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On permanance 2007/06/26

Humanized yesterday published a eulogy for the "Save as..." icon that has for so long depicted a floppy disk. With our 20/20 hindsight it would be quite easy to shame ourselves for standardizing an icon that would be as foreign to our children as Esperanto, but how could we have known? Without digressing into a rant about the pace of technological change, Moore's law and all its variants regarding physical storage, I will just say that physical manifestations of ideas will inevitably become obsolete.

So I would like to propose a new icon for the "Save as..." function: a brain. First, from the standpoint of potential obsolescence, I will place my faith in brains retaining their usefulness forever. In terms of connotation, brains are associated with remembering -- the exact goal of the "Save as..." operation -- so I think this will provide a workable substitute for the floppy disk to those of us that remember floppy disks and a straightforward association to those that do not. Generalizing a bit, a human analogy will likely have more staying-power as a symbol than the specific technology that realizes the analogy.

As I call for human analogies I cannot think of one besides the brain. In many cases, text is simply the clearest explanation of a concept that can safely be called permanent. Cutting, copying and pasting all use technologies that are bound to be replaced (scissors, glue, et cetera) and so are perhaps best left to text. URLs similarly all-too-often use cryptic strings of arguments that will probably change with the next redesign or software upgrade. Good URLs tell you what a page is about and where it is in the site. Take for example: page titles on are made up of nothing more than the URL exploded and linked to pages higher up the directory tree.

I read once on the W3C's website that the best URLs never change. This is of course good advice for those aspiring to Internet immortality and in retrospect should have served as a warning to Adobe when they tucked their ubiquitous Acrobat Reader at so many years ago. Keeping URLs about the content and not the technology (or workflow in Adobe's case) will prevent mishaps like Adobe's Acrobat URL.

Representing ideas, not technologies, in our text and images is how we should make things permanent. Having a standard "Save as..." icon is not a bad thing, but the choice of icon was short-sighted.

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Richard Crowley?  Kentuckian engineer who cooks and eats in between bicycling and beering.

I blog mostly about programming and databases.  Browse by month or tag.

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