Something that might seem like a small detail about my iPhone that still makes me quite happy is that fact that I don’t really have to “eject” the device before I unplug it from a computer. This probably seems like no big deal to the average user since most devices we plug in to our computers can be unplugged as simply as we plug them in. Devices which store data, however, are another story.

Whether on Windows or OS X, you’re often warned of possible data loss when you simply unplug a memory card, external hard drive, media player, or smartphone. You’re supposed to go to the Finder (on a Mac) or My Computer (in Windows) and eject the device before unplugging it. My hardware and operating systems knowledge are steadily fading into oblivion from disuse, but I believe this eject action essentially attempts to cease communication with the device in question by wrapping up any data transfer or use by software programs. This is particularly helpful, nay, crucial, when you’re copying files on to an external hard drive or syncing a smartphone so you don’t damage a file by only transferring a piece of the whole.

Now I’m not in the habit of unplugging my iPhone in the middle of syncing or copying, but I’ve known since it was discussed at launch and since I’ve used one myself that, generally, you can just pull the sync cable right out of the phone without having to worry. This, as I understand it, is to allow you to take a phone call without having to bring iTunes into focus to eject the device or wait for syncing to complete.

I think, though, that the real benefit here is removing a needlessly confusing step from day-to-day use of the iPhone. Why can’t we do this with other data storage devices?

I hadn’t considered this for years because I’d wager that if you were the sort of person who used an external hard drive or a card reader on your computer, you were savvy enough to understand why you don’t yank those out in the middle of use, and the process of logical ejection wasn’t likely to confuse or get in the way. It made technical sense and seemed like a safe way to protect data. But it’s not just the nerds making use of these devices anymore.

Many computers come with built in card readers, there are consumer-level external hard drives gaining broader use for media storage and back-up, and there is the omnipresence of digital media electronics like the iPod. The people who are using these products often have enough knowledge of computers to use Microsoft Office and surf the internet. They might not understand that simply unplugging that external hard drive might corrupt the iTunes library file stored therein if they hadn’t closed iTunes first and/or ejected the drive. The gist of the issue, as I see it, is that the current process of device ejection requires the user to be active about handling device communication closure. The way the iPhone is handled, on the other hand, allows the user to ignore this while a software layer handles this. The computer…um…gets out of the way.

I’m not sure how, exactly, iTunes handles this functionality. Perhaps there’s something in the software on both sides – the phone AND the computer – that only keeps complete files. Whatever the case, I wonder what barriers exist to implementing the same ability for other devices. It sure would be nice to be able to yank a memory card out of the computer mid-transfer so you could stuff it back into the camera and get a picture of your kid goofing off. It would be nice if you could simply take your laptop and go without having to close a bunch of programs and eject some hardware.

This is, for sure, a trivial element of a user’s interaction with a computer. But as more non-technical people continue to use computers for an ever-increasing variety of tasks we should consider those little hindrances that, while on their own pose little problem, collectively add up to a steeper learning curve.

6 thoughts on “Ejection

  1. I suspect that the sophistication of the device is behind the capability. Simple memory cards or thumb drives don’t have software, and so they can’t share management for transfer processes. I also think you might be wrong about why you have to safely remove. I don’t think it’s to prevent a partial transfer of the file you’re currently transferring, but rather to preserve the data already on the device by not dumping in the middle of file system rearrangement as a result of the transfer. File systems are not nearly as neat and tidy as modern folder structure representations would have us believe.And so I bet that (provided I’m correct above 🙂 ) the iPhone can do this because it can manage its own file system maintenance, and that rather than the computer “putting” files onto it, it “sends” files to it and the iPhone “receives” them. And so when the computer connection is lost, the iPhone can still complete any file system processes because it was running them in the first place.I don’t know, just my theory. I could be completely wrong.

  2. @Mugs: Thanks for the additional insight. I still think the idea of making more devices work like the iPhone in this regard is a useful thing to consider, though, regardless of why things are they way they are now.If it wasn’t clear before this post, it’s sure clear now that I’m clearly no computer scientist. But I think the saturation of computer usage among non-computer-scientists it more important to get some of the small things out of the way.Perhaps it would require a difference in the way file systems/databases are managed by/within an operating system, or something vastly different. The gory details are beyond me at this point. I’m just curious whether this is one of those things even considered by those folks with the know-how to address it.

  3. I think the answer is in changing the way computers interact with removable storage, not the way the removable storage works, since most removable storage is greatly limited.

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