Saturday, February 05, 2011

The recycle bin

Operating systems were using a Trashcan as the visual metaphor for where deleted documents go for years, since it was the obvious metaphor to use. Even before GUIs the word trash often appeared in the relevant command or directory names. And at first Windows stole the Trashcan from Mac (the same way Mac had stolen it from Xerox) though it wasn't very prominent or integrated. But Windows 95 introduced the Recycle Bin. By now we all take it for granted, but really, that was a brilliantly better metaphor, for several reasons.

First, and maybe only geeks like me would even notice this, it's far more accurate. Stuff that goes into a trash can goes to a landfill is gone. But when you delete a file, every resource that made it up is made available, immediately, for making new files. It really is a lot more like recycling, and perfect recycling at that.

Second, the image of rooting around in the trash to find that thing you just realized you shouldn't've tossed away was always a bit unsavory. Sure, a Mac's trashcan is blessedly free of coffee grounds and rotting banana peels, but while a sterile window of documents is not a negative, it does limit how far they can develop the metaphor without being circumspect to avoid awakening connotations that might be negative and bad marketing. But in the modern workplace, the recycle bin is not only just as ubiquitous, it's far more palatable to imagine digging into. Heck, I've done it plenty of times, but I don't think I've ever needed a discarded document enough to root through an actual trashcan for it.

Finally, imagine how everyone would feel about it if Windows had the trashcan, and had had it for ages, but Apple had the recycle bin. Apple is young, hip, modern, and urbane, and thinks outside the box; Windows is stodgy and old-fashioned. If it were the other way around, the recycle bin would just be another example of how Apple is more in touch with modern sensibilities. But since it ended up the other way around, no one really thinks of it that way. In the end, Microsoft scored a coup there if only by preventing Apple from grabbing that particular marketing-possible image.

This probably all sounds kind of petty. But seemingly trivial differences of imagery like this often prove vital and important beyond their apparent significance in both the fields of marketing, and user interface design. Microsoft never gets credit for the few times they do it right.

No comments: