The file system is vanishing, a friend of mine told me earlier this week. It started with iOS.

iOS launched the era of apps with self-contained files. Buy the New Yorker and you’ll find the this week’s issue only  in the app. Type a shopping list, you’ll find it in the Notepad app. Buy some music, you’ll find it in the iTunes app.

Try as you might, you won’t be able to find that magazine, image, or song in another app. Each file is accessible only to the app that created it. This is quite a departure from the open file system in desktop OSs in which any app can write to any file. This design simplifies the user experience

The first metaphors for computing, windows and a desktop, greatly simplified the syntax of command line interfaces and reduced the complexity of operating a computer. With iOS, Apple casts aside these metaphors for a simpler one still: workspaces.

Documents are app specific and each app is purpose-built. If I want to edit a presentation, I use Keynote confident that all my presentations are there. Unbeknownst to the user, the app manages files and the filesystem.

In addition to the simpler interface, this kind of OS has security benefits. Each app is constrained to changing a certain narrow set of files. Lack of data portability is the drawback. If only one app can access certain data, users can’t switch from one spreadsheet editor to another. This a problem that Android’s Intents attempts to solve.

The workspace metaphor is much more natural and intelligible. It’s why we see videos of toddlers playing with iPads and grandmothers reading newspapers on iTouches.


5 thoughts on “The disappearing file system and the new UI metaphor

  1. This approach also allows your app-maker to lock you in to using only their services to access your data, creating an “artificial monopoly” where none needs to exist. If your music files “live” in iTunes and there’s no file system so you can give other apps access to those files, then Apple absolutely controls how you work with your music. I this this “appification” of data is a terrible development, and it actually drove me from iOS to Android. If Apple continues to move OSX to be more like iOS, I’m going to switch over to Linux completely.

    • I agree. It’s why I’m a big fan of Intents the way Android has implemented them. It solved the data portability challenge. I hope iOS implements them.

  2. Natural it may be, but it’s hugely limiting. I already struggle to find photographs I know I have taken. What happens when I have a hundred Keynote presentations, or I want to make lots of tunes using multiple music making apps? Every app is going to come up with its own convention for organising and sharing content, and things are going to start getting complicated again. But now, I don’t have a single system I can use to organise everything…

    • Great point. Apple has a practice of building an initially simple UI and then increasing its complexity as users learn the platform. iOS lacked multitasking then adopted it. iOS lacked folders then brought them on. I think they’ll develop some best practices for these kinds of challenges too. Or developers will have to beat them to the punch.

      Search is also a really great tool for solving this kind of problem. It works well in iTunes, Dropbox, Greplin…

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