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



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?

  • GregsTechBlog

    File access will always be necessary, but I could see reducing it’s importance. 

  • Samir Estefan

    What about projects that involve documents of different types? Keynote presentations, Numbers worksheets, PDFs, Pages documents, etc. The end of the file system could work for casual users (like my mother) but for enterprise-level users it can really be a difficult change

  • imbenking

    I personally hate the way iPhoto works. It is a real pain to have to export each picture to my Pictures file just so I can upload it or email it etc.

  • Guest

    it really annoys me that ios doesnt have a file system… or useable bluetooth file transferrs (without jailbreaking).

  • Support 18inc

    First they take away my iPod nanos click wheel, and now they wanna come after my Finder! I’m buying all of Apples current tech, and locking myself in my room for the next 50 years! You’ll never take me OR my Finder window alive!!!

    Another quote from that presentation: “The truth is in the cloud” …see, Steve says tons of crazy crap.

  • Guest

    Seems this isn’t so much getting rid of the file system as it is changing the interface to it.  Instead of a folder hierarchy, you’ll have some other view.  File storage and thus the file system isn’t going anywhere.

  • Dpcom

    It is absolutely needed. When I needed to get my iPhoto files, iTunes files, and iMovie files off my internal hard drive because they were taking up too much room, I spent days trying to figure out where everything was and how to do it. If there were no file system, it would not be possible.

  • Milo Thurston

    I wouldn’t be particularly bothered by the loss of finder, but if the terminal were to disappear then it would be time for me to move to another platform – perhaps back to Gentoo on the desktop. 

  • Gereon

    File handling in iOS is a pain in the butt. On a business level, file handling is a huge part of the daily grind.

    Want to eliminate file handling? Think database.

  • Artyom Smirnov

    Why export? Drag-and-drop works as charm. Also open dialog can access to iPhoto files.

  • Internett

    Please keep the file system. Please. 

  • djgrahamj

    There will always be a filesystem. As for Finder, I could live without it since I use Path Finder.

  • Prabhakar Siddhant

    filesystem is difficult but i can’t live without it. living an iOS filesystem life will be sad.

  • InternetMarketingFan

    I really don’t understand what they’re offering that’s superior. 
    It appears that now I’m not supposed to simply remember what the document might be called that i’m looking for (which is probably on my mind already) but I’m supposed to remember which program I created or last modified it with. Why in the world would Apple recommend going from a document centered (documents being our actual work) to an app centered storage system.Plus, if I want to see all the documents relating to a project… a spreadsheet, a wp doc, a presentation, a mindmap, whatever… there’s apparently no place to see them together. I’m supposed to remember what tool I used to create each of them and go to each tool to find them.Surely there’s something that hasn’t been made clear yet. As it stands, it just doesn’t make sense.

  • John Puterhead

    The file system is an approach or tool, like an application is also a tool, as is Finder. And what do these tools have in common?   Data manipulation, data access, information access.  So the real issue is not a file system or a database or what tool to use, but a way to access information more easily.  Isn’t that what we all want?

  • EasyOSX

    I can see why they might want to take the filesystem away, and I’m sure for some people it would be easier.  This does definitely work on a lot of mobile devices, but for a full blown computer (as in desktop or laptop), it doesn’t.  I have to use the file system for working with file transfers on a local NAS drive where I volunteer.  Not to mention, what happens when people insert flash-drives or similar media?

  • Gregg

    One of the problems I see by removing the file system is that not all apps play nicely together. Case in point, I prepare reports in business daily that require charts, graphs, pictures, maps, etc. It simply isnt easy to move a copy of a picture into a word document and have it placed exactly where I want it with multiple photos on the same page with text without access to the file itself. Ideally, I would be able to copy the picture and past it into my document, move it freely on the page and have it stay in place. I would also like to use that same layout as a template and use it later without having to reformat. I also use a lot of maps in my documents. Unfortunately, there is not a single company that I have found that produces a macintosh application similar to M$ Streets and Trips. Thus, I run S&T in a virtual machine, export the map to a file and use that to copy into my document. So, until things work a bit better with word processors and the cut, copy, paste element, I dont see how the file system can go away completely…

  • Adam A

    File system is an integral part of OS – there’s no way to “get rid of it” (unless you get rid of storage as we know it). They won’t do that in the near future. What they can do is they can “hide” the FS from user’s view (that’s what they do in iOS). This can work for some users (I’d say most) but doing this in a way that can not be easily changed (eg in prefs) is simply… stupid.

