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.)

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch: Windows 8 Is Tough Even on a Great Windows 8 Laptop

ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch photoI have been using Windows 8 through its several beta and preview versions on equipment designed for earlier editions, and I have been wondering for many months whether my unhappiness with it resulted from shortcomings of the hardware. I’ve now had a chance to spend some time with a first-rate Windows 8-optimized touchscreen laptop and while it works much better than older hardware, the new operating system remains an uncomfortable two-headed beast.

If you want a conventional clamshell laptop with a touchscreen, Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch (from $1,349) strikes me as an ideal workhorse. It features a 14″ 1600×900  display, an Intel i5 or i7 processor, and SSD storage to 256 GB. It weighs 3.4 lb., is .74 in. thick–just a hair thicker than the non-touch version–and provides a solid 5 hours of battery life. The keyboard is outstanding, as you would expect from a ThinkPad, and both the multitouch display and the big trackpad work very well with the full repertoire of Windows 8 gestures (there is also the traditional ThinkPad TrackPoint stick, which remains great for pixel-precise pointing.)

Windows 8 is certainly happier on the X1 Carbon Touch  experience than any older laptop I have tried. Most important is that the swipe-from-the-side gestures so important to effective use of Windows 8 now work flawlessly on both the screen and the trackpad. But that’s not nearly enough to overcome the essential clumsiness.

Windows 8 still feels like two operating systems loosely bolted together. In fact, what the experience of working both in the traditional Windoiws Desktop and what, for lack of a better name, I still call Metro, most felt like was switching between virtual machines under a system such as Parallels or VMware. The two user interfaces share storage and a clipboard—and not much else.

This separation manifests itself in many annoying ways. For example, if you start typing while in the Metro start screen, you initiate a search for applications, including Desktop apps. Indeed, with the disappearance of the Start button, this is the standard way to launch Desktop applications not on your task bar or desktop. You would expect that if you put the cursor outside any desktop window and began typing, you’d get the same search. Instead, nothing at all happens.

Then there is the failure of of Metro and Desktop apps to communicate. The Metro Calendar and People apps and Outlook don’t seem to know anything about each other. So adding an appointment or contact in one has no effect on the other unless you sync through an external service.

The usefulness of the touch display is badly damaged by the wildly inconsistent behavior of applications. For example, pinch and stretch works just as you would expect in the Desktop version of Internet Explorer. But in the Google Chrome browser, the gesture works on the trackpad, but not on the screen.

Adobe Photoshop CS6 would seem to be an application that could benefit greatly from touch, but it just plain doesn’t work. You can use touch to select items from menus or palettes. But when you touch the screen inside a picture, whatever tool you are using simply disappears and moving your finger has no effect at all. The tool cursor reappears as soon as you touch either the TrackPoint or trackpad.

Obviously, this situation will improve if and when third-party software vendors add proper Windows 8 touch support to their products. But it’s not as though Windows 8 sneaked up on them, and their failure to work properly with touch is depressing.

Outlook 2013 context menu screenshotMicrosoft hasn’t done that great a job itself with making its most important applications touch-ready. Office 2013 works better with touch than earlier versions, but that’s not saying much and the effort has a half-hearted feel to it. For example, the “ribbon,” Office’s do-everything menu bar offers a choice between “touch” and “mouse” modes. In the latter, the menu items and icons are bigger and further apart and therefore much easier to hit accurately with your finger. But the same courtesy does not extend to other interface elements. In particular, context (right-click) menus are much too small for comfortable touch use. (In general, context menus are evil with a touch interface.)

Office applications also have a strange proclivity to pop open an onscreen keyboard, for example, in Outlook whenever a search box is selected. This makes sense on a pure tablet or a convertible or hybrid when the physical keyboard is not available. But it makes no sense at all on a laptop where the keyboard is permanently attached, and Windows ought to know better.

