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.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer unveils the customer preview of the new Microsoft Office.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer unveils the customer preview of the new cloud-based Microsoft Office on Monday

Courtesy Microsoft.

I’m writing this column the same way that I write everything else: in Microsoft Word. Today I’m using Word 2013, Microsoft’s next version of its ubiquitous—and often maligned, but not by me—word-processing program. Word 2013 is part of the new version of Microsoft’s Office productivity suite, which will go on sale later this year. (Microsoft has just released the software as a free, downloadable “consumer preview,” which will expire after the final version is released.) There are some perfectly fine new features in the new Office—it’s been optimized for touchscreen devices, it’s deeply integrated with the “the cloud,” yada yada—and it looks much better than the old version. Really, you should try it out.

But for all its improvements, the first thing I noticed about the new Office was a big, terrible bug. It’s one of those bugs that masquerades as a feature, a bug so entrenched that lots of people—probably even you—believe it’s an integral part of how computers are supposed to work. This bug has been with us since the beginning of graphical computing. The same flaw has marred every single release of Office ever—yet I almost feel bad about singling out Microsoft’s software, because until recently, you could find the bug in pretty much every other program, too.

The bug is the Save button. It’s 2012. Computers are smart enough to be able to figure out pretty much everything on their own—where you are, where your friends are, how long it will take for your chronically late pal to show up for your lunch appointment. So why, at this late date, do these otherwise hyperintelligent machines still need us to tell them to commit what’s on the screen to permanent storage? If my computer does not require hand-holding when it manages its memory and figures out daylight saving time and automatically reconnects to wireless networks, why does Word need me to press a button for it to understand that I really, truly do want to keep everything I’ve typed up to this point?

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That’s not all. Before it hangs on to anything I’ve written, Word wants to make sure that I’ve given the thing a filename, too. Why? Why can’t it just keep saving stuff until I get around to naming it? If having dozens of untitled works was good enough for Jackson Pollock, why is Word so scared of nameless things?

It’s time to delete Save. The whole business of saving is a blight on modern software—unnecessary, unfriendly, and completely out of step with our automatic, hands-free computing culture. Microsoft Office isn’t the sole offender, but it’s the most notable one. As other software makers have added various ways to do away with saving, Office has stubbornly stuck to its guns. Once you use one of these save-free apps, you’ll begin to look at Word, Excel, and PowerPoint as if they belong to an earlier technological era, a world before laundry machines, the internal combustion engine, and antibiotics. In the future (meaning, now), your computer should save everything you do, always, automatically, by default (unless you specify otherwise, which you would never really want to do).

To understand why saving is no longer necessary, let’s look at why the function was invented in the first place. All the data on your computer is stored in one of two places—either the machine’s primary storage, which on today’s computers are little chips known as RAM, or secondary storage, aka your hard drive. Your computer’s processor can only access stuff that’s in primary storage. To get stuff from secondary storage—say, your long-lost résumé—a program like Word reads the data from your drive, then loads it into RAM, where you can work with it directly. Primary storage is usually less permanent—what engineers call “volatile”—than secondary storage. RAM chips, for instance, require a constant source of electricity to maintain their data, while your hard drive can keep stuff even when the power’s off. So that’s what you’re doing, technically, when you hit Save—you’re transferring data from your machine’s temporary memory bank into permanent storage.

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