One of my hopes for the future – admittedly, one of my dying hopes – is to see an end to the “That Should Never Happen” design philosophy. This philosophy certainly has high aims, in that it tries to create technological solutions so reliable that workarounds and backups will be unnecessary. Why would I oppose such a noble philosophy? Because my experience with technology is that these attempts are doomed to imperfection and failure and that in the meantime, they are doing harm by removing our backup systems.
Here’s one of the simplest and most frustrating examples of this philosophy: the death of power switches on computers. “But my computer has a power switch,” you say. “It’s right here on the front, glowing all blue and pretty!” If you’re that disillusioned, I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but that is not a true power switch. That is a spring-loaded contact-switch meant to signal the computer BIOS software to toggle the power state. It is not a true power switch.
For those who remember the original IBM PC, it had a true power switch. It was a big and clunky red switch on the right side, back with the power supply and single cooling fan. When it was in the on position, it closed an electrical circuit, and power flowed into the PC. When it was in the off position, the circuit was open, and no power made it past that switch.
So why is that so superior? After all, aren’t software-controlled power systems better? They can go into power-saving states, turn the computer on and off at certain times, and ensure the proper shutdown of drive caches and other advanced OS/hardware systems. Yes, these software systems are great… except when they fail.
Of course, that kind of failure should never happen, but in the fifteen years or so since I last had a true power switch on my computers, every single one of these software-managed power systems has eventually had trouble. It’s not that it was stop working altogether, but it would start to have intermittent failure. The OS would crash, and the shutdown procedure would be unavailable. Even the so-called power switch would do nothing but continue its pretty blue glow.
And before you point to the superiority of your OS or hardware of choice, I have seen this happen across the PC/Apple divide as well as in Windows, Unix, and the Mac OS. That might not be your experience, but between computationally-heavy tasks like rendering, programming, and gaming, I push my computers a lot harder than the average user. In other words, I take my computers into the realm of “that should never happen.”
Instead of having the backup of the physical power switch to fall back on, I must now crawl back behind the desk and unplug the computer from the UPS. On my laptop, I must physically remove the battery and wait several seconds for any on-board capacitors to discharge. I have to go even deeper towards the primal physical state to hack my own backup solution.
While I continue to hope that this hubris-driven design philosophy will go away, I fear it is only on the rise. Apple has dominated much of the technology design in the last decade, and while they have made some absolutely fabulous products, they are a big believer in hiding the pesky details from the end-user. “No customer-serviceable parts inside.”
It may be a long-time before the trend reverses. In the meantime, I think I’m going to kill off some fictional designer, and as he plunges to the fiery depths with his malfunctioning machine, his final words will be, “But that should never happen.”
How about you? What flawless system has gone crunch in your life lately? Did some always-in-sync cache lose its state? Did a dripless faucet bust a valve? Did some permanently-lubricated sealed motor seize up?