It's 2012. Computers Should Be Smart Enough To Preserve Everything I Type Without Me Hitting a Stupid Disk Icon.

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July 18 2012 6:23 PM

Delete the Save Button

Computers are smart enough to preserve everything I type without me hitting a stupid disk icon.

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If you were to design a computer today, it wouldn’t make sense to make this step visible to the user—it would be like designing a refrigerator that required you to turn off the light before you shut the door. But in the very earliest days of computer, saving was too computationally intensive to be automatic and invisible. Computers were very slow, and the process of transferring stuff from primary into permanent storage could take a long time. (According to an unsourced note on Wikipedia, the Xerox Star, the first commercially available PC with a graphical interface, took “minutes” to save large files.) Hard drives also weren’t very large, so saving everything was wasteful. If you’re just drawing up your grocery list, why take up precious hard drive space?

These technical limitations required that saving be made an affirmative action—a costly move you did only when a project was worthy of the time and space. As a result, saving also became a point of virtue, a schoolmarm’s nag about the best way to use your computer. If you were doing anything important on your machine, you were instructed to always, constantly save. If you didn’t, you were recklessly courting disaster. If you complained to your friends that your PC crashed and you lost all your work, they’d always ask if you’d been Saving. If you hadn’t, you’d earn no sympathy.

But the technical limitations that once governed saving no longer apply, and they haven’t since about 1995. Today’s machines are fast and capacious enough to save everything you do in most office-type programs. This is even true on mobile devices, which can often unload their saving to the cloud, and it’s doubly true on Web programs like Google Docs, which have all the space in the world to save every single thing you do. What’s more, computer scientists long ago figured out “versioning,” so there’s no longer the worry of “saving over” old work. Say you rewrite the climax of your screenplay late one night, and then, after sobering up, you realize that it’s all wrong? In many modern programs—even Office—saving something doesn’t override what you saved before, and you can usually go back to a previously saved version. (Here’s how to do so in Word 2010.)

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To me, Google’s online productivity apps set the standard for Saving. Google Docs doesn’t even have a Save button. When you start a new document, everything you do is instantly committed to permanent storage. Docs also doesn’t ask you to name a document before it begins saving; it happily saves data to an untitled file. (Update, 8:35 a.m., July 19: Some readers have taken my war against Save to mean that I'm also against Save As, the function that allows you to store your current document under a new filename. Others seem to think that I'm asking for the elimination of filenames altogether. Rest assured, neither is the case: While I do want Office to save documents even before you've named them, I would like it to prompt you to name your untitled files, as Google Docs does when you try to exit an untitled document. And I wouldn't get rid of Save As—saving under a new name—either.) Lion, the version of the Mac OS that Apple released last year, behaves similarly. In programs that take advantage of the system’s Auto Save feature, you never need to press save—anything you do is always stored automatically. (Lion also auto-saves untitled documents, but there are some technical disadvantages to how it handles them; in particular, it doesn’t keep multiple versions of files you don’t name.)

Why hasn’t Office joined the auto-save party? I have no idea, and I’m genuinely puzzled by Microsoft’s commitment to the Save button. (I asked the company about saving but have not yet heard back.) Since the late 1990s, Office apps have offered a feature called Auto Recover, which sounds similar to automatic saving, but is really nothing like it. For one thing, by default Auto Recover only captures changes every 10 minutes. (You can shrink this time to as little as every minute, but that’s nothing compared to Google Docs, which saves on every keystroke.) What’s worse, Auto Recover isn’t meant to be something you rely on for routine saving—it’s just there to save you from disasters, and Microsoft still insists that you keep hitting Save. When you quit Word, the software will still ask, stupidly, if you want to save what you just did; if you accidentally hit No, you’re out of luck.

This is worse than useless. I’ll repeat: It’s 2012. Saving is ridiculous. Auto Save is our salvation. We need it everywhere, now.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.