Monday, March 13, 2006

QWERTY, VHS, and Backslashes

Many times, the thing that seems to make the most sense isn’t the thing that is finally accepted as universal.

Consider the qwerty keyboard for a moment. We’ve all heard the story. The common layout of most computer keyboards is a dinosaur, left over from manual typewriters. The purpose was to slow typists down so the key bars wouldn’t get jammed together on their path toward striking the paper. But even the concept of “striking the paper” is foreign to many computer users today. Why does this relic continue when more efficient key mappings exist? It’s a mystery.

Another example is the vhs system of video tapes. In the early 1980s, everybody knew that Sony’s Betamax system offered superior picture quality. Why did the vhs system prevail in the marketplace? It’s a mystery.

But the best — or worst — example is the lowly backslash. In a feat of planned obsolescence that only the computer software industry could get away with, Microsoft’s dos Version 1.0 supported only floppy disks with a flat file structure — no directory systems were allowed.

Can you smell an upgrade coming? Sure! When the pc xt showed up with its (gasp) 10 meg hard drive, we couldn’t put all those files on one directory. But Bill Gates and his wise men had already allocated the forward slash to indicate dos command line switches. (Now, if you don’t know what a dos command line switch is, never mind. It’s something us old people used to be concerned with before computers had mouses.)

Unix and that eeevil rival operating system cp/m used the dash for their command line switches. Bill had to be different, so he chose the slash. Dash, slash, who cares? Well, we all cared when we needed something to indicate directories. The slash was already taken. And the period was being used to distinguish the file extension.

What’s a systems programmer to do? Close your eyes, point to the keyboard and land on the backslash, that’s what. (Maybe they’ll never notice and we’ll get away with it.)

That’s why the World Wide Web — which mostly runs on Unix computers — uses forward slashes for urls, while Windows — which is just a prettied-up version of dos — uses backward slashes for their directory names.

Hmmm… That explains backslashes. Can anybody actually explain the purpose of the grave, tilde, broken vertical bar, and curly brackets?

Nope, they’re still mysteries.

1 comment:

Pastordeshon said...

I remember hearing somewhere (don't ask me where) that Betamax died because VHS machines offered programable timers, while Sony did not see the need for anything other than real-time recording. Sony eventually came out with an add-on upgrade of a clock and timer, but by then VHS already dominated the market. Another example of corporate short-sightedness (kind of like New Coke).