  • Bubu

    Steve Jobs is a genius, but we all know what happens to geniuses ever so often, they go mad.
    I use filesystems to store files they way I like. I do not want to adapt to the way Apple, MS, Adobe or any other company thinks is the “best” way for me to organize my files. Especially since they all showed that they are neither consistent, nor logical, nor reliable in the way they organize files.
    Do I really need to mention iTunes as an example?
    The most important reason I choose to buy Macs is the underlying UNIX and with it the filesystem.
    If this is gone, I am going to Linux before anyone can say “Think Different”.   

  • dandymac

    “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.”

    Seriously? Have you never heard of a package in OSX? Right click (or control click if you like) on the iPhoto library icon in your pictures folder, then select ‘Show package contents’. In the resulting ‘Contents’ file you will indeed find a Hierarchy of folders within folders.

    I would love to see a replacement for the finder, something more powerful like pathfinder as s system default. Removal of any sort of file structure would be a horrific choice by the big fruit.

  • imajoebob

    I don ‘t store files by application, I store them by subject.  The “Winchell Report” may be a Word document, but it’s also a few spreadsheets, a project plan, the process simulation, a bunch of graphics, a FileMaker database, a photo or three, a bunch of raw data files, scores of web pages or addresses, a bibliography, and my Keynote presentation, plus the Executive Summary and a couple draft versions.

    Under the “new” concept, I have to tag all the files as belonging to Winchell.  I guess that’s okay. But the problem comes along when Winchell is so happy he asks for another.  Now I either have to go back and retag all those old files “Winchell 11-1” or have the Winchell 11-2 files all show up when I run a Spotlight (or whatever it’s renamed it this week) for “Winchell.”  And God only knows if I can successfully retag EVERY original Winchell file, because I don’t have the slightest idea how to find them all.  

    Or I can just click “New Folder” when I save the first file and use that for all the rest.  Heck, I can even put these two folders in the Customers/Winchell folder.  Which makes it a lot easier to segregate them from the report I write for Winchell in the production department.

    I’ll bet Steve doesn’t have to keep a lot of old files and reports hanging around on his drive (or server space).  That’s what he has peons like us for.  When he wants the Winchell Report he doesn’t open up Spotlight and start searching for it.  He sends a message to an underling saying, “get me WInchell by 11AM today.”  THAT’s his idea of a user friendly file system.

    I can already tag files to use the proposed new paradigm.  But if that becomes the default, I lose the ability to actually use my file system the way that works best for ME, not Steve.  

  • PK

    Hey! Let’s do away with the search function too!

  • Alon

    I love the file system! i hate the ipad for that one reason, itunes can never handle my music, finder is the only way to make sure u have your stuff.
    having an ipad for work dsnt do the job i cant keep track of a million apps and what file is where..

  • Alon

    AND EVERYONE HATES IPHOTO! for that reason!

  • Robert X

    I would miss it. 

  • Bubu

    Steve Jobs is a genius, but you know what happens to geniuses once in a while, they go mad.
    I am using filesystems to organize files the way I like. I am not willing to organize files the way Apple, MS, Adobe want me to. They are just to inconsistent and unreliable. Do I need to mention iTunes as an example?
    iOS devices are great, but the filesystem limitations are getting in the way of doing things in an easy fashion. I have a working internet connection, but the only way to get a file into an application is to search for a cable, connect it to one of my Macs, and sync with iTunes. This is all about control and has nothing to do with ease of use.
    I choose to buy Macs because of the underlying UNIX OS. If Apple is changing or restricting that I will switch to Linux before anyone can say “Think different”

  • gerenm63

    If they’re getting rid of the file system, then they’re getting rid of Unix, too.. Unix is made up of a lot of files, and it expects those files to be stored systematically — in other words, a file system. In reality, it’s more likely that they’re making the file system transparent to the user, which I guess is fine. However, they’re also going to have to fundamentally change how /every/ Mac application works in one fell swoop. That means simultaneously re-writing every bit of their code, and every Mac developer having to rewrite all of their code.

    It also means that every bit of server storage becomes useless, because there will no longer be an easy way to keep track of … wait for it … the FILES!

