How the File System is getting Buried

In 2010, the iPad changed computer interfaces. A new type of device, the iPad broke the desktop file system metaphor of the past. No longer did the user see files and folders, organized in complex tree structure hierarchies. This trend of moving away from the file system has now entered the PC. Both Apple and Microsoft, the leading manufactures of operating systems for computers have taken steps to make their systems less like file operating systems and more like interfaces of consumer devices. The file system will still be there but it is getting buried.

The idea of organizing data into files emerged very early in the history of computers. Systems like Unix and VMS and later DOS were all about files and how to operate files. Even when the graphical user interfaces emerged in the 1980s, the file system became visual with the desktop metaphor where, using the term folders instead of directories. Files with visible content became documents. In the desktop metaphor the user is very much aware that applications work with documents and you explicitly create new documents, you save documents, and you open documents. Your are very much aware that the documents are files in the file system and the application is a separate thing to work with them.

Computers in the 80s and 90s were primary business machines used by trained office workers. The idea that people would buy computers for their personal use took some time. Even in 1990 when I bought a Gateway PC during my studies in Eugene, Oregon, the delivery guy was confused bringing a computer to a residential area, and asked if I was running a business from home.

The rise of the Internet in the late 90s and the early 00s and the digitalization of devices such as music players and cameras changed the role of computers. Today, computers are consumer devices. And consumers are using their computers for lots of different tasks, like browsing the Internet, watching movies, communicating and listening to music.

This June, the makers of two of the leading computer operating systems introduced their next versions. Both show clear signs how they are trying to hide the file system. Apple showed Lion, their next major version of Mac OS X, at their developer’s conference in San Francisco. Although the desktop idea is not gone and Finder is still there, there is a definite move away from the office like metaphor towards the iOS like interface. The multi-touch gestures are clear example of this. Another example is the Mac App Store and how software is installed. The process of downloading a installation file to your file system and then running that file, is gone. Just select the app in the app store and it will automatically install and be ready to use. A clear move away from the file system. Lion also has an app called Launchpad which organizes the applications as iOS organizes apps. No need to browse the Application folder to find the application file in the file system.

Lion also has new features that bring more subtle changes but are actually very interesting moves away from the file system. Resume opens application in the state it was open last time, moving away from explicitly opening the files your were working on. Finally, Autosave further moves us away from the disk. This might be a trivial change but it is actually pretty big since this marks the end of saving and thus the notion that the file is something stored on a disk and that you must be aware of this fact.

Microsoft is also moving from the file system to a more consumer friendly experience with Windows 8, just previewed this June. In fact, Windows 8 goes further into the mobile experience with the mosaic tiles user interfaces of Windows Phone 7 mobile OS. The file system is still there but apps can use new and easier ways to access content.

The trend is clear. We are seeing a shift in computer user interfaces. The notion of files and folders are being replaced by higher abstractions more oriented towards the consumption of media content. The days of drives are gone. The A-drive is long gone, and now the C-drive with the rest of the alphabet soup. For the end user, the file system is dead and the sky is cloudy.