Blind, Deaf, Dumb & Broken Computer Metaphors

In Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge, neurobiologist and Nobel Prize–winner Gerald Edelman ((Excerpt From: James Geary. “I Is an Other.” iBooks.)) theorizes that…pattern recognition and metaphor is the basis for all thinking. When we discover something new, unknown or abstract, we use metaphor as a bridge from the old, that we understand, to the new, that we want to understand. Metaphor, then, is not just a way to communicate, a way to teach, it may well be the very way we think.

Definition and Purpose

In mathematical terms, metaphor is the flat assertion that A = B.

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare used the sun as a metaphor for Romeo’s love of Juliet:

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Now obviously, Juliet is not literally the sun; A is not literally B; so what do we gain by connecting these two seemingly unconnected things?

Metaphor makes an implicit comparison — an intuitive perception — of the similarity in dissimilars. It captures a key aspect of one thing by relating it to something else. Metaphor is so essential to our being that it is impossible to describe emotions, abstract concepts, or complex ideas without it.

The job of the metaphor, then, is to find similarities in unlike things, to teach us the new by building upon the old. Its primary purpose is to carry over existing descriptions to things that are so abstract that they cannot be otherwise explained.

A metaphor is a kind of magical mental changing room–where one thing, for a moment, becomes another, and in that moment is seen in a whole new way forever. ~ James Geary, “I Is an Other”.

Computing Metaphor

The early computer makers recognized our need for patterns and created metaphors to help us bridge the gap between the old and the new; between what we knew about the world that we lived in, and what we needed to know in order to successfully navigate the new world of computing. The better the metaphor — the better the connection between the old and the new — the better the user experience.

imgres This jet plane user interface is an example of a VERY bad metaphor because there is virtually no metaphor at all. The light switch and the radio switch and the ejection seat switch are exactly the SAME and are located inappropriately close to one another which is exactly the OPPOSITE of what one wants a metaphor to convey. One tiny mistake or slip of the hand and — whoosh!


220px-Writing_desk220px-Apple_Macintosh_DesktopThe computing metaphor that emerged from the 70’s and 80’s was the desktop metaphor

Steve Jobs described it this way:

The desktop metaphor was invented because one, you were a stand-alone device, and two, you had to manage your own storage. That’s a very big thing in a desktop world.

Presciently, Jobs then added the following:

And that may go away. You may not have to manage your own storage. You may not store much before too long.


[pullquote]“Tablet PC” brings up unpleasant memories of clunky Windows slates. ~ Steve Wildstrom (@swildstrom)[/pullquote]

From 2000 until…well…until today, Bill Gates and Microsoft tried to discover the proper metaphor for the tablet.

— They had the right form factor. The tablet was, in fact, the future of computing.
— They were innovative in their use of the stylus as an input device.
— But they had the metaphor all wrong, wrong, wrong.

Microsoft persisted in imposing the PC desktop metaphor onto the tablet, long after it was painfully clear that it was the wrong thing to do. A desktop metaphor works well on a desktop and even a notebook computer. However, it is a disaster on a tablet.

Why? The metaphors of menus, scroll bars and tiny buttons all work well on a desktop device because the mouse can easily locate and click on a single pixel. But on a tablet, mice were impossible to use and stylus input was clumsy, at best.



Touch input removed an entire layer of abstraction from computing input, but it also required the creation of an entirely new user interface, built from the ground up.

The finger, unlike the stylus, was imprecise and hit multiple pixels at once.
The finger, unlike the cursor, obscured one’s view of the screen.

What to do, what to do?

— Menus? Too, too small. Replace them with large buttons.
— Scroll bars? Too narrow. Replace them with swiping, up and down, left and right.
— Tiny buttons? Fugetaboutit. Replace them with huge, easy to see and easy to touch, targets.

Blind, Deaf, Dumb & Broken Metaphors

Say what you saw!

Bad metaphor creates a cognitive burden, a “tax” on the brain. A bad metaphor won’t kill a user interface but it will maim it and cause it to painfully limp along. Computing should be enjoyed, not endured.The better the metaphor, the easier the computer is to use and the better the user experience. The worse the metaphor, the worse the user experience and the less likely that the device will be embraced by a mass audience.


(Windows 8 is) like driving a car that has both a steering wheel and a joystick. ~ Michael Mace questions Microsoft’s sanity

Physical mixed metaphor is so obviously a bad idea. It is so totally impractical that, for the most part, it seldom exists outside of the lab.


