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It’s time for computers to get smart

I just have to get this grievance off my chest. It is something I have complained about many times in the past and I've been trying to come up with a name for the phenomenon, even though we're all far too familiar with it.

I'm talking about when a computer process begins and then fails – usually deep into the process itself – because something along the way was not done properly. But instead of continuing where it left off, it resets. Sometimes the process does not start all over again, but stops dead and stays that way until the user returns. This is just as aggravating. Let's look at the two phenomena in detail, with the hopes that coders will stop plaguing us.

Scenario one: The reset

This happened yesterday as I was uploading a large podcast. I had failed to check one of the boxes on the upload page. But instead of doing a pre-check on the process to make sure the boxes were checked, the program went ahead and uploaded the whole file. Then, as it was in the process of putting the details into the system, it noticed that a box was not checked and rejected the upload altogether, delivering an error message. In other words, the upload had to begin all over again, wasting bandwidth.

You see a similar thing happen often at e-tail checkouts when you fill out page after page of billing and shipping information, only to learn at the very end that it does not take American Express (or your particular credit card). Your information has to be filled in again later. You could have told me that before!

This "you can drop dead" process is actually institutionalised by those fake "take our survey for a free iPad" ads. You are then confronted by surveys that apparently have no endpoint – or any real point at all. You never do get an iPad or anything else short of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Scenario two: Your time belongs to us

This has galled me for years and it's still around in various forms. The classic is the file transfer, when you want to back up a gigabyte of data or move it from point A to point B. You begin the process. The OS says it will take an hour, so you decide to take a coffee break. When you return, there is a dialog box asking a question. WTF? You click on the box and now you have 59 minutes left. Geez. If you get up, the process stops with a question: "Are you sure you want to move this folder?" or "The file is read-only, are you sure you want to move it?" or "Do you really want to merge this folder with that folder?"

The smart way to deal with this problem? The program could continue to copy other files that weren’t involved in this sort of conflict and just ask the questions at the end of the process. You know, like an hour later!

The absolute proper way to do this, of course, is to make a network analysis of the entire process in advance of it beginning. Basically, find all the choke points before the process starts and ask all the possible questions at the very beginning. This would be invaluable, especially with processes that take hours and hours, and are best done overnight on an unattended machine. If this was a routine aspect of a good OS, I can assure you that people would fall in love with it.

One of these days, I'm going to write an entire book on this and other annoyances, because I can assure you I have plenty. People should grouse about the little aggravations more often and perhaps some of these lazy systems will eventually get fixed.

Ready – set – complain!