# Friday, 20 January 2006

More on filesystems

Last time I posted an opinion on one of Jeff Atwood's posts. This time I'd like to elaborate a little more on the good points Jeff made in its article, on filesystems not being a feature but a mere implementation detail.

The post goes on with several proposal, all aimed at reaching the definite solution: get ride of the hierarchical file system. This was done by Jef Raskin with his experimental LEAP interface. A less radical solution is then discusses: do everything you can to hide the file-system from the user, using no filenames, no prompts on saves, automatic versioning. A sort of milestone-based machanism. While this is great for multiple saves and versioning of the same document, and for recovering the too frequent overwrite errors, I don't see "restore points" as a substitute for filesystems, but a complementary feature (although it can really help a lot in naming revised documents; how many times have you seen a file named "thesis14MarTry2.doc"?) (NB: this technology already exists in Windows (2003 and Vista): based on VSS, Shadow Copy preserves multiple copies of the same file transparently, as reported here through AdiOltean).

I don't like very much both of the solutions: however, the problem is real and somehow must be addressed. Hierarchical file-systems, partitions, hard drives are not only implementation details we (developers) must hide form the unexperienced users. It is a pain also for people that work on a computer all days. How many times in the last month did you though "where the heck is that file named something like that?" or "where I installed that application, an year ago? I cannot find neither a link nor the executable!"

One of the comments posted to the original blog post, and Jeff's response,  reflects my own opinion on the subject: The commenter objects that the proposed solution, using the contents of the file, instead of its name, isn't really adequate. He observes that it may make it easier to search for files and simpler to save files, but it makes browsing through the file-system quite difficult. Jeff response was: "When was the last time you "browsed" through the Internet, eg, you used a YAHOO or DMOZ style directory?"
Searching technologies are the future of file-systems. In many cases they already are the present, and they are continuously growing. What they still lack is integration. A lot of integration. Windows desktop search engines are the worst, in this sense. Both Google Desktop search and Windows Desktop search are completely separated applications, integrated only in a poor manner into the OS. In Windows desktop search, you can't even customize your view adding and removing columns, or reordering them.

For actual OSes, OSX has a point (with its SpotLight). You can even save search folders, organizing your items in a way that is independent from the file-system real organization. The find-as-type behavior, the subdivision of results in different categories, all make SpotLight a very well done system.



Windows Vista do the same things, sometimes better (especially for virtual folders, see picture). The search is extensive, in every folder, and in many other places - even in open and save dialogs.



Open dialog: pressing keywords on the left you can make queries.



Searching a folder in Explorer



Meta (virtual) folders, stacked, in Explorer.

However, this point is still a little weak in my opinion. I don't have a Vista beta, but from what I have seen and read, the search function could be integrated better. Take the open and save dialogs, the search for applications in the start menu (which is different! Why??) and, for example, the create shortcut wizard and the run.. dialog. Then look at these screenshot of SkyOS, or even better, go and watch the Search movie form here. I think it is impressive how search functionalities are widespread in the system, using a consistent ad standard interface. I'd really love to open a dialog, and then type a few keywords and find my file. Or to do the same thing in explorer, on the desktop...




Searching for a file in the storage manager...



... an application from the Run dialog (note the Incremental, nor excremental search funtion)...




...and from the Open common dialog.

The explorer view and the common dialog view are also pretty similar (even if they are not identical as I was hoping), making like easier for end users. And the search pane, with its subdivision into categories, is consistent for run dialog, create shortcut, locate icon, open with...
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