Home > Blog > The File System or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Accept the Evolution of Personal Computing

The File System or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Accept the Evolution of Personal Computing

Posted by Nick on June 8, 2011

Computers are changing.

This is not new. It's been a literal constant since the beginning of computers. What prompts me to write this is that one particular aspect of personal computing, one that has been an integral part of it for as long as I've been alive, is soon to be ushered into the shadows. With the advent of iOS, Lion, and now the iCloud, Apple seems posed to bring us to a new era of computing, where the machines can actually be understood by the average consumer, and where those of us who are particularly knowledgeable in the field become of less and less value. (continues on next...)

For me, that very concept is somewhat frightening. I've spent the greater part of my existence becoming proficient with computers, easily achieving the status of "Power User" before I left elementary school. Of course, all of that proficiency is only of value if the computer does not present itself in a way that is intuitive for everyone to use. As computers grow in complexity, their capacity for presenting information to the user grows as well, and the learning curve is made just a little bit gentler.

Apple, both as a hardware and a software company, prides their entire existence on creating products for the "average" person; products that are easy and intuitive to use, and that can create results that are literally at the top of their class. Starting with the Macintosh, this was especially true, and now with the iPhone they have taken the opportunity to reinvent their user experience for the mobile device. With Lion and the Mac App Store, we see this new approach to the user experience coming into the fold on the desktop platform. At first, I wasn't really sure what to think about this except that I was scared about the transition, and for a reason I couldn't quite place...

Documents in cloud really complete the iOS document storage story, too. Apple’s been working for 10 years to get rid of the file system. So user wouldn’t have to worry about it. Teaching someone how to use the Mac has been held up by this file system - hunting for files. On iOS, you don’t have to think about it. - Steve Jobs, CEO, Apple Inc.

That's IT. That's exactly it. The one computer literacy stumbling block that has been with us since the dawn of time (really the '80s, but it's not like computers were consumer devices before then). For me (and in Kindergarden), the concept of a hierarchical system of organizing files into "Folders" was the most natural thing in the world, but sit with your average computer illiterate user for 10 minutes and you will be baffled at how someone can save a file and not actually know where they saved it. A Downloads folder with 100 or more items and a messy desktop is another surefire sign. It turns out, Hierarchical File Systems are actually a really abstract concept that introduces too much complexity to the process of just using a computer. Why not strive to get rid of it, now that we have the capability to do so?

Well, obviously the file system-less user experience isn't going to be perfect right out of the gate, and we've certainly seen that with iOS. iCloud is going to make a huge step to close that gap, and I would expect to see further improvements down the road. The fear is that at some point the file system will be phased out in a sense; completely obscured from the user as to make it inaccessible. It already is on iOS devices, and we are seeing Lion grow closer and closer to the iOS experience. Nevertheless, I would be very surprised to see the file system obscured altogether on the Mac like it is on iOS cloud devices, even in the long term. A few reasons for this:

  • Apple has shown full intention of keeping OS X UNIX compatible, which necessitates access to the command line, and thus, the file system.
  • Apple does not need to comply with any one else's legal limits when developing the Mac, like they do with cell phone providers in the iOS arena.
  • Though there is some credence to the argument that Apple will want to control the entire system in order to prevent piracy and boost revenue, they have shown in the past that they would much rather fight piracy by simply offering a better alternative. i.e. iTunes works just as well with pirated music as it does with iTunes Music Store downloads.
  • Developers and creative professionals need the filesystem, and I'll eat my hat if Apple ever ships "Mac OS X Pro" alongside "Mac OS X Home".

The strongest argument here, and really, the one that most soundly puts me to rest, is that this has happened before. I wasn't technically alive at the time, but before the GUI went mainstream, the command line was the essential computing experience. And I'm sure there were nerds moaning about losing control and moving to a system for "common folk" when they introduced the GUI. So what happened? The bar of entry grew lower, sure, but we still needed people to write software on all of the underlying architecture. The command line stayed in existence in every iteration of Windows, and made a triumphant return to the Mac with OS X.

The filesystem isn't going anywhere. Apple is going to revolutionize computing once again, and there will be a shift in what it means to be "computer literate". Computers are becoming more and more powerful, and software is getting better and more efficient, but they can only continue doing so if we have people who understand the underlying architecture, from the file system down to assembly and the hardware below. We may not need the file system in the future as often as we do now, but you can be sure that for those who do, like the Terminal, it'll only be a click away.

Comments:

Posted by Gordon R. Vaughan on
Oh yes, as a 29-year Mac user (since the 128K), I can assure you there were plenty of folks blasting the GUI, even years after Macs were introduced. The Mac was routinely criticized as a 'toy' because it didn't have a 'serious' interface. It wasn't until Windows 3 arrived in mid-1990 that GUIs began to be generally accepted.

And of course, we've seen the same thing more recently with IDE's vs. text editors. Heck, even WYSIWYG word processors were pooh-poohed when they came out. Personally, I've always loved the visual interfaces, but like to know the old way is still there if you need it.

What gets me about iOS is that when it was initially designed, Apple didn't really anticipate the sort of incredible app market that's emerged. People are doing all sorts of stuff with their devices, and the longer you use a tool, the more demanding you get. I hope they'll open up the file system in some way. Right now, I can't even change font sizes, which really bugs me.
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