I think the conventional touch laptop ought to be a truly useful tool. The undoubtedly will become more common since Intel has decreed that touchscreens will required for the next generation of lightweight notebooks to carry the Ultrabook label. I’ve spent enough time working with a tablet and a keyboard that the idea of reaching to touch the screen no longer feels odd. But the deficiencies of the software keep the hardware far short of its potential. This will change in time, though there is no excuse for Microsoft launching either Windows 8 or Office 2013 half-ready for touch. For now, the fact that you pay a $200 premium for the touch version of the X1 Carbon–other touch models carry a similar premium–is a bet on the come.

Windows 8: Tepid Marketing–>Slow Sales

Win 8 display at Microcenter

Kind of sad, isn’t it? This sorry attempt at a festive display of new PCs at a Micro Center store in Rockville, MD, says a lot about the thud with which Windows 8 seems to have landed.

Windows guru Paul Thurrott recently reported that Win 8 sales are running below Microsoft’s expectations. Microsoft executives, Thurrott says, put much of the blame on OEM partners for being late to market with exciting hardware. But much of the problem may be closer to home. Neither Microsoft nor its retail partners seem to be making all that great an effort to sell new systems, especially compared to past efforts.

This week, I stopped by several big box retailers, the sort that generate most of the sales of Windows PCs, and what I saw was dispiriting. Instead of the end caps, banners, ceiling-high stacks of boxed software, and the occasional brass band that accompanied past Windows launches, I saw a distinctly low key effort. Windows 8 has only a modest presence on TV–most of Microsoft’s ad buy is dedicated to Surface, which is sold only online and in Microsoft’s own sparse retail outlets–and I saw no sign of any Microsoft promotional effort at my local Best Buy, Staples, Microcenter, or H.H. Gregg. In fact, the display below, at Staples, was about as flashy as it got:

Now it is a fact of life in retailing that vendors literally get what they pay for in terms of shelf position, end-cap displays, store advertising, and other promotion. It appears Microsoft isn’t paying much this time around. It doesn’t help that Microsoft is not, at least at this point, selling Windows 8 as physical media, so there are no in-store displays of the software itself. Still, it’s telling that Windows is missing from this row of promotional posters at the Micro Center entrance:

Micro Center poster display

On the shelves, things are just as bad. The main selling point for Windows 8 is touch, but most of the new touch models have yet to come to market. Laptops are generally grouped by price, sometimes by size. In no case did I see touch models grouped together or in any way featured. Best Buy at least had little tags on some non-touch models proclaiming their lack of touch screens, but otherwise, you had to figure it out for yourself, either by reading the detailed product descriptions or by touching the screen and seeing whether anything happened. (A clue: If it costs less than $1,000, it probably doesn’t has a touch screen.) In most stores, there are some Windows 7 machines mixed in among the newer models, and I wouldn’t be surprised if few shoppers managed to figure out just what was supposed to be superior about Windows 8.

Unless Microsoft is going to open a whole lot more of its own stores (there is only one full-fledged Microsoft Store in the Washington area–in Arlington, Va.,–and just two pop-up stores, really glorified mall kiosks, in the entire state of Maryland), it should work with OEMs and retailers to do something to improve a horrible shopping experience. Most of the machines I saw on shelves made it impossible to get any sort of meaningful Windows 8 experience. Many of the machines were dead, or were locked into demo screen shows. Of those that were running Windows 8, almost none were both connected to the internet and linked to a Microsoft account, two features necessary to understanding what the new OS is all about. And while I understand the need of retailers to keep stock from walking off, their approach to theft prevention is lethal to sales. For example, it’s impossible to get a real sense of the sleekness of this Hewlett-Packard Spectre XT Ultrabrook at Staples with that horrible anti-theft clamp and cable device on its side:

HP Spectre


Even worse was a similar clamp (at Best Buy) that prevented a Lenovo Yoga convertible notebook/tablet from going through its agile tricks.

I only ran into one true Windows tablet in my shopping tour, a $600 Asus Vivo Tab RT. To my complete lack of surprise, the display was free of any information on the differences between its Windows RT software and the full Windows 8 on the systems surrounding it, another bit of consumer education that Microsoft is sorely ignoring.