A verbal mixed metaphor is a succession of incongruous or ludicrous comparisons. When two or more metaphors (or cliches) are jumbled together, often illogically, we say that these comparisons are “mixed.”

Stick these examples of mixed metaphors in your pipe and chew them over:

Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat. I see him floating in the air. But mark me, sir, I will nip him in the bud. ~ Boyle Roche in the Irish Parliament

The walls had fallen down and the Windows had opened, making the world much flatter than it had ever been–but the age of seamless global communication had not yet dawned. ~ Thomas L. Friedman

The moment that you walk into the bowels of the armpit of the cesspool of crime, you immediately cringe. ~ from Our Town, N.Y., cited by The New Yorker, March 27, 2000

And my favorite:

All along the untrodden paths of the future I can see the footprints of an unseen hand. ~ Sir Boyle Roche

Less Can Be More; More Can Be Moronic

[pullquote]Never assume the obvious is true. ~ William Safire[/pullquote]

We all know that physical and verbal mixed metaphors are a bad, bad idea. Why then, is it so hard for us to recognize that mixed computing metaphors are a dangerous drain on our cognitive abilities too?

I guess it just seems obvious that two is better than one, that more is better than less. But when it comes to metaphors, nothing could be further from the truth.

There is great power in a consistent metaphor. In fact, it is worth sacrificing computing power (and its underlying complexity) if that power comes with at the cost of metaphor. This is the great paradox that tech pundits fail, over and over again, to comprehend.

Examples of Blind, Deaf, Dumb and Broken Metaphors


  1. Universal Operating Systems ( A Chimera, in Greek mythology, is a fire-breathing female monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail. It also means “a thing that is hoped or wished for but in fact is illusory or impossible to achieve.” That exactly describes and embodies the fantastical wish for a single operating system. A single operating system that runs on touch input devices (phones and tablets) as well as pixel specific input devices (notebooks and desktops) is as absurd has putting a lion’s head and a goat’s head on a single animal.)
  2. Windows RT (A tablet plus Microsoft Office. (Like an overly light-weight canoe being burdened with a overly heavy anchor.)
  3. Dual Boot (I want Android on my Windows Machine – said no one ever.)
  4. 2-in-1 hardware machines (The Swiss Army knife that you use to carve the turkey on Thanksgiving and the electric can opener that you use on a camping trip.)

  5. Keyboard on a tablet (Like a condom, it satisfies a need, but it doesn’t serve its designer’s purpose.)
  6. Touchscreen on a notebook or desktop (It does no good to touch a screen if the underlying OS is made for pixel specific input. Using touch on a pixel OS is like threading a needle with a jackhammer.)
  7. Dual Operating Systems (Two is always better than one! It’s a floor wax AND a dessert topping!)



images-75My advice is to focus on the metaphor first. If the metaphor is not intuitive to a 6 year old – or a grandmother — or even a gorilla, it may be too complex.

Two final thoughts from sources as diverse as Sesame Street and Warren Buffet:

One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn’t belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?

Should you find yourself in a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks. ~ Warren Buffett


[pullquote]It is a test of true theories not only to account for but to predict phenomena. ~ William Whewell[/pullquote]

I’m putting my metaphorical money where my metaphorical mouth is, and flat-out predicting that NONE of the above hybrid operating systems and hardware options will go mainstream. Oh, they may well survive, but none will thrive. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it…

…at least, until another, better story, comes along.

(Author’s Note: Come join me on Twitter. My handle is @johnkirk.)

How The Tablet Made An Ass Of The PC

[pullquote]If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself. ~ Einstein[/pullquote]

Many tech watchers STILL don’t understand what a “disruptive innovation” is. I’m no Einstein, but I’m going to try to explain it in terms that even a six year old could understand (and with pretty pictures too!).

A disruptive innovation is:

an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually goes on to disrupt an existing market and value network (over a few years or decades), displacing an earlier technology.

If that still doesn’t resonate with you, that’s okay, because we’ve just begun and…

Perplexity is the beginning of knowledge. ~ Khalil Gibran

(Author’s Note: For the sake of simplicity, I’ll be using the term “PC” to describe both Notebook and Desktop computers, i.e, any computer with an attached keyboard.)

