Recently Mac OS X 10.4 introduced a lightweight version of this in called Spotlight. This will also most probably be implemented in Microsoft's new operating system in the Windows family, called Longhorn in 2006 if nothing makes them changes their minds.
This new way of browsing your files is closely related to a database search where each file has a number of fields describing its content. What fields this would be can I only guess. But something like this; not just the name, date (created, last modified), rights (as it is for now) but more info such as MIME-info, source (which application created it, used it, etc), content (summary of txt, pdf, sxw, doc etc) and more, you get the picture.
Best would be to integrate this data in the filesystem, like WinFS (Windows new filesystem working closely with MS SQL), but as far as I know Linux lacks this kind of filesystem for the moment (correct me if I'm wrong). One solution would be to add this in a gnome (or better a freedesktop.org) specific file, the same way as Nautilus saves where each window/folder is located on the screen. Or even better; a new filesystem using MySQL laying beside the real filesystem and having the kernel taking care of all this.
/dev/hda1 = ext2/ext3/ReiserFS etc
/dev/hda2 = Metadata FS / MySQL-FS
Well this is very interesting, but nothing I will discuss now...
My vision – the user view
Well, that's the "technical" part, let's go to what the user should do to get this working. Remember this should be as simple as possible. Even your old grandmother should be able to do this in just a few minutes (I think seconds is too optimistic, but preferable). I suppose its a lot of discussion going on in the gnome development team right now, but this is my proposal.
I propose a new "Home" icon on the desktop called (something like) "My organized Home" (or maybe do the opposite; Home = organized and have another icon called "Disorganized Home" ;-) ). However, I think you get my point. This folder will include the earlier created shortcuts like the ones above. This way there is no need to try to have a organized hieratic filesystem, which take time. You just create the shortcuts (read "virtual folders") you would like to have and then you don't need to bother get your files organized, instead you get more time with yourself and your girlfriend ;-).
Anyway, this way we'll have folders like "bring me last weeks downloaded (from Firefox and Firebird) pdf, svx, ps and doc files which includes the word 'report'" as a link on the desktop (or where you'd like to have them) called "Downloaded Reports".
And for all the geeks who must have the tree structure (such as me); it's still there! Sure, this will be confusing having two "homes" so you have to choose which one to use.
With this there's no need to create folders like "Documents", "Movies", "Music" etc (as proposed by freedesktop.org) like every program have to adopt to. Sure, this is a good idea, but I think until all programs use the appropriate folder, this is a really good solution and even after that because this is far more flexible.
And this will make more sense together with gnomes new save dialog, you don't have to bother about where the file ends up. Just save it and it's already at the right place!
Of course it could take a while to get there, but I think this is the only way to get the average user to find their stuff and at the same time have them heavily organized.
A lot of questions still remain. But I think it is important to get the discussion really going. I know this is not only the gnome teams problem, but they are heavily involved in this as I see it. Because this it what we see in the end. I think it's important to get all people of the whole Linux community going with this to get it as good as possible. Because this is the way we will browse in the near future.
Until this come true my tips is to improve the spatial browsing even more. Here are my simple changes which has made it simpler for me to use the spatial browsing.
Change Nautilus click behaviour to single click. Why double click when you can single click?! Together with the middle click you won't get a lot of windows open and doesn't have to click a lot to get to the folder you want.
I don't know how many of you out there that makes use of the emblems in Nautilus, but that is very good way to find your files and folders even faster in a window, then you don't have to read each name; just look at the icons and click. My believe is that is goes faster. But that could be just me :)
About the author:
I recently get in to the Linux community and had only been using gnome 2.4 for a couple of month when 2.6 was released. As of everybody else I was first sceptic to the spatial browsing. But now I just love it!