The Virtuous CIO  

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May 8, 2019 — What Happened to All the LEDs?

One of the goals of the User Interface is to present information to the user quickly and succinctly in a manner that the user can understand quickly or even at a glance. History has treated us to a succession of bad design choices by computer engineers who fundamentally understand the hardware and software but not the wetware, i.e. the user.

And area where this has become apparent to me is in the use of the LED lights in computer hardware. Going back to the primordial past, I remember system operators for the IBM System/38 relied upon a bank of four rows by eight columns of LEDs built into the operator’s console. While the vast majority of the operators could not explain in any detail what the lights signified, they did develop an uncanny feel for what the machine was doing at any given time by looking at those lights.

When IBM replaced the System/38 with the AS/400 in the early 1980’s, the biggest complaint they received was that they replaced that bank of LED lights with a single CPU indicator, that blinked as the system ran jobs. The operators complained that they didn’t know what was going on in the system. IBM’s logical response was that they didn’t need to know, or they could find out by looking at the various diagnostic screens. Fast forward to the laptop era. Following desktop practice, most manufacturers included LED lights to signify disk activity, power, and battery charging state. Carrying the practice further, they added lights for WiFi and Bluetooth operation.

Sometime in the past few years, and I believe it is related to the promulgation of the Ultrabook spec by Microsoft, the LEDs began to disappear from the laptops. Now, it could be argued that this is an example of the continuous abstraction of technology as the computing environment gets smarter. But it may also mean that we have lost something.

Occasionally the users of Windows-based laptops become frustrated when the machine bogs down to the point of uselessness. Generally speaking, if the hard drive LED was a solid red, rather than flickering, it indicated that the machine was thrashing itself for some reason (Like SystemHost in Windows 7). This provided some reassurance that the machine was not locked up. Microsoft would tell us to look at the Task Manager, which has gained lots of functionality over the years. But that assumes you can get to the Task Manager.

Lenovo has included a tiny, little LED next to the charging port that stays lit when the machine is plugged in. In older models, the charging light would go out when the battery was charged, which was a nice convenience. A user posed a question in one of the Lenovo Forums inquiring how to know when the battery was charged. A Lenovo rep replied (somewhat snippily, I thought) that you need to power up the machine and login to look at the battery charge indicator. Many of you can see the inherent problem in that response.

I am working this week on a new Dell laptop (and it is a very nice laptop, by the way) and the question has come back. The Dell has an LED on the front of the case the lights up when the computer is charging and turns off when the battery is charged. Kudos. How about the other issues? There is no disk indicator. And there is no power indicator. So, if the screen is blank, the user does not know whether the machine has (a) timed out the screen, or (b) it has gone to sleep (c) it is hibernating or (d) it is powered off.

I have learned to lean back when I press the power button to see if the keyboard backlight comes on (in a brightly lit office, the only way to tell is to look under the keys).

Come on, people, LEDs are not that expensive. Adding three or four LEDs to a laptop is not going to break the bank. I mean, if you walk into the average data center, you have a veritable lightshow of blinking, glaring and strobing LEDs. And automotive manufactures have gone to the extreme by festooning the “information center” with so many warning lights that it amounts to information overload, assuming the driver even understands what the obscure symbols mean.

That’s my pet peeve of the day and I decided to rant. I suppose next week I could talk about trying to type while the touchpad is throwing your cursor all over the screen. Now, there’s something that does vile things to your mental equilibrium.