Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Revolutionary Icon

With the publication of the new "Icon" issue of Portsmouth Point magazine, Daniel Rollins explores the revolutionary impact of the computer icon.

Mesopotamian writing,
c. 3,000 BC
Very few icons really revolutionise the world. While celebrities can influence culture and ideas motivate people, their effect is only minor and often do not really change much in reality. When something completely changes the way people work and communicate, when people interact with it naturally and when it gives thousands of people access to education, it can truly be called iconic.
Writing, invented approximately 5,000 years ago, is one such icon, letting people record and preserve their communication. Following on around 4,500 years later, the printing press allowed this communication to be distributed more widely. In the late twentieth century another revolutionary icon appeared: the computer icon.

The iconic Macintosh, 1984
(image source: moma.org) 

The computer icon, as part of a computer’s Graphical User Interface (GUI) freed the computer from offices and houses of individuals who had learnt to program and use command prompt systems allowing it to become the everyday object it is today.  While personal and home computers began to grow in popularity during the early 1980s, they were still difficult to use and had to be controlled by a keyboard by typing in complex commands. The first commercially successful computer with icons and windows was the professionally aimed Apple Lisa, released in 1983; a year later the iconic Macintosh was released and sold 70,000 units in 6 months, bringing the GUI into the home. Bill Gates’ Microsoft soon followed Apple by releasing Windows, now the most popular Operating System in the world.
'One Laptop Per Child' Project (see below)
While the GUI has also allowed visual media such as picture and video to be viewed and manipulated by computers, something we now take for granted when using social media and photo-sharing sites such as Facebook and Flickr, it is not its greatest achievement. One of the reasons computers are what they are today is that they are easy to use and basic operations such as word processing and accessing the web and email can be done with very little instruction. This has allowed people from all demographics to make use of the advantages a computer brings; from the age of 2 or 3, children begin to use computers and older people are now starting to use computers for communication and leisure. This is possible because of the GUI’s intuitive feel; clicking on icons and windows on a screen is more natural than typing in complex commands.
This means that people can now be given a computer and begin using it effectively with minimal training or education. This has led organisations such as the “One Laptop per Child” project, to distribute small, energy efficient laptops to children in the developing world who would otherwise receive a very limited education. Yet they can still work a laptop, packed with education software and information that can enrich their learning, without having to be taught any complicated programming.
Microsoft Windows 8
However, as with all things in computing, the icon is evolving; with the rise of touchscreen smartphones and tablets, there is no need for a pointer and, in Microsoft’s new Windows 8 operating system, the icons that featured so prominently in earlier versions have been hidden behind a sleek menu of boxes and graphics. There are now even technologies that may even replace the mouse or finger as the main way we interact, for example motion control like that seen in the 2002 film, “Minority Report”, could replace touchscreens and eventually we may talk to our house’s inbuilt computers and they will speak back to us without our having to click or even look at a screen or icon. However, for now, the icon rules --- a true icon of computing.
Read, also, Jemima Carter's IT: The Generation Gap.

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