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If I didn’t promise to help you out in the next sentence, you’d probably have to look up skeuomorphism in a dictionary.

In simple terms the word means something that resembles whatever it was that used to do the job.1

The word may be unfamiliar. The idea is not.

Take the old Macintosh Address Book app. Before Apple modernised its software, the Address Book app looked like a paper address book.

You might also remember when computer operating system desktops had waste paper bin or trash can icons to tell you this is where you throw things away.

Skeuomorph central

The smartphone is skeuomorph central. Every iPhone has icons showing a torch, a telephone handset, a camera and so on. What each of these does is obvious. The envelope icon isn’t quite so apparent, yet you don’t need a PhD to figure out it is for email. Android phones have similar skeuomorphs.

Skeuomorphs don’t have to be software. Houses might have cladding where manufacturers made the building material resemble wooden boards or brick.

Soon electric vehicles in Europe will have to make noises so that pedestrians and others get an audio cue to take care.

Understanding

The idea behind skeuomorphism is that it helps you to better understand what you are looking at. It’s a visual clue telling you the purpose of the object. You see something familiar and, bingo, you know what that thing is going to do.

There’s a special breed of skeuomorph idea where the visual cue lives on long after the original item has disappeared from use.

Mr flippy floppy

Perhaps the best known is the floppy disk icon you sometimes see used to indicate the save function.

It’s getting on for 20 years since computers had built-in floppy disk drives. An entire generation has entered the workforce without every having seen a floppy disk in action. And yet, everyone knows what that image is supposed to mean.

No doubt you have heard stories of young people encountering a real floppy disc for the first time. While they may not know what the item is, or how it is used. They often recognise it from the icon.

Time to put skeuomorphism to bed

While the thinking behind skeuomorphism makes sense, as far as software and operating systems go, it’s best days are in the past. Skeuomorphic designs are often fussy and ugly. They clutter things up. The images are often meaningless and what is represented is not always clear cut.

Yet there’s a Catch 22 here. I prefer minimalist design. It’s easier to focus on the job in hand when the software stays out of the way. I was about to say that when I’m writing, I prefer to start with a blank sheet of paper. Which is, of course, itself a skeuomorphism.


  1. 1 My Mac’s dictionary says: An object or feature which imitates the design of a similar artefact made from another material. ↩︎

Microsoft Word is my fourth favourite writing tool1.

I rarely use Word to write stories or blog posts. Yet, I never hesitate to renew my Office 365 subscription.

It sounds contradictory. That NZ$165.00 Office 365 subscription is good value. That’s true even though I don’t use Word to write and I almost never open Excel. I go out of my way to not let PowerPoint into my life.

At this point you might think this is throwing money away. Open source fans reading this will be aghast.

But there is a method in my madness. Writing is my work. A typical year’s work is 250,000 words. My writing output was even higher for a few years. After more than 40 years in the business, I’ve written, and publishers have paid me for, at least 10 million words.

Most, not all, of the time, I’m paid by the word. Which means my ability to produce quality writing puts food on my table and a roof over my head.

Writing is talking to people, researching, checking then putting it all into words. Sometimes it is about reviving my own work or dealing with words others have sent to me.

Microsoft Word is not optional

Like it or not, Microsoft Word is the lingua franca of digital writing. Almost everyone in the business uses it. It’s been more than two decades since an editor expected copy in anything other than Word format.

At this point, people who dislike Word might be thinking: “Yes, but everything else can save in a Word format. So it isn’t necessary to buy a subscription”.

They have a point. Except that sooner or later, something doesn’t convert between Word and another format.

The most troublesome issue is with edits marked using Microsoft’s Track Changes feature.

Yes, many non-Word writing applications can understand and deal with Track Changes markups. But this is not always straightforward.

The cost to me of failing to deal fast with one edit incident can be greater than the subscription price. It’s rare, but over 250,000 words, it happens a few times every year.

It costs even more than the subscription when we take into account it includes licenses for other family members. In effect my personal subscription costs 25 percent of $165, that’s $40 plus change.

Don’t go there

Even a quick dive down the troubleshooting rabbit hole costs more.

Multiply this by the two or more incidents a year and you can see that paying the subscription leaves me ahead. It’s a solid investment.

Open source fans tell me this attitude is wrong and that I’m paying a tax or even a ransom to Microsoft to be able to work. You could see it this way.

Yet it isn’t Microsoft that is holding me to ransom, it is the editors and publishers who commit to Word. If everyone accepted plain text2 I wouldn’t need to pay the fee.

