We still use this rigid system of files and folders on computers almost 4 decades after it was conceived of in a lab.
Even back then it was only a moderately good concept. Better options existed.
But like the combustion engine, it’s a bad idea we seem to be stuck with.
Fortunately, the end is in site.
What I call the “library model” of document management is gaining traction. It’s the electric engine of the computer industry.
The problem with files and folders is that the onus for managing them falls on us, the users of computers.
We’re responsible for naming documents.
We’re responsible for saving them somewhere.
Then we’re responsible for remembering where we saved them and what we called them.
Aren’t computers supposed to make life easier for us? At least lighten the load?
Shouldn’t they be dealing with this crap for us?
Well, they’re starting to.
Actually, one app in particular has been doing it for almost a decade.
The first time I started Apple’s iTunes it just sort of swallowed up all my music into its library.
Being a geek, I didn’t trust it at first. Like every other computer user I was born and raised on a steady diet of files and folders.
And iTunes made my files and folders disappear.
It quickly became clear that this was a good thing.
ITunes made the where of my music irrelevant. All I had to concern myself with was the what.
Like what artist performed a certain song, or what album it was on, or what year it was released in.
It got to the point that I didn’t care what folders the music files were stored in or how they were named. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was the music itself.
iTunes doesn’t really use any special technology that hasn’t been around even longer than files and folders.
It’s just a database with a pretty face. And it uses a liberal sprinkling or metadata – aka keywords, or tags – to identify and sort out the stuff it stores.
The metadata about a song, for example, would include its name, the artist who performs it, the artist who wrote it, the album it appeared on, the year it was recorded, your personal rating of it, and how many times you’ve listened to it.
That metadata enables you to come at a song from any one of those angles.
Like, you’re looking for songs by a certain artist. Or you’re looking for songs recorded in a certain year. Or you’re looking for songs that you’ve applied a 4-star rating to.
Compare that to the static, inflexible file and folder system that permits only one method of access: whatever happened to be on your mind the day you saved the file.
Surprisingly, despite the fact that iTunes is a superlative example of a computer effectively taking over file management for its user, not too many other apps do this.
But I believe that’s about to change, thanks largely to the iPhone.
The iPhone has proven that for common computing tasks, users don’t need any access to files and folders. All you need are apps that manage the documents for you.
The upcoming iPad will expand on this premise.
A full version of Apple’s underrated productivity suite, iWork, will run on the iPad. But, like the iPhone, the iPad offers no access to files and folders.
Instead, iWork on the iPad stores your work in a library, just like iTunes.
This means that when you open up the word processing app Pages, you won’t have to go hunting through a mess of files and folders for the document you want to work on.
Just like in iTunes, all your Pages files will be stored, sorted and presented to you in a database-driven library.
They’ll be tagged with metadata like a project name, the name of a client, the subject of the document, the date it was last worked on, and who last worked on it. If it’s a letter, it’ll be linked to a contact in your address book.
It’s true that you’ll take on some responsibility for tagging your documents with metadata. But at least when you do this, you’ll be focused on the subjective aspect of your documents, like what they’re about.
That’s a lot different, and more meaningful, than trying to figure out the best place to store them.
Even better, as you work, Pages will automatically save versions of the document for you. So if you screw up, you’ll be able to backtrack in the app to grab an earlier draft.
Apple hasn’t announced it yet, but I’m sure they’ll be releasing a new Mac version of iWork that will also use the library model to coincide with the iPad version.
That way you’ll be able to sync your work between the two environments without a second thought, just as iTunes syncs your music.
What’s perhaps most interesting about the library system of document management is that it diminishes the relevance of the computer’s operating system itself, at least from the perspective of the person using a computer.
That means that, as more apps adopt the library system, there will be less need for you or I to interact, say, with a computer’s desktop, or its file system.
That means that environments like the Mac OS or Windows will over time become less and less relevant.
Regardless, the best thing about the library system of document management is that we, as users, are no longer responsible for managing our files and folders. The apps takes on that role.
And that lets us focus on getting our work done.
Which is really what computers were supposed to have been helping us do all along, right?
Originally published, in modified form, in the Yukon News on Friday, February 19, 2010.