For a long time I was of the opinion that the problem with file management was the management. And the problem with file systems was the system. If only we could design a better management system we’d be all set. I think that turns out to be wrong. We didn’t need a better horse. We needed a new vehicle.
Everything is a file (until it is better).
This poses quite a dilemma for the design of Finding and Reminding in GNOME 3. So it is worth spending a bit of time investigating.
First, let’s limit the scope to the type of stuff we use files for today. For most people this is basically: Documents, Music, Pictures, Videos, and Downloads.
Documents are a bit hard to define. I guess in the “Places” scheme it more or less meant anything that isn’t Music, Pictures, Videos, or Downloads. An accepted definition seems to be something like: page-based information or evidence usually created by an application. Which probably means that most web pages aren’t documents until saved as PDF or something. This seems pretty close to how we use it.
Clearly, documents have been files. Even Merriam-Webster includes the term file in the definition. But are they always files and will they continue to be? Since quite often Documents are just a shorthand for Office Documents let’s look at what is happening there. Will such documents continue to live solely as files on your computer hard drive and be shared as email attachments? Not with Google Cloud Connect for Microsoft Office. And not with Microsoft’s own cloud initiative. You don’t open a file – you connect to a document.
Even when you look directly at the Google Docs app interface it is really hard to identify the documents as files. It isn’t just a cloud drive with a bunch of files in it. There is no “native” file format. At least to the user, the things just are what they are – spreadsheets, drawings, etc. The unit of storage is an implementation detail that just doesn’t matter until you need to export to another format – which is rare.
And the big news this week is that Apple announced they too will be hosting documents in the cloud:
Every doc, every edit, everywhere.
Not because of hype, not just to make money – but because it is better.
Music is slightly different in that we’re accustomed to both possessing and streaming music. Our purchased music lives in files on our various devices and we have elaborate systems for moving it around and backing it up. However, this too is changing.
Google Music is a serious attempt to dramatically improve the user experience around music consumption. It is:
A better way to play your music. Upload your personal music collection to listen anywhere, keep everything in sync,
and forget the hassle of cables and files.
It isn’t a coincidence that files are mentioned here explicitly.
Yesterday, Apple announced that the key part of iCloud is iTunes in the Cloud. And the pitch for this was in part:
…music you purchase in iTunes appears automatically on all your devices.
Without concerning yourself with downloads or files. Really, iCloud is all about elimination of files from the user experience. That is part of what is meant by “post-PC”.
Amazon also has some interesting things going on here. It is really nice to be able to just click on an album in Amazon’s store and then be able to play it on all of your devices. Without downloading files.
Well, you may ask, why do I have so much music on my computer then? Basically, because you put it there and you were working around the RIAA. Once you have a better place to put it you won’t. Music in the cloud is a better user experience.
Pictures are interesting for a few reasons. One thing is that even though you still probably have most of them on your computer you very likely don’t actually interact with the files. Cameras store them in weird ways and there are a boatload of crappy apps that help manage them. Another thing is that you all take a shitload of photos. Which is one reason I suspect that even Apple won’t be permanently storing all photos in iCloud by default. Also, some of you are shy and the rest of you are pervs.
And again, it isn’t because it is fashionable but because it is better.
Videos can either be similar to photos or similar to music. There really isn’t much different from what I’ve said already in those areas. YouTube, Flickr, Picasa, etc are where we expect to find and share videos.
Downloads are different. In most cases I think this is more for temporary storage for something that doesn’t have a well designed and integrated workflow. In many cases we still need to download software before installing it, download PDFs before printing, or moving to a USB stick or some other type of file bouncing. I hope to investigate this more in future posts.
So, this doesn’t mean that files are going to go away. But we do need to start to think of files differently. Perhaps more like a cache. Perhaps the local system as only one of many possible data providers.
Avoiding files allows us to side step some of the most frustrating things about computer use. When Google says “we want to strip out what frustrates people about operating systems” a large part of what they mean is removing the concept of files. And all their related annoyances: syncing, backups, “I left that at home”, “I’m out of space”, “where did I leave that”, etc. Files are a mechanical world metaphor that retain many of the problems of “things” in the real world.
There really isn’t any disagreement in the industry about this. Where people seem to differ is in how to handle it. I think there are a few approaches here: deep application integration, web primary, and service aggregation. Apple/iOS is doing the first, Google/ChromeOS the second, and maybe HP/WebOS the third.
I think the third approach is the only possible one if you don’t have your own hardware, OS, and huge-ass datacenter.
It is a huge challenge that we must face. Even if you are personally happy to manually manage your local files – the rest of the world isn’t – and this isn’t about you. It is about our future and the future of free culture. This isn’t a problem for tomorrow. This is all happening right now. How do we enable these better experiences without compromising our freedom? What do we do about this new pony? Let’s figure it out together.
Well, you’re so bad and nasty
But I love you, yes I do
— Bob Dylan New Pony