posted by Athanassios Floros on Wed 26th May 2004 15:56 UTC
IconThe desktop metaphor, used in practically every modern operating system, has been around for many years and has been very successful in making computer usage easy for even the most novice users. Whereas once a user had to type commands in and navigate through directories by entering every single character in a path name, the desktop graphical user interface metaphor made it possible to perform the same actions by simply pointing to and clicking the iconic views of the various files and folders.

Despite the fact that this was a huge improvement and obviously an impressive and visually appealing solution in its time, most experienced users (and developers) currently think that there should be more productive ways to store information in and retrieve it from the computer.

As an example, let us see how unproductive a simple every-day task can be. Suppose we simply want to “print the image that Helen sent me a few days ago”. We would have to open the e-mail application, sort the messages by date to find the relevant message, save the attached image (very distracting, especially since we also have to manually select a location for the image to be saved), activate the file manager (or a photo editing application) navigate to the location where we saved the file (quite distracting too) and then open and print the file. If the attachment we are looking for is older, we may have to perform searches in the e-mail program and maybe also through the file system, if we think we have saved the attachment some time ago (all the time trying to remember the file name of the image). Now this procedure is a serious distraction from what we originally wanted to DO with the file!

No more folders – Enter categories

Better ways of locating our files are being designed. The trend now is to use file meta-data (information about the files and their usage) so that a user may be able to locate the files by attributes, such as the title of a music track, or by statistics of their usage. With the use of meta-data, instead of having to save the files on a single location, a user is free to assign a file to one or more categories. For example a picture may be simultaneously a member of the “Family Photos” the and the “Received by e-mail” categories. (This at first seems like having the same file in two folders, but the possibilities are more complex than with a hierarchy of folders, and cannot be simulated in current file systems except by using links, which would create a very complex hierarchy). The file manager would provide “category” views, similar to the folder views of current systems, but with the added advantage of being able to present the union or the junction of multiple categories of files at once.

With the support of a database, to store and index the extra (meta-data) information, one would be able to perform faster and more focused searches through the file system, even by using plain natural language commands. However, in a world where everyone is so accustomed to “pointing and clicking” the idea to search for a file by typing anything at all (even natural language commands) does not seem too attractive. Why not let the system use the meta-data in order to present more useful views of our files?

Let us see how we think for our files for a moment. What we know about them is scarcely the file's name or the folder where we (once) put it. We mainly remember WHEN we used a file for the last time, and HOW this file appeared for the first time in our system. We know for instance that a particular file came as an e-mail attachment, or was downloaded from a web site, or copied from a CD or transferred from a digital camera; and we tend to also remember WHEN those operations happened. The computer should know too, by use of meta-data, and should be able to present the files in easily accessible views: i.e. views navigable by pointing and clicking.

Chronological file management

Imagine the file manager presenting you with a “Calendar View” of your files. The interface would resemble a lot the calendar views of Evolution or MS Outlook, for instance. Only, in this “calendar”, by clicking on a particular date, you would not see only the tasks and appointments of the day, but a view of all the files (documents, e-mails, downloaded files) that you processed that day. Similar views for weeks, months or even years are possible, but further categorisation and sorting of the files may be required for such long periods of time.

This approach could be viewed as the integration of many, currently separate applications such as PIM/calendar, e-mail client, web browser, download manager and file manager. However, behind the scenes, it is the specially added meta-data of the files that will make possible accessing them from originally separate applications. And this meta-data in most cases can be added automatically by the receiving applications (e.g. the e-mail client saves automatically the e-mail attachments to the disk and adds them to the “Received by e-mail” category).

Source oriented file management

The files in the calendar view may be categorized and grouped together with the usual methods (i.e. by file type or sorted by name), by manually assigning special category information to them or, even more importantly, automatically by the system according to their originating source. The e-mail attachments grouped together, further categorised by sender. The sites visited forming another group. The downloaded files in another group, possibly further categorised by site. The pictures from your digital camera in another group. The files copied from the network (or from removable media) in other groups and so on.

If we wanted to “print the image that Helen sent me a few days ago” in this system, all we had to do would be:

1. Select in the calendar the previous week.
2. Possibly scroll to view the group of files that were received as e-mail attachments. The image thumbnail would become visible.
3. Select and print the image
This approach also implies that there will be no need to manually save the files before using them. The files are automatically saved to appropriate positions and categorized, based on default rules, as they arrive. The user is then free to assign more specialised category information to the files if he/she thinks a file should be easily found by navigating specific category views.

Jukebox searches

The use of file meta-data can also speed-up searches on off-line files -and these are not just the files on a temporarily unavailable network share.

Consider for instance the files stored on a CD. As soon as the CD is out of the drive, the computer has no clue about the files that were on the CD. Everyone knows how time consuming is to search through a CD collection inserting each CD in the drive. Instead, the system could keep a copy of the meta-data of CD files for each CD inserted, and be able to perform future searches through the collection off-line.

No trash can

Why delete files (and do it manually) from a 80GB hard disk when most of its space is free? The recycle bin is a rather outdated idea in a “garbage collecting” world. Files should never get deleted, either intentionally or by chance. They should be rated, according to their importance, so that the system will be able to propose appropriate actions when the disk is becoming full.

Files marked as important should probably always stay in the system and be regularly backed-up. Files used frequently should be marked automatically as important files. Files bearing no particular rating could be archived by default, and then removed from the system. Temporary files should be simply deleted.

There could be a rating equivalent to “garbage”, for items such as spam mail which should be really deleted, but this could actually be viewed as another form of the “Trash” folder found on current systems.

About the author
Athanassios Floros is an Electrical & Computer Engineer working in the Software Engineering sector since 1997. He is currently employed in one of the largest Communications Equipment and IT companies in Greece.
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