Sunday, 24 March 2013

the rise and fall of Ctrl-S

I first used a computer back in the late 1970s, when I was an undergraduate physics student. In those days, we wrote programs on punched cards. To lose your program, you had to lose the cards (or, actually, just shuffle them).  To prove we never throw anything away, here is a program from the 1970s:

a program statement from yesteryear: 12  MAG(J,K) = 0
a whole program; no idea what it does
By the time I was a research student, punched cards had given way to text editors through VT100 terminal sessions.  I wrote my thesis in troff (one of my fellow students was writing his in this new-fangled thing called TeX), using the ZED line editor.  In order to save your changes, you had to exit the editor, save, and restart the editor, a non-trivial sequence of operations that interrupted the writing flow.  However, by the time I was writing up, the IBM 370 mainframe was on its last legs, about to be replaced by a new IBM 3081, and crashing frequently.  So I got in the habit of exiting the editor every 5-10 minutes, saving, and re-entering.

Frequent saving was ingrained in my workflow by the time applications came uniformly equipped with Ctrl-S.  (Saving without exiting.  Luxury!)  Every time I would pause to think what to write next, in word processor, spreadsheet, or text editor, I would automatically hit Ctrl-S.  It's now an automatic behaviour.

But modern applications no longer use Ctrl-S.  They just continually save, automatically. There's no need to keep saving explicitly.  Most applications that have an auto-save feature also let you do your own saves in between.  But some applications no longer have a user save command at all.  I noticed this first with Evernote, and then with Google Docs.

Fortunately, these applications haven't mapped Ctrl-S to any other function (mail programs where Ctrl-S means "send" are a real nightmare), so nothing bad happens if I do reflexively hit Ctrl-S.  Which I do sometimes, because it feels really weird not to keep saving after all these years.

Three generations of saving technology: manual-slow-and-clunky, manual-easy, automatic. That's probably progress.

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