David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Progress Bars and Technological Progress

There’s a dialog box that appears in certain Microsoft products which caught my attention recently. It’s a progress indicator, one of those long horizontal bars that fills up as the computer gets closer to completing a task. The label underneath this particular bar comes straight out of Monty Python: This may take up to 1 minute or longer.

So, it could take any length of time then, as long as it’s not exactly one minute. Twelve seconds fits this description, as does 35 years.

Lest you think I’m going to start Microsoft bashing, let me say upfront that this is indicative of a wider phenomenon that goes way beyond Microsoft. I’ve wrestled with the best way to express this (I’m in the midst of writing a trilogy of novels about it), and here’s the best description I can come up with right now: We tend to stop seeing our technological tools as a means to accomplish something, and instead see them as an end in themselves.

By we, I mean mostly Westerners, and by Westerners, I mean mostly Americans. We spend long amounts of time shopping for our technological tools, fixing our technological tools, enhancing our technological tools. Our cars, which were originally designed to get us to a particular destination, have become destinations themselves. We treat computers like toys to play with instead of productivity tools that help us achieve some other goal — like writing a novel or communicating with someone else or retrieving information.

(Note that I’m attaching no particular moral judgment to all this, just making observations.)

The development of the computer progress bar makes an interesting case in point. I find it a fascinating paradox that as computer software progresses, the progress bar itself has regressed. What was once a simple visual cue has become, in many cases, a useless ornamentation that no longer serves any useful function whatsoever.

Let’s start with the basics. The basic progress bar on a computer serves three main purposes:

  1. To give you a visual indication of the computer’s progress on a particular task
  2. To tell you what task the computer is working on
  3. To assure you that the computer has not frozen up

(Most full-fledged installer programs these days also serve the purpose of dishing out feature or support or marketing information about the product you’ve just bought. Or advertising for other products you could be buying. But let’s just stick with the basic progress bar for now.)

If you look at programs that use the Microsoft installer (or programs that include a third-party tool like InstallShield), you’ll see that most programs woefully fail in task #1. The progress bar repeatedly climbs up to 100%, only to wipe out and start from scratch again on some new task. Sometimes the bar will hover at 20-30% for ten minutes, and then inexplicably jump up to 90% in a split-second. Remember the scene in Office Space where Ron Livingston rushes to shut down his computer before his boss arrives, only to be frustrated by an endless series of progress bars?

(Side question: what the hell kind of computer is Ron Livingston using in that scene anyway? It looks like a Mac, but it exits to an old-fashioned DOS C: prompt.)

There may be technical reasons for these idiosyncrasies — I’ll bet that some of this is the fault of the NTFS file system — but the end result is that you simply can’t tell how far the task has progressed from looking at the progress bar. All we want to know is this: is my task done, and if not, how much longer do I have to wait? And a good 90% of software progress bars fail at this very simple task.

Why? Because we tend to lose sight of the purpose behind our technology.

Look at the progress bars in the Netscape browser installation program. Instead of seeing a steady progression from left to right, you see a colored barber pole bouncing back and forth. From time to time and for seemingly no reason, the bar resets itself. They’ve managed to turn a perfectly simple, useful tool into a pointless ornamentation that serves no function whatsoever. You see more and more examples like this in software these days.

An interesting side example of the progress bar being used for unintended and somewhat sinister purposes: Internet Explorer. If you take a look in the bottom right corner of Internet Explorer, you’ll see a progress bar that gives you a visual indication of how far the loading of the current web page has progressed. But if you open up Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox side by side and try to browse to the same web page, you’ll notice something interesting: Microsoft is using the progress bar as a tool to project confidence in the browser.

Here’s how. On both IE and Firefox, the progress bar starts filling up when the browser manages to locate the destination web server; when the browser actually receives a response from the web server; and when the browser begins to download files to your computer. But Internet Explorer keeps filling up the progress bar even when nothing is happening and the page can’t be reached. Seconds tick by, nothing is happening behind the scenes, the image or video or text you’re trying to reach just isn’t there — but IE continues to tell you that progress is being made.

All of this progress bar silliness is still a clear improvement from the olden days of MS-DOS. The computer would simply sit there for minutes at a time giving you no indication that it was still chugging along on its particular task, and then spout a brilliant piece of haiku like “Not ready error reading drive C. Abort, Retry, Fail?” After several years, the gurus behind MS-DOS finally heard the complaints of the masses and changed the message to “Not ready error reading drive C. Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?”

Who says there’s no such thing as progress?

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  1. Peter Beddow on September 16, 2006 at 8:03 pm  Chain link

    I appreciate your article here. I wrote a similar post on my blog, in an article called “On the Abolition of the Computer Progress Bar”. Check it out if you get a chance.

  2. David Louis Edelman on September 17, 2006 at 12:12 am  Chain link

    Thanks for that link, Peter. Looks like you and I are very much on the same wavelength about this. And unlike me, you actually went to the trouble to create screen shots for emphasis. :-)

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