I recently blogged that the computer market appears to be maturing in that there are fewer innovations in the hardware from year to year. All the bells and whistles that nerdy people used to add to their computers are now all built in and taken for granted. The hardware is still getting faster, but there are fewer new goodies to bolt on.

The software side is different. A shift is taking place in the way we do our computing. More and more of our data is being held for us “in the cloud” (by services such as Skydrive, Dropbox, Evernote). In a lot of cases that same data is also held on the hardware we are using, but we needn’t go into all that now.

Laptops in the cloudsThe huge advantage to storing data in the cloud this way is that it is accessible from many devices – even devices that use different operating systems and different versions of the programs and apps. I currently have Evernote and Dropbox available on my Windows 8 laptop, Windows 7 netbook, Macs, iPad, iPhone and Android phone. It’s all a far cry from the days when I had to remember to make data backups from my laptop and transfer them to the netbook before taking the netbook out with me.

All of this “data mobility” through internet access does have a few downsides, though:

  • My long-held opinion that our online data is not secure against prying eyes has now been well and truly shown to be “jaundiced realism” rather than “paranoia” (I am resisting the urge to use words such as “Told”, “You”, and “So”).
  • You are sometimes stuck if you don’t have an internet connection.
  • And, the point I’ve been trying to build up to, is that the very way we access, view, and interact with our data is constantly at the mercy of whoever is providing the service. I’m not suggesting they are unreliable or badly intentioned but they do have the very annoying habit of changing things without warning.

I think the most obvious way that this is apparent is not, in fact, services such as Evernote (that we access via programs or apps on our own computers and devices), but services where the data and the interface with it are both provided directly via a web browser.

The most obvious of these is our old friend webmail. How often have I heard the cry of anguish that Gmail, or Yahoo, or Hotmail, have changed the user interface again and now it’s impossible to find anything. This often happens without any warning at all and it can feel like an intrusion into our personal space. We get used to doing something in a particular way. Most people don’t want to consciously “engage” with Gmail: they just want to get at their mail without having to think about it or re-learn how to do it.

Bang on cue! When I opened Gmail today to grab a logo for this blog I was presented with this screen telling me it's all changed again.

Bang on cue! When I opened Gmail today to grab a logo for this blog I was presented with this screen telling me it’s all changed again.

Just occasionally I’ve been in the vicinity when clients have given vent to the frustration this can cause. Part of me sympathises with my client, of course, but every now and again I’ve tried to offer a different perspective (tactfully, I hope!):

  • The service suppliers get us to to agree to their terms and conditions before we can use the service. No-one ever reads those terms and conditions because they give us no choices and they are, anyway, utterly incomprehensible to human beings. You can be sure, though, that somewhere in those tems and conditions they have told us that they will make any changes they feel like at any time and that we can like it or lump it.
  • Computer software is still a relatively new, and rapidly changing, technology. Advances can only happen by having change. That may be a truism, but it doesn’t mean it’s not true! We just happen to live in a time of lots of change. Personally, I like that and, to an extent, earn my living from it. Frustration, re-learning, adapting – they’re all part of the change. Hopefully, we can also sometimes experience pleasure, delight, surprise, and even a sense of fun when engaging with this stuff.
  • The other thing I occasionally point out is that the only way we are paying for a lot of this stuff is in the form of giving away our personal data when we use the service. Most of the internet, including webmail, Dropbox, Skydrive, etc, is free at the point of use. That’s astonishing, if you think about it. If any of us could have imagined the internet forty years ago, I’m sure we wouldn’t have also imagined that it would be largely free (which is not to trivialise the cost of giving away our personal data: this is just the wrong blog post for that particular hobby-horse!).

Heraclitus (c 535-475bce), looking as if he's just lost his internet connection

Heraclitus (c 540-480bce), looking as if he’s just lost his internet connection

So, we engage more and more with the internet to store and retrieve our data, to communicate with friends, family, suppliers, manufacturers and Uncle Tom Cobbly. All of this communication happens via “software interfaces” – be those on Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Evernote, Skydrive – or wherever. As the software becomes more powerful and more “feature rich” those interfaces are going to continue to change.

We’ve just got to live with it.

Apparently, it was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who first said “The only constant thing is change” – and that was two and a half thousand years ago, so you’d think we would have got used to the idea by now.

© 2011-2018 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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