The New Filesystem

The filesystem that we know has a long and storied history. My first experience came with my first hard drive, which was an upgrade from the casette recorder that we had been using to store programs. As you can imagine, it was quite an upgrade. And it meant that you had to understand that there could be more than one program or document on the disk, and you could use them in any order you wanted.

Drunk with power, these filesystems became ever more complex, until we’re faced with today’s setup. You don’t realize quite how out-of-control it’s become until you are trying to help a novice user make sense of it. When you save a file from your application, for instance, you are presented with an array of choices and can get to anywhere in a system that can be nested a dozen folders deep. Adding to the complication is the “places” you have to remember to look for those files. Are they on my “desktop” or in my “documents?” Did I put that picture in “photos” or in “adobe?”

Recently, Apple mobile devices have started to present a simplified filesystem in iTunes. Apps have access to a flat list (no folders!) of files, and that’s it. When you connect to iTunes, you can look at that applications “filesystem,” where you see those files, and can drag them to your computer.

What’s interesting about this approach is that it’s as if each application has its own set of files. This solves the confusion in a lot of ways, since on the device itself you never have to think about the files at all, they’re just a series of documents you can open from or save to. And when you go back to your computer, they’re easy to find since most people can remember what app they created the document with.

It certainly makes me suspect that Apple wants to make the user experience of the filesystem on a Mac simpler like this. With OS X Lion, perhaps they’ll start in that direction.

Raymond Brigleb

Creative Director, dreamer, partner, father, musician, photographer. Has been known to ride the rails. Pulls one heck of a shot.