Save me!

LibreOffice 4.0 has landed!
licensed CC-BY-SA by Document Foundation

It was quite exciting! A new version of LibreOffice was being released: loads of new features, compatibility improvements, code clean-up. I was eagerly looking forward to trying out the built-in Logo coding, importing Microsoft Publisher documents, testing the integration with document management systems, and experimenting with the personalized themes.

When I got the tweet, I quickly went to the download site. I had to wait a few minutes (darn!) before the traffic slowed down enough. Then I got it downloaded. Quick: unpack the .zip file, uninstall the old version and one (well, two) little sudo dpkg -i *.deb later and I was up and running!

Then I saw it:

I wanted to run like the Flash and shout my frustration into the Grand Canyon. What the heck is that old-fashioned floppy disk icon doing in my brand new LibreOffice? What happened to the previous icon of an arrow pointing down to a hard drive? Who decided that a backwards move was needed?

So instead of playing around with new features, I went searching through the web to find out what the story was.

It’s not just the floppy disk icon that is old-fashioned. The clipboard, bookmark, etc. are all icons out of the 18th century. The telephone icon for modem connectivity is one of the earliest models of corded handsets. And let’s not forget the very concept of cc’ing someone! (For you youngsters, “CC” stands for “carbon copy” – go look up carbon paper!)

In the study of semiotics, there’s a concept of the arbitrariness of the sign: it doesn’t really matter what the symbol is as long as everyone agrees what it means. And so the floppy disk persists because through repeated use everybody agrees that it means save – even if people don’t really know what it’s a picture of. People have tried to come up with alternatives – leading to interesting options from graphic designers discussing merits and disadvantages of alternatives. The problem is that an icon needs to be simple enough, attractive enough, and suggestive enough. …My favorite suggestion was an icon of Jesus …because “Jesus saves!” 🙂

Discussions on various LibreOffice forums showed a back-and-forth of what kind of icon should be used, and whether it should have been changed in the first place. Discussions included whether the decision-making process reflected FOSS development as a meritocracy or democracy. There was discussion about the licensing and consistency of the Tango icon sets. And studies were done showing that the floppy icon greatly improved the usability of the software. (I couldn’t find any definitive decision …I must admit I grew fatigued with the search and the back & forth.)

As I considered it, I realized that none of these icons worked for me anyway.

One of the main alternatives was a filing cabinet – that’s even more old fashioned.  The icon I had been using was a stylized hard drive with an arrow pointing down to it. My laptop doesn’t have a hard drive – it uses solid state storage. (Should I use a microchip icon?) Various people and places suggest a cloud icon – representing storage up in the cloud. Not what I use (and not appropriate for a desktop application.)

I threw my hands up in frustration. The floppy icon isn’t going anywhere. It’s like the QWERTY keyboard: an artifact of an older era and older technology that lives on through sheer inertia.

Maybe I’ll just use my own icon: something simple, easy to identify and profoundly linked with the concept of saving…

I’ve got it!