The Analogy

[pullquote]If the King’s English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me! ~ Ma Ferguson, former governor of Texas[/pullquote]

The new often disrupts the old, which is somewhat akin to saying that the new often makes an ass out of the old, which brings us to my analogy:

The PC is like an Elephant and the Tablet is like an Ass (in the biblical sense).

ignorant donkey

I’ll bet you didn’t see that one coming.


[pullquote]The absence of alternatives clears the mind marvelously. ~ Henry Kissinger[/pullquote]

Suspend belief for a moment and imagine that the PC is an Elephant and that the Tablet is an Ass. (That wasn’t so hard, now was it?) Imagine further that you lived in a land where the only pack animals were Elephants.

If you only have one tool, then that is the tool that you will use for most every task. If you only have one pack animal, i.e., the Elephant, then that is the pack animal that you will use for most every task. (Similarly, if you only have one type of computer, i.e., the PC, then that is the computer that you will use for most every computing task.)


Now imagine that the Ass (Tablet) is introduced into your Elephant-only (PC-only) ecosystem. If you were a purveyor of Elephants (PCs), would you feel threatened? Would you even care?

Of course not.

  1. An Ass can carry goods. So can an Elephant.
  2. An Ass can give people rides. So can an Elephant.
  3. An Ass can pull a cart. So can an Elephant.


There is nothing that an Ass (Tablet) can do that an Elephant (PC) cannot do and do better. Not only that, but an Elephant (PC) can do many things that an Ass simply cannot do at all.

— An Elephant (PC) is far more powerful than an Ass (Tablet).

— An Elephant (PC) can pull tree stumps and clear forests. Try doing that on your Ass (Tablet).

— An Elephant (PC) comes with special options like a built-in trunk. All you get with a Donkey (Tablet) is a bare Ass.

— An Elephant (PC) is so big, it can make its own shade.

Elephant in the desert with umbrella.

— An Elephant (PC) is self-cleaning. (Let’s face facts — sometimes Donkeys stink).

Elephant bathing, Kerala, India

— An Elephant (PC) can carry heavy loads and add additional storage.

3d elephant isolated on white

— An Elephant (PC) will figuratively — and literally — go to war for you.

War Elephant - Antique Greece/Persia

In other words, the owners and purveyors of Elephants (PCs) would never have any fear of the Ass (Tablet). They would, instead, mock it. They would treat it with disdain and consider it beneath contempt.

So why on earth would anyone ever consider using an Ass (Tablet) instead of an Elephant (PC)?

Reader Alert: This is the part where we try to understand why disruption occurs.

[pullquote]Q: What’s that gooey stuff between an elephant’s toes?
A: Slow running people.[/pullquote]

An Ass is:

  1. Cheaper to buy;
  2. Cheaper to feed;
  3. Easier to stable;
  4. Easier to train;
  5. Easier to discipline;
  6. Easier to pack; and
  7. Easier to ride.

In other words, an Ass (Tablet) does most everything you use an Elephant (PC) for and does it cheaper and easier too.

The Four Stages Of Disruption


[pullquote]The speed of a runaway horse counts for nothing. ~ Jean Cocteau[/pullquote]

The problem starts when the Elephant (PC) begins to over serve its customer’s needs. The consumer only needs and uses a smidgen of the Elephant’s (PC’s) many and mighty powers. A feature means NOTHING to the end user if it isn’t useful. In fact, it’s a burden, both in added price and complexity.


At first glance, the Ass (Tablet) SEEMS to be far inferior to the Elephant (PC) but, in reality, the Ass has several disruptive advantages — including lower price and lower complexity — over the Elephant (PC).

The Elephant (PC) can do everything that an Ass (Tablet) can do but an Ass (Tablet) can do everything that the consumer wants and needs to do and it can do it easier and cheaper too.


“But, but, but,” you say, “there are some tasks that the Ass (Tablet) simply CAN NOT do and that ONLY an Elephant (PC) can do. That’s a deal breaker!

True enough.

However, it turns out that if 96% of consumers only need the power of the Elephant (PC) 4% of the time, then they will find a work-around that allows them to get by with the cheaper and easier to use Ass (Tablet). That’s the 4% solution ((Why 4%? It’s the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule), redux. It’s 20% of the remaining 20%.)) .

For example, if you only need to use an Elephant once in a great while, you can simply borrow one from a neighbor, or rent one, or get by with the aging one that you already own.

[pullquote]I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite. ~ G. K. Chesterton[/pullquote]

This is highly counter-intuitive, yet crucial to the understanding of disruption. The Ass (Tablet) doesn’t need to be all things to all people. It only needs to be most things to most people.


