posted by David Adams on Wed 24th May 2006 04:08 UTC

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Obviously, the folders, subfolders and files metaphor works pretty well. It corresponds with the "analog" method of organizing, so it's an easy concept to grasp. Mix in some tools to navigate the structure and full-text search and you have a workable solution for some types of documents. However, once you're working with music files, photos, video, and other pieces of data, you suddenly need new interfaces to navigate the data, and you might want to organize them in new ways. For example, with an MP3, you may have the same song in an album, in a best-of compilation, and in a movie soundtrack with other artists. Do you want to keep three versions of the same song, or would you like to cross-reference them back to one original source. When you have a song that's a duet with two well-known artists, do you categorize it under a separate artist listing? With photos, how can you easily and quickly categorize them so you don't have to scan through a thousand thumbnails to find that one photo of you and your kids at the park that one day? These are truly confounding problems, and some individual applications have made great strides in tackling them. For example, iTunes and WinAMP have both developed good tools to categorize and catalog mp3s, but they're not perfect, and their methods often exist outside the realm of the OS' handling of the file, since they count on the id3 tag that's embedded in the file. These apps' capability to reconcile the id3 tag information with the location and naming of the file can often result in an unintended organizational disaster (that's usually not un-doable) if used carelessly.

I recommend that OS vendors take into account the huge organizational need that have arisen from the massive adoption of digital music and photography and make it a priority to provide tools that aid in the organization of those materials and try to make sure that the specialized application vendors have access to the programming interfaces to these tools so their solutions can be synchronized. Apple and Microsoft have both developed their own music and photo management software. As good or bad as they are, they're currently a level of abstraction away from the management of the actual media files themselves. That's neither intuitive nor convenient for anyone. In the long run, the more file navigation becomes turned on to the unique attributes of the particular types of files, the better things will be.

Ever since multitasking came on the scene, computer users have struggled with how to deal with switching between multiple process and working documents. The Macintosh Finder, Windows taskbar, Unix virtual workspaces, and recently Apple's Exposť have gradually made that task a bit easier, but it's still a vital issue. Novices struggle with the basic concepts at first, but power users tend to suffer the most, as they tend to have more things going on at once. Mouse-based interfaces can lead to a lot of hunting and clicking when you've got a zillion windows open. There just hasn't been much innovation on this front in many years.

Now that I've tried to make the case for computers being less intuitive, let's talk about how they desperately need to be easier to use. The personal computer is by far the most unreliable piece of equipment in the modern household or workplace. Other machines, such as automobiles, may be more complicated and difficult to service, but we have become accustomed to a certain danger of catastrophic failure from our computers that we do not face from any other machine. Sure, the circular saw may cut your hand off, but you can pretty much guarantee that it was your own damn fault and you'll understand exactly what went wrong as soon as you get the blood flow stopped. Only the family lawnmower can usually come close to the finickiness of the average family computer.

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