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?

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.

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.)

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.



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