Scroll Lock and 17th Century Men’s Fashion

September 19, 2008

New PC users often have questions about the “extra” buttons found on the modern computer keyboard (when compared to the old fashioned typewriter). The F-keys generate a lot of interest along with Print Screen, Scroll Lock, and Pause/Break. While the function keys and Print Screen serve notable purposes, the most common questions about Scroll Lock are “What does it do other than make that light on the keyboard turn on? If it doesn’t do anything, why is it still there?” The next time you field these questions, try the following illustration to explain it.

Have you ever wondered why men’s suit coats often have buttons on the sleeve? These buttons were introduced centuries ago and used (most heavily in the 1600s into the 1700s) on men’s coats and doublets. At the time, it was fashionable to have long, frilly shirt sleeves hanging out underneath. Additionally, the cuffs of the jackets were often elongated, requiring them (and the shirt sleeves) to be buttoned back if the wearer wanted to be able to do anything useful with his hands. (One can see how this would be especially important for soldiers and surgeons, which is perhaps why the buttoning cuff became known as a Surgeon’s Cuff). The lengthy sleeves and cuffs eventually disappeared, but the buttons remained — the legacy of the earlier style.

Unlike window grilles/grids which merely imitate the appearance of their functional counterpart, cuff buttons on today’s suits are still real buttons, not decorations that appear like buttons. They could still serve a true functional purpose if needed. In fact, Lois Fenton indicates that high-end suits often do make use of these buttons. But for most suits, those buttons just sit there, idle. They’re legacy buttons.

Similarly, Scroll Lock is a legacy button. It is one of  a couple keys on the keyboard that once served a purpose but don’t anymore because their functions have, like the evolution of the cuff button, become obsolete over time. The button was simply never removed. It’s not a “dummy” button. It is still a functional button but simply doesn’t have a modern purpose. Like the suit buttons, if someone invented a new use for it, there would be nothing preventing it from being useful once again.

In fact, just recently I discovered Scroll Lock getting a new lease on life. I have an electronic KVM switch that allows me to use one keyboard and mouse for two computers. By pushing a certain key combination on my keyboard, the switch toggles my keyboard and mouse connection between my two computers. Guess which key the manufacturer employed to activate this special “toggle” command? Scroll Lock. And why not? It’s there, functional, and not being used for anything else. Of course, it still bears the name “Scroll Lock,” not “Switch keyboard & mouse,” so perhaps an idea (which might help newer users) for the manufacturer to consider is including a replacement key, like the gag panic button I often see advertised. For a few cents of plastic, it would be a nice touch.

I hope you find the above analogy useful in explaining the Scroll Lock legacy to newer users. Since analogies have proven so effective for teaching concepts to newer users, it is stories like these that I’ll be incorporating throughout my forthcoming book. Stay tuned for more posts on teaching technology concepts through analogies.

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When a Web page is no longer a page

September 5, 2008

With Google’s announcement and release this week of their own Web browser, Chrome, a lot of discussion has taken place amongst my colleagues about the potential impact of yet another Web browsing option. Based on Google’s track record, reputation, and the description of Chrome’s features, I have no doubt that this new Web browser will eventually make its mark on the Internet world. But what fascinated me more than Chrome’s features and benefits was Google’s statement on why they chose to make a browser. Contained in their rationale was an observation I’ve also claimed for years — that the use of the Web and Web “sites” has changed significantly. Google sums it up this way:

“We realized that the web had evolved from mainly simple text pages to rich, interactive applications…”

Indeed, when I first hit the World Wide Web in early 1995, the WWW was almost entirely static pages of textual information. Explaining the Web to new PC users wasn’t terribly difficult. I framed my descriptions of the WWW as “pages” of content — like a page from a magazine, book, flier, or catalog — all viewed through a piece of software — the browser.

Of course, as the web evolved, we continued to push the original medium to its limits, adding primitive interactivity via forms coupled with server-side technologies for data processing. That’s where the line started to blur. Today, we’ve somewhat reinvented the Web to allow for more sophisticated imitation of traditional* programs/applications within the browser, gaining the benefit of transmitting both the “program” and the program’s data across the Internet/network. With the more recent push toward completely distributed applications and mobile capabilities, a good many sites are looking and performing like entire software apps or suites running right in the browser. The odd thing about this rapid evolution is that these new tools are all still being developed and accessed on top of the original Web framework… individual pages accessed one at a time with a browser program. Our “Web software” still relies on the Web browser and what it can provide.

Now think about all of this from the newer PC user’s perspective. Understanding software programs is one hurdle. Understanding the Internet and the Web is yet another. Once the distinctions between the two have been blurred, in some cases to the point of the latter replacing the former, how can the technology teacher adequately explain — and the new user grasp — all the finer differences? After all, while many Web sites have pushed toward application-level interfaces, “old-fashioned” Web pages on sites still abound. For PC users most familiar with old-fashioned (non-networked, non-distributed) software, how will they perceive and make sense of the shift?

To provide a case in point, I recently had the opportunity to observe some pre-release user testing of an upgrade to an existing Web-based application. The largest “ah-ha” moment for me was when I realized the concept older users most struggled with was that their “software” — the application running via the Web browser — could and would be changed without them taking any action (e.g.: user-initiated installation.) With careful questioning, it became obvious to me that the users viewed the application like any locally-installed software application rather than a Web site. They couldn’t understand (let alone articulate) the difference.

This subtle but increasingly commonplace difference was a challenge to deal with as I wrote the introduction to the Internet/Web chapter in my forthcoming book, The Ultimate PC Primer. I’m still not sure I’ve adequately communicated the differences, but there’s only so much one can write in the attempt to explain it. My lingering and somewhat fearful thought today is: how will Google change this even more considering their claim that Chrome will “power the next generation of web applications that aren’t even possible in today’s browsers.” Perhaps Chrome will become the long-anticipated “platform” for fully-distributed applications, setting that concept apart from simple Web page browsing. If not, my hope is that whatever Chrome evolves into doesn’t make the Web much more confusing for new users than it has already become.

* By “traditional,” I mean “installed” software, which many in the IT industry would call a thick client or fat client. Pardon my informality, but I’m not usually concerned about the exact industry terms…”insider speak” doesn’t help much when attempting to explain concepts to new users.