posted by Kostis Kapelonis on Thu 2nd Nov 2006 10:21 UTC
IconWhile the capabilities of operating systems have improved over the last years, the improvements have largely focused on under the hood changes. New functionality is reaching the user via additional applications which allow her to write a DVD, connect to her mp3 player, download streaming video locally and other tasks which were not present before. But the graphical interface of the computer itself is keeping the same concepts introduced with its appearance. One could argue that the graphical environment of computers is exactly the same for the last 10 years and only cosmetic changes take place in newer versions of operating systems. Moving away from the desktop metaphor is harder than it seems. Even alternative operating systems have embraced the concept instead of exploring new ideas. This article describes a solution which attempts to free the user from the files/folder concept.

Current situation

Microsoft and Apple have a huge customer base. Making radical changes to the user interface (UI) is almost impossible. As I explained in my previous article, I disagree with the fact that everyone is excited with 3D candy coming on the desktop and nobody attempts to correct its existing shortcomings. I also argued that even in the open source world most prominent projects assume that the desktop metaphor is the one true solution. There are exceptions to this but a truly alternative idea has failed to catch on.

While GNU/Linux might be considered an alternative operating system, its graphical interfaces are not alternative at all. In order to reach mainstream acceptance, KDE, GNOME (and XFCE) developers have followed the tried and true approach of imitating the interface of the dominant operating system(s). They have done an excellent job and by all means, office workers can easily migrate to KDE or GNOME. I congratulate them for their efforts since what they have achieved is truly amazing work. So now that we can accommodate for users that like the desktop metaphor, it is time to explore other ideas too.

The desktop approach has a lot of flows. It presents too much information to the user. A huge selection of menus, and icons is present at any given time on the screen. Users have trouble navigating the menus to accomplish what they want. Task based interfaces are only successful in certain areas. The desktop root window is cluttered with documents, folders and applications. Searching for a specific document can be a nightmare. Overlapping windows require micro-management. Direct manipulation can be a curse under certain circumstances. Many people have written before me and better than me the problems of the desktop metaphor. If you are happy with your desktop and think that there is nothing wrong with it, you should not read this article in the first place.

Too much data

Rather than attempting to throw everything away, we should gradually identify what is wrong and correct it, keeping backwards compatibility where possible. I will only focus on the idea of having files and folders which plays a central role in the desktop metaphor. Organizing files under folders was indeed efficient for many years. Users did not have a large number of information on their computers. And since office users were already accustomed with physical files and folders, they had no trouble navigating the virtual ones. Of course things have changed since.

Today too much data is present on a single computer. A human user cannot simply remember where everything is placed. The files and folders are directly mapped on file-system structures. Users are provided with a file manager application which gives them direct access to the file-system hierarchy present on the hard disk of the computer. Manual file management can quickly become overwhelming.

People realized this management problem and several new solutions appeared which combined the file-system with some sort of database. We now have google desktop and Beagle. There provide essentially indexing services to the user. Instead of having to remember the exact location of a file, she can simply query the indexing service using properties of the files and hopefully get a result back.

All these are great solutions on their own. But they cure the symptoms and not the cause of the problem. Users should not have to use a smart indexing service which helps them find what they want in the chaos hierarchy of their files. There should never be a chaos in the file hierarchy in the first place. In fact, users should not even care if there is a hierarchy or not.

Delegate file management to the computer

Taking this idea further, I propose the complete removal of the file manager application. Power users will be able to access the file system via the command line if they want, but normal users should never want to do that or even know that it is possible. Removing the file manager might scare several users, so it may not sound as a realistic thing to do. We should explore the implications of this removal.

A user opens the file manager for three main reasons. 1)Copy data to/from external media such as CDs,flash drivers, mp3 players e.t.c. 2)Find a file and click it in order to edit it. 3)Move around files and better organize them.

The first operation is a valid use of the file manager. But it could also be handled by an external application built for this purpose. For brevity reasons, I will not talk about this application in this article.

The second operation was a valid use of the file manager. Users have a large number of files so they open them by searching for the name of the file, or using the "recent" list of the operating system or the editing application responsible for this file type. Lately indexing services have appeared as described already. Users search for a document with the file manager as a last resort only. It means that all other methods have failed, which is something that we should avoid.

The third operation is time consuming and should be avoided. We should free the users from micro-management. While power users get a warm feeling that their file hierarchy is exactly as they want it, casual users rarely spend time organizing files. Most of them do not even bother at all and just dump everything on the desktop root window.

So if we provide users with an external media application and some kind of indexing service can we finally remove the file manager? Some users might be surprised that they cannot access files directly. They might see this as losing power. The truth is that they do not lose this power. They rather delegate file management operations to the computer where they belong. Management via complete control is only possible at small scales. After a certain amount of data is reached, good management means delegating responsibility to assistants who will perform the needed operations. In our case the assistant will be the computer itself.

Table of contents
  1. "Away from WIMP, 1/2"
  2. "Away from WIMP, 2/2"
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