Saturday, November 18, 2006


It would be fantastic if we could use instinctively all the software we find on our computers. It's a necessity too: new programs appear every week. The solution is to stop thinking at the programs as products or tools, and even ignore their existence. This is an old, current and welcome trend: the tool is the computer. It comes with its own commands (Open, Quit, Copy, Paste, Print...) and its own graphic style. When you have learned to use your first program, there is nothing more to learn. You will always find the same commands at the same places. After a few days you don't even have to think, because your fingers remember what to do for you. The impossible part is to stick to the same operative system for a lifetime, like we can do with a chronograph, a pen or a turntable (if we are affectioned to them). The difficult part is to switch to a different OS. On Windows you find many tiny icons, on the Mac a few large icons, on Linux all kinds of distros. The (unfortunate) unifying trend is to make longer and longer menus. Menu commands are considered a remnant of the past, like the command line, and left to expert users. What's the fault of expert users, that are faced with these endless menus? It is simpler to type the command on the command line than to find it into a list of 100 items. Even icons are a tragedy. To increase the intensity of the peaks some genius had the idea of creating a "plus" icon that the user was expected to click with the mouse. Afterwards they introduced specific keys, on the keyboard, to control the volume of loudspeakers. You can't find, unfortunately, NMR-specific keyboards. If your NMR program doesn't implement any command line, the keyboard is apparently useless. No law prevents, however, the software to accept input through intuitive keys, like + - or the arrow keys. With a small dose of inventiveness z can mean "zoom", i can mean "integrate", g means "show and hide the grid", p and H set the scale units to ppm or Hz, etc... In other fields (games, music notation) such reconversion of the keyboard is normal. You see that, eventually, all programs are forced to invent something new, and their users are forced to study the manual. What happens when the same program runs on many operative systems? Should it always have the same interface or adapt itself as a chameleon? The first option is the favorite one by Java programmers and saves a lot of efforts, first of all the effort or reading the interface guidelines valid for each system. Apparently it comes at the user's advantage: she can switch to any computer, and still find the same NMR interface. Just a little doubt: if she is forced to switch to another computer, how many chances are she will find the same, familiar, NMR software?
In practice elegance and enjoyment are the decisive factors, especially in the lucky case that the users can choose the software to buy. Windows users want a program with a Windows look-and-feel, and let's not speak of Mac users. They are fanatic purists. An atypical and forgotten case was the first program written by Tecmag, in the early 90s. It was called MacFID and intentionally tried to recreate the complexity of an old-time spectrometer, with dozens of virtual knobs, and list of parameters instead of dialogs. It's not a case that it soon disappeared. If somebody buys a Mac, it' s because she wants an elegant computer with elegant software inside.
Most of the NMR programs allow the personalization of the interface. It's funny to make a tour of a department and observe all the variations that have been created. They are the main reason why the command line is still so widely popular among technician. When they give assistance, how could they find the menu commands or the icons if every spectrometer shows a different graphic interface?


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