Over served customers — gradually at first, then more and more rapidly — gravitate to the seemingly inferior solution that:

1) Best meets their needs;
2) Is cheaper; and
3) Is easier.

The customers leak away from the incumbent — whether it be an Elephant or a PC — until the incumbent is left high and dry, serving only the 4%; the “power users”; who truly do need the added power — and the added cost and complexity — that the incumbent’s product provides.


[pullquote]The obvious is that which is never seen until someone expresses it simply. ~ Khalil Gibran[/pullquote]

The reason people don’t see disruption coming is because they compare one product to another when they should, instead, be comparing the needs of the consumer to the product that best serves those needs.

If you compare an Elephant (PC) to an Ass (Tablet), there is no question that the Elephant (PC) is superior. But that’s missing the point entirely. Because if you compare the task at hand – say, riding into town, or sending an email – to the available tools, then the lowly Ass (Tablet) kicks the Elephant’s (PC’s) keister ever time.


My Windows 8 Wishlist

In a couple of weeks, Microsoft is expected to release a preview version of Windows 8.1. Preliminary indications are that ti will be a relatively modest overhaul of the radically new Windows 8 user interface. My suspicion is that it will prove tings, but not enough to solve the serious usability issues of the UI–or the be both more precise and put my finger on the problem–Windows 8’s two disparate UIs. Here’s what I hope Microsoft will do with the final version of 8.1. (As usual, I will refer to the two UIs as Metro and Desktop.)

Fix Metro control panels. The original version of Windows 8 requires going to Desktop for all but the most rudimentary system functions. What Microsoft has shown of 8.1 suggests considerable improvement in the number of settings you can modify without leaving Metro, but still not nearly enough. I would like to see a Metro version of any control panel required for normal user operation of a PC (I’d exempt a few of the more advanced and arcane ones, such as the Services panel.) If you are working in touch, you should be able to do everything important in touch, and Desktop control panels don’t allow that.

Persistent charms. If you can make the taskbar persistent in Desktop, why not the charms bar in both Metro and Desktop. The charms don’t take very much real estate. Why not give users the option of access without that awkward swipe-from-the-side gesture?

Universal app search in Desktop. If start typing on the Metro Start page, you automatically begin a search for apps. Typing in any empty area of the Desktop should have the same effect. This, by itself, should eliminate most of the pining for the legacy Start button. (Contrary to many reports, the current version of 8.1 does not bring back the Start button. It just provides easy access to the Metro Start page.)

Unify Internet Explorer. Windows 8 includes two browsers. They are both called IE 10, but are in fact completely separate, with independent bookmarks, histories, and preferences. It is necessary to have two different browser front ends to match the two UIs, but they should share their data. At the same time, your choice of a default browser in Desktop should not affect the behavior of the Metro browser.

Let Desktop be Desktop Default file associations cause some very odd behavior in Desktop. Double click on a photo in Desktop, for example, and it opens in the Metro Photos app. This leads to the jumping-between-UIs behavior in Windows 8 that drives many users, myself included, nuts. There’s a common thread to most of these suggestions. From a user interface point of view, Windows 8 is two operating systems bolted together. That is baked into the architecture of the system and is not going to change. But it should be possible to pick one or the other, for the current session or forever, and stay in it.

Desktop is a fine, time-tested UI for large displays, keyboards, and mice. Metro is a good touch interface for smaller displays. But with Windows 8 today, and with what appears to be only modest improvement in 8.1, it is impossible for users to live in one or the other. And I believe that, no such relatively minor quibbles as the loss of the Start button lie at the heart of the cool user response to the OS.



How To Make Windows 8 Great

Del XPS Duo 12 Convertible
There has been a lot of discussion here lately, both in posts such as Why IT buyers are Excited About Convertibles and Hybrids and Microsoft Surface: How Relevant Are Legacy Apps and Hardware? about the failings and the potential of Windows 8. So inspired by these posts, and even more so by readers’ comments on them, here is a radical if only partially baked idea: How about a hybrid operating system for hybrid devices?

In Metro (I’m going to go on calling it that until Microsoft comes up with a real alternative), Microsoft has designed a very good user interface for tablets and touch-based apps. The legacy Windows Desktop is still an excellent UI for a traditional mouse-and-keyboard PC. But in bolting the two together in Windows 8 and, to a lesser extent, Windows RT, Microsoft has created a very ugly two-headed calf. The tendency of Metro to pop up while you are working in Desktop, and for Desktop to be necessary for some tasks even while in touch mode, renders both interfaces far from optimal.

