A while back, I talked about how ripe the Finder was for a revolution…or even an outright replacement. It still seems like the stodgiest part of the Mac OS. In contrast, I’ve spent months using a sophisticated computer that couldn’t care less about the concept of ‘files’ and ‘folders’ namely, the iPad. And it got me thinking that maybe I didn’t go far enough. If I’m petitioning for a revolution in the Finder, why not do away with the whole file system?

I mean, it’s been 30 years since the first time I sat at an Apple II keyboard and typed “RUN HELLO.” At this point in my life, “Volumes filled with folders and files” seems like an antique concept. Shouldn’t we be ready to evolve into a world in which files, formats and locations are irrelevant, and we keep all of our information and creations inside libraries?

Spotlight is a nod in this direction. I rarely have to remember where a file is physically located. It’s so much quicker to hit C-space to open a search box, tap in a few letters, and select the document I was thinking about.

But there’s a better example of the needless limitations of a file structure, and it’s presented by an app that you use every day: iTunes. Do you know where your copy of Lou Reed’s ‘Satellite of Love’ is? No. Because you don’t need to know.

When you stop thinking of ‘Satellite of Love’ as an MP3 file inside a subdirectory of your Lou Reed folder inside a subdirectory of your Music folder, and train yourself to think of it as a piece of music with no fixed role, purpose, or articulation…it can become almost anything.

You can listen to it as one song. Or you can hear it as the middle track of Lou Reed’s Transformer album. Or you can think of it as a 220-second chunk of a three-hour playlist. It can be a part of several playlists, simultaneously. The iTunes library doesn’t lock that track into a specific role; it appears wherever and whenever it’s appropriate and useful.

Another thing: the MP3 file is tagged with information…both the kind that indelibly describes the details of this song and the kind that describes how I’ve been using it. At any time, I can tell iTunes “Put together an hour of music for me. I want them all to be slow-tempo Rock songs from the 1970s. Show a preference for music I haven’t heard in the past month, but don’t include songs played fewer than five times.”

Another app that urges us to think in terms of libraries instead of files is iPhoto. iPhoto understands that Humans are a fickle and indecisive species. It takes pity upon our weakness and offers us Nondestructive Editing. To iPhoto, a picture isn’t a JPEG file inside your Pictures folder. It’s the initial state of the picture data the first time you moved it to the library, plus a record of every change you made to it since.

That’s a powerful concept. One photo is a holiday shot of your family in front of the Statue of Liberty and (with some cropping) it’s also dramatic clip art for a Keynote presentation. It’s the same content, articulated two different ways for two different purposes. iPhoto understands that kind of relationship; you won’t lose the other version in the process.

iPhoto also actively tries to understand the relationships between all of the images in your library. It percolates for several minutes and then tells you that the same guy turns up in the following 72 photos in the library. Would you like to give this guy a name? “Uncle Bonfiglio?” Fab. Oh, and Picture #29 is actually your dog? What’s the dog’s name? “D’Artagnian.” Got it. iPhoto will learn from this experience, and improve. You can now ask iPhoto to create a photo album that contains every Christmas Day photo that contains a family member.

The simple life
Life would be much simpler if we were able to treat all of our data so abstractly, and if the OS could organise it as well. Think about how these features could be applied to information in general, and how much simpler our lives would be as a result. 

Whoops…I forgot: I’m a narcissist. So instead, I urge you to think about how much easier my life would be.

The print edition of this column needs to be several hundred words shorter than the online version. Must I create two copies? Or must the world lose those a few precious gems of Truth, Beauty and Wisdom forever?

Naw. Like the photo of friends beside the Statue of Liberty, the new OS would understand this column has two versions.

I wouldn’t know where the column is stored and I wouldn’t care. The OS would understand how I use the information on my Mac. At any time, I can ask Spotlight “Show me every Macworld column I’ve written in this year” and presto, all of my columns appear. The Mac OS will have trained itself to spot the subtle je nais se quoi of a piece of writing destined for the magazine. Hell, this sort of plain-English organisation would even work if the new OS just allowed me to add keyword tags to the things I create.

I could build documents the same way I build playlists. Like the Lou Reed song, this same column could also be part of an introduction to a book chapter. Or I could do a Smart Playlist: “Sync to my iPad Pages document containing every piece of research I’ve written on the adorability of bunnies in hats.”

It might even change the way I approach the assembly of projects. Conceptually, the elements of a 350-page book would come together like a playlist for an evening drive, and I could rearrange them as easily. An edit to a 700-word section wouldn’t provoke a massive audit of the whole chapter. 

And the book doesn’t become a Word file or a Pages document until I decide what kind of file it needs to be. When I have to promote the book with a series of lectures, I could re-articulate the book’s best bits as Keynote slides; the book isn’t permanently fixed in the form of 350 printed pages. 

The more I think of it, the more quaint the subject of a strict system of files and folders seems. I’ve been to those tourist villages where people in Colonial garb dip candles and sew quilts and churn butter and complain about King George and his Stamp Act. I’ve hated every minute of it. 

‘Quaint’ stinks. I couldn’t wait to get back to the future then, and I’m impatient to get to the future of the Mac OS now.