Tuesday, November 09, 2004

The Progress Bar

Ah, the march of technology. In our lifetimes, we've seen the personal computer go from the Commodore and the Altair all the way to the Vaio and the G-whatever. It's been a great ride.

I can remember hitting control-G on the Apple 2 to make it "beep". And what fun it was. I can remember executing a very simple two-picture animation on the Logowriter application on Commodore 64 to sorta make it look like two people humping. Oh the joy.

We've come a long way. We now live in the age of Cialix spam, pop up ads for spy cameras, pop up ads for software to block pop up ads, trolls, lurkers, newbies and flame-wars - all presided over by his dark lordship, the demon Clippy.

Well, that's just being negative. There's been plenty of positive delevopments too. But today I just have to complain about one piece of computing technology that was introduced maybe 20 years ago and just hasn't seen any improvement. It's still around, and it still sucks. I'm talking about the Progress Bar, or sometimes the "Time Remaining" display.

You know what I'm talking about. The indicator bar which tells you how much of your installation, download, or other time consuming operation is left. And my question is: how come, in all those 20 years, the progress bar or time-reamaining bar has never once been an actual reflection of reality?

You know it's true. You've long since learned to ignore it, or conditioned yourself to live with it, but now I invite you to give it some fresh consideration and share my righteous disgust.

I'll give you my bottom line right away, and that is this: if the progress bar doesn't work, if it's wonky, then I don't want to see it. Make it go away. It's worse than useless if it's giving me a faulty impression. Let me list the various problems.

1. We're all familiar with the visual, horizontal progress bar - the one that fills up from left to right. Why does it zip merrily along for the initial 75%, and then hit some kind of wall for the final quarter? Has no one in 20 years of Mac and Windows updates noticed this?

2. Why does the "Time Remaining" display not count seconds at the speed of, say, one second for every second? We've all seen this I trust: we start our download and the time remaining is 30 minutes. Then, time begins to elapse at about one minute every couple of seconds. This starts to slow, and eventually, we're only moving at around double time. Finally, for a single instant, the countdown elapses at an actually correct pace, and then time slows down, and slows down, and down... The final two minutes are like the final two minutes of an NFL game. You can pack a lot of timeouts, bathroom breaks and commercials into those two minutes. So basically, the whole thing is just one big parabola of incompetance.

3. Don't let me forget this one. The Time Remaining display that actually will start gaining time. You've seen it. You're down to 25 minutes, and then whoa... whoa... back up to 27! Then down to 26... then up to 28!

4. A progress bar that will appear to be legit. It moves along at basically a steady pace, a few hiccups, a few bursts of sudden speed, but nothing major. Finally, it fills up completely. Ah, you think. Job well done. But no, not quite. It doesn't go away. Now you're treated to a series of text messages: "creating directory".... "repaginating".... "verifying format"....."checking modular sync database recalc"... And before you know it, you've sat there another two minutes.

This would all be excusable as late as, maybe, 1995. But it's still just as bad as it ever was. Wouldn't it be cool, if, once in your lifetime, a progress bar appeared and moved at a deliciously smooth, regular pace? Then, the moment it was done, it was actually done? Why do we tolerate a 0.0% accuracy rate from our "time remaining" counters and progress bars?

Damn you Cohaagen! Give these people air!

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