I’m a technologist. I use Windows shortcuts and their equivalent, softlinks, on UNIX all of the time. These are incredibly useful and important tools that make computers much more useful than they would otherwise be. The concept of softlinks, symbolic links (aka symlinks) or shortcuts is incredibly important and many things that we do everyday with computers would be nearly impossible without them. However, I have noticed recently that the average computer user is unable to grasp shortcuts conceptually and this causes a myriad of problems.

The issue generally arises when an everyday computer uses needs to make a copy or a backup of a particular file. Most computer users do not fully understand what a file, an application or a shortcut is or how these are conceptually different, yet related, things. Thinking of filesystem mechanics is not something most people do every day. I do, but I’m weird like that.

The problems caused by this are fairly obvious. When attempting to copy or transfer a file – whether to another drive, to removable media such as a CD-ROM or USB Flash Memory Drive or to email or other network transfer – a user will often become confused and send the link to the file instead of the file itself. In many cases this error is nothing more than annoying. A grandparent sending a CD or DVD full of links to their grandchildren’s pictures instead of the pictures themselves. This causes a loss of media and shipping cost but generally little more than that and aggravation as this generally only afflicts those who are not prepared to troubleshoot what has happened.

However, in cases of critical data files that have been expected to have been protected this can be a critical issue. Often you can blame the end users themselves for making backups without checking them thoroughly – an unverified backup is no backup at all. Okay, this excuse has its merits. But what we are dealing with here is an underlying problem of conceptual comprehension and not one of diligence. Take the example of making a backup to a second hard drive (internal, USB, network – doesn’t matter) or to removable media (CD, DVD, USB Memory Stick, SD card – again, doesn’t matter.) In this example any user with only a single computer to work from or only a single computer with the necessary applications installed to load the files being backed up (critical files are often from applications like QuickBooks, FileMaker or Microsoft Accounting) would discover that they could make successful backups, remove the media, reload the media and open the files “from the media” flawlessly only to discover that once the original files had been lost, deleted, changed or corrupted that the “backups” changed along with the originals! That is the nature of symbolic linking – transparent access to the original application. What we are seeing is a library backing up the card catalogue while letting the books burn.  At least we will have a good record of the loss for the insurance company.

On servers this functionality is critical and anyone who is working directly on a server and cannot understand symbolic linking certainly can’t be trusted not to lose data but when we are talking about non-expert desktop systems like Windows and MacOS we might need to take a different view. The average user simply has no use for shortcuts. Sure there may be times when shortcuts would be more useful than a second copy of a file but the times that this is important are rare enough that the impact would be generally negligible and the benefits in “ease of use” would be important. Shortcuts, while meant to make computers simple, have become a major point of fear by a large percentage of users who don’t even realize what it is that they are afraid of – knowing that would practically solve the problem.

I am not suggesting that shortcuts be eliminated completely from the operating system.  This would be ludicrous.  What I am hypothesizing is that shortcuts should not be made so easily accessible to casual computer users.  Currently, in Microsoft Windows operating systems, the standard context menu that is available whenever doing a copy/cut/paste operation always presents the option of creating a shortcut as well and, at times, does this by default.  This is horrible behaviour.  Users do not need to be presented with this without some level of effort being expended.  It should, in my opinion, be made available by context menu only if placed some distance from the common copy/cut/paste options and should never occur as a default “copy” behaviour.

At the very least the operating system should detect when a shortcut is being put onto remote or removable media and should optionally (and by default) prompt for confirmation and give an opportunity for users to be told that they will not have access to that file away from the current computer.  For most of us who read and write articles like this shortcuts are so conceptually simple that it is extremely difficult for us to empathize with normal users who aren’t even aware of their existence or purpose let alone put ourselves into the shoes of a user who is blissfully unaware of all filesystem structures and has never been in a position to have access to a second computer on which to test file copies.

Perhaps the next generation will grow up with a thorough enough understand of computers that they will be able to widely grasp simply data structures such as shortcuts and will be able to use them appropriately and intentionally.  But at this time I place little hope that this will be the case.  The only real hope is that the ubiquity of hyperlinks on the web being shortcuts themselves just might cause users to think about this more critically.  But this seems unlikely to occur on any real scale.

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