It might be better to frame the fee as paying for membership of the hireable professional writers club. Either way, it’s a bargain.


  1. In my world it ranks behind IA Writer, Byword and Pages. ↩︎
  2. Text was fine for a long time. That changed about 20 years ago. ↩︎

Technology commentator Bill Bennett looks at how the millennium bug is back – because it never exactly went away. In trying to solve the problem, programmers pushed it back 20 years. And time’s up. He’ll also look at how Volvo is experimenting with adding noise to near-silent EVs, after research showed pedestrians were twice as likely to be involved in an accident with EVs than those with traditional engines. And is working remotely back in fashion in response to corona virus?

Source: The Y2K bug makes a comeback | RNZ

I’m on RNZ Nine-to-Noon talking about technology.

The digital services churned out by the world’s computer centres are multiplying. Their energy use is not, thanks to cloud computing, a new study says.

Source: Cloud Computing Is Not the Energy Hog That Had Been Feared – The New York Times

The New York Times story refers to a study published in the journal Science: Recalibrating global data centre energy use estimates.

It starts:

Data centres represent the information backbone of an increasingly digitalised world. Demand for their services has been rising rapidly. Data-intensive technologies such as artificial intelligence, smart and connected energy systems, distributed manufacturing systems, and autonomous vehicles promise to increase demand further.

Given that data centres are energy-intensive enterprises, estimated to account for around 1 percent of worldwide electricity use, these trends have clear implications for global energy demand and must be analysed rigorously.

Efficient cloud computing

There’s a common belief that accelerating data processing means the energy used to power data centres is rising fast. It turns out it is not.

Data centres did six times as much computing work in 2018 as in 2010. Yet their power consumption increased only six percent.

There’s also evidence computing means less pollution and greenhouse gas than we feared.

The reason for the new optimism is the amount of work that has shifted to the cloud. And not just any old cloud. Most has moved to the bigger and more energy efficient services.

Low carbon

Cloud giants like AWS and Microsoft run huge data centres. Many place their data centres where they can use low carbon energy. Hydroelectricity and solar power are favourites. Some are located in naturally cold places. This means less need for air conditioning.

Big cloud companies use technologies that pack more computing and storage into ever smaller hardware. Small hardware is usually more efficient.

Energy efficiency is good for the environment. It’s also good for the cloud companies. Energy is often a significant cost. Cloud companies love to boast about their clean energy. It also helps them win business.

Laurence Millar:

I do all my banking, travel booking, shopping and communicating online.  Surely in the 21st century, I should be able to vote online? If you are voting to elect the president of your sports club, then online voting is convenient and easy. But it should never be used to elect our government[…]

Source: Online voting? No thanks! – NZRise

It’s comforting to see someone as knowledgable and experienced in government computing as Laurence Millar choses to speak out about the dangers of online voting.

He makes all the points you might expect: the risks are too high and the rewards for ratbags are too tempting. We know for certain that criminals and unfriendly governments have intervened in election campaigns. Some even boast about it. So it’s realistic to assume they will turn their attention to an actual vote.

The reality is almost no computer system is foolproof. And few are immune from attackers who are prepared to throw enough resources at breaching security.

But there’s more. Millar writes:

…the chimera of manipulated votes is in itself sufficient to undermine confidence in the result of the election.

And this is just as likely to be the goal of those who would attack elections. Yes, they’d love to manipulate the vote. But they also want to undermine the very idea of a democratic vote.

This suits their purposes almost as much.

Millar’s other points are all valid. It’s worth reading the original post.

Yet something else bothers me about the idea of an online election in New Zealand. Typically projects of this nature are put out to tender and awarded to the lowest bidder.

Tender writers may talk about how the project won’t just go to the cheapest bid, but also about the values, privacy, security and yada, yada, yada that need to be embodied in the system.

We all know the reality. Lower prices win.

We’ve seen this time and time again. Tender responses may be full of piety and goody two-shoes language about protecting this and respecting that.

Words are cheap.

When push comes to shove, saving a few bucks here and there will impress the organisation issuing the tender more than anything else.

It always does.

And even if money is no object and the first tender goes to a first class bidder who does everything right, when it comes up for renewal someone else will be purchasing.

Or the next time. Or the time after that.

Sooner or later cheapskates or, just as bad, companies that are better at lobbying governments than delivering on promises will get the job.

Before you know it there will be an argument for, say, using an overseas cloud provider or a well known brand that hasn’t done a sterling job managing its own digital security in the past.

It is in the nature of these things. Sooner or later we are disappointed.