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March 6, 2017

To Save a File

Filed under: Main — admin @ 12:01 am

You don’t think about it today, but the process of saving a file was once a specific ordeal that differed from program to program. Even with the same developer, their software would offer various odd ways to save your work. That inconsistency is no longer an issue.

I could credit Microsoft for developing standard Save methods for Windows, but the credit goes to Apple and their Macintosh. And, of course, that paradigm as ignominiously borrowed from Xerox PARC. Still, the end result is blessed consistency offered to a vital function that lacked it before: Save.

The Open and Print command were also blessed with consistency, but Save was key to the process of creating stuff on a computer. Beyond starting a program and quitting a program, people eventually want to keep their creations. Each programmer had their own ideas about how to implement this document-saving procedure.

For example, consider one of the oldest programs still around: The ed editor in Unix.

The ed editor is notoriously cryptic. It’s a modal line editor, which means typing and editing are separate actions and you can work only on one line of text at a time. The command to save a file is w, which probably stands for write. And, like many old, text-mode programs, ed is unforgiving with its command syntax.

VisiCalc, the first “killer app” and ancestor of the modern spreadsheet, used these keys to save: /SS They stood for / (command prefix), Storage, Save.

I remember using early versions of Microsoft Word, which was also a text-mode program. To save a document you used the File, Transfer, Save command: FTS

The DOS version of WordPerfect used the F10 key as the Save command.

Nothing was consistent, with each program having a different command, key, or key combination to save. The word “save” was common, though to open a document, the term load was often used. Back then, few users cared about the inconsistency: For those brave souls, it was miraculous to be using a personal computer at all. People were just thrilled that they created something electronically. How well or consistently programs worked wasn’t the point.

The Macintosh in 1984 demonstrated the advantage of consistency: You could use a new program and already understand the basic commands: Save, Save As, Open, Quit, as well as Copy, Cut, Paste, and Undo. I think the last four were more of a boon than the Save command: Prior to the Mac, each program not only had its own way of copy-and-paste but different terms as well. I recall Block-Select, Yank, Put, and other oddball terms that describe the same actions.

The only radical change since the Mac and early Windows happened in 2007, when Microsoft introduced the Ribbon interface for Office. Gone was the old, reliable menu, which did irk quite a few people. Still, with all the commands available in Office, the Ribbon proved to be far more effective than endless menus and submenus.

Today, you don’t think twice about saving a file. The only time I pay attention is when I switch between the Mac and the PC. On the PC, the command is Ctrl+S and it’s Command+S on the Mac. I can live with that difference.


  1. The Ribbon why & how? as an office 95 to XP user why? I only used it (Office 2007) once to test that I was updating an Access file correctly, the interface knocked me for a loop. I have come to terms slightly with, at times I still utter why sis they break Word though!

    Comment by glennp — March 8, 2017 @ 11:21 am

  2. The Ribbon is just a menu laid flat, with buttons and icons instead of menu items. It allowed them to put more commands in the program without creating a thick menu system. Other applications use a similar approach: I’d argue that the multiple tool palettes and windows in any Adobe Creative Cloud application are pretty much the same as the Ribbon, but arranged differently.

    I fear we’ll see more interfaces like the Ribbon as programs continue to bloat and grow in complexity. It’s inevitable.

    Comment by admin — March 8, 2017 @ 11:32 am

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