Opinion: In Praise of the File System [Have your say]

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Over at GigaOm, Alex Layne asked the question: if Apple killed the Finder, would you miss it?

Hell yes. Yes I would.

Wait, though, why ask the question in the first place? Well take a good look at the WWDC keynote from last week. Steve Jobs said it, as clear as day:

“We’ve been working for 10 years to get rid of the file system.”

We’ve seen that work as it’s unfolded. Anyone who has used iPhoto has seen the file system for photos fade from view. Now, iPhoto stores everything in a database – a library – which it manages. Your stuff is still there, but not as a hierarchy of folders containing folders.

And iPhoto is far from the only application to store everything in a library. Lots of apps do it, and in many cases it works very well.

On iOS, of course, there’s no file system at all. Every app stores its own documents. The signs are strong that this is one of the features Apple wants to bring “back to the Mac” from iOS – getting rid of the file system for good, as Steve has yearned to do for a decade.

There’s a lot to be said for removing the file system. As Steve pointed out at WWDC, it can be confusing for users, especially newbies.

But there’s also a lot to be said for keeping it. One problem that crops up when you let apps take charge of files is that suddenly it becomes harder to extract individual documents from the grip of one app.

Let’s imagine a scenario where you have a document editor with a library of a thousand or more documents written over many months. What happens when a better document editor comes along? How do you transfer your stuff from one to another? Sure, you might be able to export all the documents from the old app, then import them all into the new one – but will it respect the date-created and date-modified metadata, for example?

The file system might have its disadvantages, but one thing a lot of files have in their favour is that they’re application-agnostic. You can flit from application to application as the mood takes you, or as changing circumstances (software updates, orders from your boss, etc) occur.

What do you think? Will you be happy to bid the file system a fond farewell, or will Apple have to prise it out of your cold, dead hands?