Folders: Computer’s Vestigial Structures

Following up on my previous post regarding user interfaces, I wanted to discuss the antiquated means of storing files on computers: Hierarchical folders.

Digital media is nothing like physical media. If you want to put a file in two separate manilla folders on your desk, then you have to make a copy. Computers have the potential to allow that same file to exist anywhere on your system with only one copy. But instead of embracing this, we are forced to revisit the ghosts of reality by having to use hierarchal folder systems. If you want a picture of your cat to be in both the “Family” and “Funny” folders, you have to make a copy. Not exactly the most efficient means of data storage.

Google has done it right with Gmail, which uses a label system that works beautifully. The system looks like it uses folders, but you can assign a single email multiple labels, so you can find the same copy while browsing through different labels. For example: If I select either ‘Family’ or ‘Dad’, it will show every email from him, including those from the sub-labels. If this was done with standard folders, it would only show the emails from that directory, and not the sub-folders, making you dig through a folder tree to find the exact spot it is in. And what if an email is both ‘Important’ and ‘Pointless’? Well, with folders you have to choose one or the other, and remember which it is in if you ever want to find it again. With labels, you could apply both, so the email shows up in either category.

So, what has iOS done to change this? Well, up until iOS 4.0 you couldn’t manage files at all, but the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system has a unique approach: Universal document access. This obscures the files to the end user, so when you open an attached Word document from Mail, instead of saving it to ~/Downloads, iOS will prompt you to select what application you want to use to open it, avoiding the folder middleman.

This approach works decently enough for a mobile device, where you only have a few files to manage, but if Apple plans to expand iOS to desktops like the rumors say, then this needs to evolve into something more substantial. OS X has smart folders, which sort files by different criteria like size or file type. This works to some degree, but it isn’t ‘baked’ into the OS, and can’t fully replace the traditional folder system on its own.

Apple seems to acknowledge the inherent problem with folders in iOS, but they are still working on a replacement. Dreaming up a substitute is no easy task and will probably take years to do, but if Apple wants the iPad to replace laptops and desktops, than this issue needs to be addressed.

Post a response / What do you think?