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.