Thursday, 03 August, 2006

Who's the master?

Today I was reading a technical paper online when Firefox popped up a message box informing me that it had downloaded and installed a new update, and that I needed to restart the browser for the change to take effect.  Mind you, I hadn't specifically asked for the update, nor had I changed any of Firefox's default options.

Last week I installed some updates from Windows Update while I was doing some other things.  When it was done it popped up a message box informing me that I needed to reboot in order for the changes to take effect.  I selected the "restart later" option and went back to what I was doing.  Five minutes or so later, Windows informed me that I needed to reboot for the changes to take effect.  Again, I canceled the message box.  The next time I just left the silly message on the screen and went back to work.  At least Firefox let me cancel the message and stopped nattering at me.

Whenever CityDesk finishes publishing my Web site (an operation that takes several minutes that I usually use to check email or catch up on my reading) it brings the publish dialog box to the front--right over the top of what I'm working on.

When minimized and playing songs from a play list, Windows Media Player briefly displays a message whenever it starts a new song.  It also has the annoying "feature" of displaying that message if I roll the mouse over the minimized player.  This is especially annoying because the minimized player is positioned right next to the Properties pane when I'm working in Visual Studio .NET.

Thunderbird displays a message in the bottom right-hand corner of my screen whenever it gets new mail.  Instant messenger programs do the same whenever a contact logs in or logs out.  Norton AntiVirus displays a message whenever it downloads new updates.  In fact, it happened while I was writing this entry.  The default settings for Outlook Express (which I don't use any more) play a sound whenever new mail is received.

All too many Web sites have pop ups or pop unders that appear automatically when I visit them.  Some sites (my .NET Reference Guide being one, unfortunately) have those highly annoying expanding ads that cover the page when you roll over them.  Other sites decide that your browsing experience wouldn't be complete without the theme music.

Today, David showed me how his installation of McAfee's anti virus (or whatever it's called) keeps telling him that his system isn't totally secure because he turned off the outgoing firewall.  If he cancels the message box it just pops up again a few minutes later.

All day long my computer pops up messages, plays sounds, and generally makes my life miserable by interrupting me while I work.  Displaying a brief message or making a sound is bad enough because it's a distraction.  Popping up a message box that I have to dismiss is totally unacceptable.  It's as if the software designers decided that whatever their silly little program has to say is much more important than what I'm working on at the moment.  I've begun to wonder who's the master.  Have we come to the point where we serve the computer?

I have little patience for software that interrupts me.  Most of the time I don't give a rip about the notification anyway, and popping a message box on top of the window I'm currently viewing is enough to make me start looking for an alternative piece of software that knows its place.  When I'm working I don't want to be bothered by anything unless it's a dire emergency.  Silly notifications that mostly amount to, "Hey!  Look at me!" do not meet the "dire emergency" criteria.  If it's not an immediate security threat or possibility of losing data then, damn it, put it in the queue and I'll address it when I'm ready.

Yes, I realize that I could probably turn most of those notifications off.  The point is that I shouldn't have to!  Software should be configured by default to be as unobtrusive as possible.  If users want constant interruption, they should have to ask for it.  My computer, the operating system, and all of the applications that I have installed are tools.  They exist so that I can get my work done.  Somewhere along the line we allowed application developers to forget that basic fact.