Microsoft should do three things. The easiest is to get Metro out of Desktop by allowing booting into Desktop and restoring traditional UI elements, such as a start menu, that were removed from Windows 8.  Fixing Metro is harder. Basically, Microsoft has to finish the job by creating features, utilities, and apps that allow the user to do everything in the touch interface. The toughest challenge is Metrofying Office. It would be extremely difficult to recreate all the functionality of Word, Excel, and the rest in a tablet app and almost certainly unwise to try. Instead, Microsoft has to pick a core feature set that can work in a touch interface on relatively small screens and build the applications around these. (If reports are to be believed, Microsoft is doing this for iOS and Android anyway; why not Windows?)

But the really cool thing would be hybrid Windows for hybrids, a shape-shifting operating system designed for a new generation of devices that can convert from traditional PCs to tablets (the forthcoming Surface Pro probably belongs in this class.) Why not an OS that presents the traditional Desktop UI when the device is being used with a keyboard and touchpad or mouse, then converts instantly and automatically to a touch-first Metro-type UI when the device transforms?

The key to making this work is the use of solid state storage, which allows for very fast saving and restoration of state. I envision a system where you could be editing a Word file in Desktop, then switch to tablet mode, where you make some changes to the file in the touch version of Word. When you switch back to Desktop, Word would still be open with your file, but it would include the edits made in tablet. I suspect that the Desktop and Metro versions of programs would still have to be different applications and this would require closing and reopening of files when switching modes. But SSDs can make this happen so quickly that the user will barely notice.

I’m not suggesting this is at all a trivial job or that in can be done very quickly. The Office project alone is a very large undertaking, one that I can only presume is already underway, although Microsoft has been totally silent about it. There is a great deal of work beyond that, and third-party software vendors would have to get on board with mode-switchable versions of their applications.  But the result would be new and exciting computing experience.

Windows RT Grows More Mysterious as Launch Nears

Microsoft Surface
Microsoft’s Surface Windows RT Tablet

I expected we would be seeing more clarity on the distinctions between Windows 8 and its Windows RT sibling (for ARM processor devices) as the expected late October launch grows closer. But the picture seems to be growing murkier instead.

I didn’t make it to the IFA show in Berlin where many Windows 8 and RT devices had their unveiling but read dozens of reports. I was particularly struck by this hands-on video from The Verge’s Tom Warren. When Microsoft first announced what was then called Windows on ARM in February, it said Windows RT would have very limited access to the traditional Windows Desktop:

WOA includes desktop versions of the new Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. These new Office applications, codenamed “Office 15”, have been significantly architected for both touch and minimized power/resource consumption, while also being fully-featured for consumers and providing complete document compatibility. WOA supports the Windows desktop experience including File Explorer, Internet Explorer 10 for the desktop, and most other intrinsic Windows desktop features—which have been significantly architected for both touch and minimized power/resource consumption.

It seems that the definition of “intrinsic Windows desktop features” is somewhat broader than most of us had expected. For example, Warren found versions of Notepad and Paint included.  Maybe RT will support all of the applications and utilities traditionally found in the \windows\system32 directory. (It would certainly be the most robust utility tool kit on an ARM tablet.)

Isn’t all this extra stuff a good thing? Not really. For one thing, these apps are not optimized for touch and Warren’s video shows how awkward they are when the on-screen keyboard is covering half the display. (This was a chronic problem on Windows Tablet PCs going back a decade. The keyboard was never smart enough to stay out of the way of the programs it was interacting with.)

The bigger problem is that this is going to be very confusing for consumers. If Windows 8 and Windows RT look alike and to a considerable extent act alike, how are consumers going to understand the difference? But the differences are large and important. Whatever classic desktop applications come on the RT versions, those are all you are going to get. Windows RT only allows installing of software downloaded through the Windows App Store. There will inevitably be a jailbreak that allows sideloading of apps, but even if you could load them, they won’t run: Code compiled for an x86 processor simply will not execute on an ARM system.

Microsoft’s Windows 8 strategy was always courting massive consumer confusion and the prospects  are getting worse. Manufacturers are showing keyboard-equipped Windows RT devices that pretty much look like notebooks, At a minimum, Microsoft faces a large-scale consumer education problem.