The Download Dilemma

Jon Udell followed-up today with a post about something he blogged about a few weeks ago: How can we make the process of downloading resources from the Web more transparent?

What I find particularly interesting about this conundrum is how it respresents an inherent misunderstanding by the general public about how the Web works as well as what I suspect is a deliberate avoidance of how to fix this problem by the creators of browsers.

I was amazed during a workshop at the University last week when a fairly savvy attendee was surprised to hear that she could download any image off of the Web by right-clicking on it and selecting the proper action from the contextual menu. I shouldn’t assume that everyone understands that all of that “stuff” that shows up in the browser window is really just digital content that can be saved locally. But, at this point, I guess I figured that assumption was safe.

But more importantly, I think this really represents a disconnect between how corporations and the original browser creators expected people to interact with the Web versus how people actually wanted to interact with the Web.

In many ways, the ability to download resources and content via the Web seems so fundamentally crucial to being a user of the Web, it’s amazing that browsers weren’t designed originally with this sort of transparent capability. But back in the early 90s, I would argue the Web was still thought of as a one-way communication channel, in which we would all be passive consumers of content that was heavily informed by print culture. Just like we don’t tear pictures out of books to share with friends, no one really wanted to think that users would “steal” images from Web sites and use them in nefarious, uncontrollable ways.

But with the open protocols that allowed the Web to exist and thrive came the risk that all of that stuff could make it onto individual users’ desktops. And still, the major browsers didn’t seem to think it was necessary to make the process of downloading and saving resources locally an integral part of the browsing interface. . .

At the end of his post, I think Jon is suggesting that we’ve just sort of backed into this muddle and it’s so pervasive at this point that there is no simple or clear way to define standard terminology or interfaces for this kind of action and synchronize it across browsers.

I guess I’m feeling more cynical (at least I am today). I think ignoring this problem was probably a deliberate choice. Making it easier for people to download resources from the get-go could have fundamentally altered the perception of the Web as being controllable, and getting business to buy into this new channel of communication probably required that some semblance of control be communicated by the tools that were being built for consuming it.

Alternatively, I guess it could really be an issue of hindsight being 20-20. Perhaps everyone really did think that getting stuff off the Web was never going to be as important to users as simply consuming the content within the intended context. If that’s the case, then I think this is a pretty interesting example of how hard it is to ever anticipate the ways in which users will actually interact with software. And it’s a pretty telling example of how far we’ve come. . .