In reading reviews of the new Apple OS X (Lion), I was struck by how many reviewers mentioned the All My Files, Mission Control and Launchpad features, all of which display files and applications in a way so that users don’t have to organize their work in folders. I was reminded of when Gmail first came out, and everyone talked about how it didn’t have folders, because you could just search for whatever email you wanted to see.
This was alien to me. I have always organized my work in folders, both in my computer and in real life. When I worked in finance, each new deal got its own accordion file into which went a series of manila folders: due diligence, projections, legal issues, etc. So organizing my computer files and email into folders and sub-folders seemed completely natural to me. How else could you display your work on a computer?
And there I went, blithely assuming that everyone was comfortable with the folder metaphor. Sometimes I would look at someone’s computer where the desktop was a mass of unorganized icons, but I assumed that was an aberration; I must have just caught them in the middle of a crazy project.
It wasn’t until I read about computer scientist David Gelernter that I realized there might be other ways to look at your information. He developed something called Lifestreams in order “to minimize the time users spend managing their documents.” Lifestreams dumped the file and folder metaphor in favor of “a time-ordered stream of documents.” That seemed crazy to me – I would much rather look for documents “from Project Neptune” than “from sometime in 2003, which I think is when I worked on Neptune” – but it was clear that other people, even computer science people, didn’t think that way.
It appears that lots of people don’t think the way I do. Maybe most people. But whether the count is lots or most, clearly many would prefer to avoid the folder metaphor. To quote from one review of Lion, “The addition and prominence of “All My Files” is yet another vote of no-confidence in the user’s ability to understand and navigate the file system.”
So let’s add another dichotomy into which we can divide people: folder people vs. non-folder people. While improvements in search technology may eventually make this distinction obsolete, right now it seems like the non-folderites have the upper hand, with user interface designers catering to them. That’s fine, as long as folder capability still exists. But if that capability disappears, folder thinkers will have no choice but to rise up and let the Lifestreamers tremble. We have nothing to lose but our files!