    No, the file system will be with us as long as we have files. It’s just how we /see/ the file system is what will change.

  • Jared

    if they remove finder then I won’t upgrade. I will be stuck running 10.6.7 forever!

  • gerenm63

    Gee, my iTunes libraries are very nicely managed by iTunes into folders and sub-folders in the file system. iTunes can find everything, and so can I. It is /very/ consistent. iPhoto (and Aperture, by extension) can work pretty much the same way, if you take the time to set the application up correctly. And, BTW, the iPhoto and Aperture libraries are simply packages — miniature file systems in and of themselves. Just right-click and “View Package Contents” to see that. Your files are in two folders — Original and Modified.

  • Antonywatts

    What we need is a CMS, a kind of library we can organise by subject, and have it accessible in any app, from where it will launch the needed app. So you have an image in your Finance subject, you see it in Numbers, but if you select it, it opens in Preview…

    We should be able to create our own library menu tree, in place of the finder, intergrated with Spotlight, we should have a drop down menu system to brow our contents.

    A CMS in other words.

  • CalicoAvenger

    I’m a recent (2008) switcher from Windows with some UNIX and Linux experience.  So the OS X filesystem was a cinch.  I liked it much better than the arbitrary filesystem used by previous versions of the Mac OS (which I experienced at by-the-hour scanning places).  I would be very upset if the nice rational filesystem was replaced.  In fact I am going to go to iPhoto in the next few days and export all my pictures as real files into real subfolders. 

  • netnerd258

    as long as I can organize my files, i do not care what they call it.

  • Gereon


  • Oscar Gutierrez

    This will simply not occur! No matter if people use it or not. It is like the command prompt, I think it will never disappear in the Mac. 
    I wouldn’t use a computer with an OS that has no file system or command prompt, because without those things, there is not real power or control of the computer. {Sorry for my english….}

  • nthnm

    I won’t upgrade to anything that works like that.

  • imajoebob

    That’s a lesson even MS learned more than 20 years ago.  remember when you saved a Lotus file? It was saved in  your Lotus subdirectory.  And a WordPerfect file in your WP directory?  Then people figured out they wanted to combine like files in specific directories.  So MS created one directory (myfiles or something like that) and let you do whatever you wanted.

    Now Steve suddenly knows better?  Hey Steve, where did iTunes save that copy of Hey Jude you downloaded from iTunes?  Is it in your Purchased file?  Beatles? Hey Jude? One? 1? I’ll bey you have no idea.

  • marioyohanes

    I’m using Lion DP4 to write this comment, even better, Lion been my primary OS since DP3 (yes, I know it’s buggy…), things I hate with Lion is I need to use Go To Folder just to access my own Library folder, it’s ridiculous! They also hide the main partition/drive from the Finder by default. I hate it!
    Apple has 2 choices if they want to removed file system:
    1. Make a completely new OS, don’t just revamped the UI and fixing some bugs and invent the new headaches.
    2. Forget about professional users, leave it all for average users, and make it clear on your marketing campaign that those Macs are not for professional users!

    [edit] Please also fix Finder network file transfer! It’s ridiculous seeing a 10 years old Finder still unable to write data over FTP! Yes, I know there are FTP clients, but Windows Explorer do the job just fine since Windows 95!

    Out of topic, does anyone can remote their Lion using VNC without seeing only the blank light-brown screen? I couldn’t get it work with any VNC Viewer including one on my iPad…

  • Tom Losh

    Being an old UNIX SysAd, I’d be utterly lost without the pure and simple logic of a solid file system. (iPhoto and iTunes bug the Hell out of me in the way they nest things and hide files.)

    I personally keep multiple logical levels of files, sorted to MY needs and MY way of using the data, not Steve’s.

    Keeping things in “application” folders is a non-started for me: I very often will open individual files with multiple apps, depending on what I am doing with/to the file.

  • Charles

    And I believe iPhoto has an email option down in the share tab…That just does it from iPhoto without having to go to mail…

  • Amita Guha

    I would love to see an IMPROVED file manager, but I already use PathFinder. As long as Apple allows third-party file manager apps, I guess I could live with this change, but it would be silly of them not to include one onboard…

  • aramishero

    Then why you use Apple product? Why not you switch to Windows or others? Steve Jobs didn’t point the gun on your head… brainless…

  • aramishero

    No 1 ask you to use iPhoto to manage your photos… you can drag and drop in your folder…

  • aramishero

    U have your choice to stop using it if you hate it. Steve Jobs didn’t point the gun on your head.

