A Lions Prey (See Ya Finder)

Obfuscation of the file system may be the greatest feature that Apples next release of Mac OS X ‘Lion’ brings to the table. I doubt that we will see the obscurity that is seen in iOS devices with the release of Lion, but we already know that Lion will take us one step closer to that level of obscurity. Marco Arment recently linked to a post by Watts Martin entitled Geek Luddites where Martin argues this very same point.

All of this got me to thinking about what this means for the next release of Mac OS X, or Lion. It is this thinking that brought me right to Finder, the contentious file manager that Apple packages with OS X. Many people, myself included, hope and pray that Apple will update Finder to make it more useable. I think that Apple may be forgoing Finder, instead choosing to focus on UI features that simplify the file system, not ones that further add a level of complexity to the file system.

Most Users

Most people that use computers see the highest level of frustrations when having to deal with the file system. Think about the argument for how poor installing apps on a Mac is, and then think about what the core issue really is – installing apps on the current version of Mac OS X means that you must have a basic understanding of file systems and use that knowledge to move an application to the correct directory. Further, think about the common problem that most geeks have with older people ‘losing’ their files – this problem, again, stems from the fact that most Mac programs assume the user has the underlying knowledge of how a file system works when they ask a user ‘where’ they want to save the file.

The problem though is that more and more computer users do not have the underlying knowledge that most programs and operating systems assume them to have. This leads to an innumerable amount of problems for those of us that seek to, or are begrudgingly drug, into supporting these users.

Finder No More

Taking that into account look at Finder from Apples perspective – is the problem Finder? I think Apple has decided that no the problem is not Finder, the problem actually is user knowledge. The solution to the problem of user knowledge is not creating a more robust and thus a more complex Finder (one with tabs and all the bells and whistles we geeks want) instead the problem is dumbing things down for users.

Dumbing things down though sounds like a step backwards – I think it is a step forwards. I doubt that Apple will ever eliminate the users ability to access the file system directly, that would require far more support staff on their end, but I do think that Finder is going to remain more or less static. This though I do not think is a bad thing at all.

What is our ultimate goal here: is it to have the ultimate version of Finder, or is our real goal not to have to constantly troubleshoot other peoples computers? For me it is the latter. (The argument can also be made that in simplifying computers it helps to better society, but such an argument is far more complex.)

Education vs. Simplification

Apple like many people has tried to educate its users about file systems and other technical, non-trivial, aspects of their operating systems – we can all agree that these efforts have largely failed. The only natural next step was to start simplification, the first step of which is to obfuscate the file system.

Thus far Apple has done a marvelous job at obscuring that file system on iOS devices – even a massive geek, such as myself, has no need to touch the iOS file system. They are now starting that same obfuscation with Lion by showing us how they will allow users to arrange apps in the same icon-page metaphor that is used in the iOS operating schema. That is, a large grid of icons that when clicked launch the represented app.

Currently you must either launch an app from the dock, applications folder (or where ever you install your apps) or with some sort of keyboard launching utility. The dock is the closest thing to the grid layout, but even that is complicated. Has an OS X user ever asked you how to “install” an app so that it is in the dock, or why an app won’t stay in the dock when they close it?

Moving Forward

Apple has only giving us a glimpse of what they have in store for Lion, but that glimpse is telling. Apple is focusing Lion on the general computer user, Apple wants it to be easier for everyone, not more powerful for geeks. That doesn’t mean that we geeks wont get goodies, it does mean that we will have to spend less time as IT support for our parents.

One thing that I hope to see completely revamped in Lion is the save dialog box that is native to OS X – it is, in its current form, nothing short of terrible.

Look at this:

Screen shot 2010-11-05 at 8.55.44 AM.png

What about that dialog tells a new Mac user that they can press the down arrow button to get a more robust look at the file system?

Now look at this:

Screen shot 2010-11-05 at 8.55.56 AM.png

What about that is easy?

Both need to change, we need a better way to save and recall our files for everyone. Spotlight was Apples first attempt at this, with Spotlight they wanted to try to eliminate the need users had for creating directory hierarchies. Instead of diving into folders to open documents Apple wanted us to search for the file. For the vast majority of users that was too uncomfortable of a proposition and has largely been rejected.

This time around Apple needs to do better, the way iOS handles file storing (e.g. Pages, Numbers) is mediocre at best and not scalable (just try having more than a handful of documents and see how easy it is to find the one you want). I don’t have the answer, but I do know that this is a problem that needs solving.

Originally posted for members on: November 5, 2010
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