Tuesday, June 01, 2010

On Fixing the Personal Computer's Original Sin

A conversation with an old friend the other day brought up the limited file handling ability of the iPad. Apple really doesn't want you to deal with files as such on the iPad. When the original iPod came out, there was a lot of criticism about not allowing the user to maintain their own MP3 file trees and drag and drop onto the device as competing products allowed; and Apple kept it that way. These are two examples of rectifying one of the original sins of the computer: forcing users to deal in an ad hoc manner with individual documents as files.

Oh, you might say that it is freedom itself to be responsible for filing away today's expense report as a spreadsheet inside of a folder with 500 not quite identical others, or knowing where each of 10 versions of Margaritaville is located, and which is your favorite. To the contrary, it is just another example of the user being trapped by a lack of imagination on the software architect's part into doing something the computer should be much better at doing.

Or you might say that the individual file is a natural unit of information, like the Boolean bit; and that is not true, the computer file was invented by a man (unless it was invented by Grace Hopper, which I doubt); and computers could have evolved with some other mechanism; perhaps mimicking the human brain which I don't believe uses files.

If I were a bench chemist, and every day I drew some new variant of a steroid, where would I want my drawings, in individual proprietary documents, or in a database giving my work structure and context? Pretty obviously in a database. It creeps up on us, the slow flood of documents; the more organized among us can keep it together through ever deepening trees of folders and files, but eventually individual files in folders becomes unmanageable. I've been using a computer for 25 years, I look forward to at least another 40 years of use. There is no way I will be able to productively keep track of all my creations over that time in a tree structure. As it is, anything older than 5 years might as well be non-existent.

So the operating system vendors introduce search, and we get by like our computers are mini-Googles; as long as we can remember some key phrase we can find it; except when words fail us, or the document can't be parsed by the indexer.

And the cloud beckons. Anyone who thinks the cloud is just a well sorted FTP site, doesn't understand. The iPad is right now at one of those points where Apple can see but cannot provide, or even enunciate the ultimate solution, but does not want users to get into the habit of using individual files for their document needs; so we get the hacky solutions that will be cast aside the moment anything remotely elegant is provided. And I don't know what this solution is either. People have been trying to improve upon the file based system for years; the Newton didn't have files, BeOS had some sort of database file system. OpenDoc tried to get all documents to live together in harmony, etc. And none of these were a market success. Files will not die easily; and you will still have to export to a file for a good long time.

Baring a solution, the point of this entry was just to ask people to keep an open mind about files or the lack of them. Files are not the thing you want; you want to create, edit and view media and documents, and how they are stored in secondary to how quickly you get to them, and how safely they are stored.