  • CharliK

    i was thinking the same thing. Actually I think that iphoto is a great example of what it seems like jobs is doing. dressing up the file system so that users go into it via an easier interface. Something that doesn’t require you to worry about what app made it or what folder it is in. And that you can organize in lots of ways without having to make copies of the file. 

    for common users this is fantastic. As is the whole iOS like launch pad. 

    For the rest of us, it will be a long time before the old school is gone. So don’t start the panic just yet

  • johncar

    From my cold dead hands!!!

  • djrobsd

    drink the kool aid aramish….. sheesh.

  • djrobsd

    WOW once again you have proven to be an apple troll.

  • djrobsd

    wow, you seem to love steve jobs.  Why not respect the fact that people disagree with the way it works and expect apple to do better?

  • Phil

    I don’t care about the file system… 

  • blueleaves

    I’ll be happy to wave the file system good bye but we’ll need OS X and its apps to be designed for that in mind (i.e. to not expose the filesystem). And that’ll take at least one revision of OS X beyond Lion to do, I think.

    Having said that if OS X is the ‘truck’ I’m sure that there will always be a back-door to the file system.

    And I’m still at a loss as to how you’d deal with different apps being able to open the same documents and how that is dealt with – especially with the iOS style sandboxing that OS X App Store apps are meant to have.

    One final thought – imagine an OS X where the Finder sites alongside Terminal in your Utilities apps as something for geeks to use. We’re getting close to that I think.

  • gilest

    You’re right, I should have made that point plainer – there’s still a hierarchy there. 

    But for the vast majority of users, it’s invisible. They will never see it. And they’d be well advised to not go messing around with it, at the risk of upsetting iPhoto.

  • Don Pope

    iPhoto has an option to leave all photos in the file system and just reference them.
    But that won’t solve your problem because that is not what’s causing it.

    iPhoto has non-destructive editing so the adjustments you make to your photos are stored in a separate file. This allows you to keep your original file intact and go back months later and re-tweak the photo. This is a huge advantage of iPhoto (and Lightroom, Aperture and Picasa).

    If you want a JPEG with all the adjustments applied to it you have to export it.

  • Thel Vadumee

    iOS DOES have a file system, its just not user accessible. it uses HFS+ for root and HFS for var (user)

  • Felfac

    Ill have alternatives but i still want the option of the finder

  • Nothingtohear

    The File System isn’t “going away”. This is big misconception that many people have. There will always be a file system of some sort. And I would like to think that Apple is smart enough to know that Sys Admins and Developers need access to it at some level. The goal is to essentially hide the file system from average joe user, by making it so you don’t have to use it.

    iOS has a file system. We just don’t see it because we, and by we I mean end users, can access our files without it. Another example: I save all of my documents to my documents folder. I don’t make sub-folders. Instead, I use Smart Folders so I can dynamically organize and find my files.

    By keeping average users out of the file system, it reduces the chance that such a user will delete critical files. Especially since users usually don’t set up their own accounts as normal users.

    I think it is a good idea to get the conventional file system, which is inefficient for the amount of data and number of files we have today, out of sight and mind for the average users. Power users, devs, and sys admins, will still be able to get at it.

  • Stuart Otterson

    I think there will still be a file system, but not as we know it today. I think the eventual aim is that we’ll go into what Jef Raskin wrote about in ‘The Humane Interface’ where there’s no concept of opening and closing files, they’re just there ready to look at. Incidentally there is a programme  called Raskin which aims to follow out his ideas.

    Perhaps eventually what will happen is we’ll have a zoom world. Imagine the Quick View feature that Leopard introduced but always turned on, you have just a series of thumbnails of all your text documents and photos and videos that and smoothly be zoomed up. There are currently programmes out there that aim to manage your work files in the same way iPhoto manages photos and iTunes manages music. Perhaps Apple will eventually have some sort of first party solution baked into a future OS update.

    I know the thought of the file system going away is both scary and inconceivable, but I’m ready to embrace it. As Apple says they don’t do focus groups because how can people imagine what they didn’t know they always needed?