her cat.

Modern life can easily turn into a sea of distractions and it builds up over time. To start with, it’s nice to hear about something cool your friend’s found on Kickstarter. It’s great that you can read your email on the train. But it’s also very nice to sit down, relax and read a good book.

Daisywheels, golfballs, thermals and lasers

From wikipedia commons.

From wikipedia commons. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If anyone ever had a Sinclair Spectrum, they probably remember the little ZX printer designed to be plugged into the back. Designed like an electric toilet roll dispenser, it used a roll of silver thermal paper. Inside, little pins literally burned into the thermal paper to leave behind (sort of) recognisable print. The poor thing used to get tired and slow down towards the end of a large print job and you almost ended up feeling sorry for it.

If the print was difficult to read when first produced, the fading over time meant that it was totally unreadable after a few days. Those in the know used to spray their printouts with hairspray to extend their longevity.

When I started work, there was one printer to rule them all. A dirty great big behemoth of a printer connected to the mainframe. Almost all processing happened overnight because it cost less and any output from that processing went not to a screen, but onto paper; tons of it. I don’t know how these printers used to work, but they were lightning fast and the paper was warm with a distinctive smell. All the screens in the building were dumb terminals so there was no concept of local printers.

As and when PCs started to appear, people wanted to print things which meant they needed a printer. The first such devices were dot matrix printers. Brutally mechanical affairs, they used a print head made up of a matrix of hammers which formed the print by bashing through an ink soaked ribbon onto the paper. If that sounds noisy and slow, they were. Each agonising line of print sounded like a mini machine gun.

The print quality was awful and if your printer happened to be more than 12 months old, the pins had a nasty habit of getting misaligned which made the text barely readable.

Daisywheel printers had a radial print head with characters on the end of spokes. When these struck the paper through the ribbon, a whole character came out. Golf ball printers worked the same way, only the characters were all stuck onto a small ball. These cut down on the noise and the print quality improved enormously, but they were limited to a single font.

Nowadays with inkjet and laser printers coupled with ever more sophisticated software, there is almost no limit to what can be printed at low cost, but they are restricted to two dimensional paper.

With 3D printing, which is widely used in industry, layers of material are laid down according to a digital blueprint in order to construct a physical object. Suddenly, almost anything can be manufactured one piece at a time if you have the right kit. The printers are tumbling in price, so it won’t be long before there are no limits on what you can create in your own home.