In five years we’re going to look back at the way we’ve been managing our documents and feel silly. We may even feel silly for managing our documents in the first place.
The Classic File System
I realized after studying iCloud on Mountain Lion that the system we’ve been using to save personal documents is the same one used by our operating systems uses for storing driver information, installed applications, caches, fonts, and services.
The idea of a home directory, with subdirectories for our different data types, with an infinite number of possible folder levels under that is more complex than it needs to be. Modern operating systems have made the file system somewhat more approachable with nice graphics and shortcuts like the favourites bar, but the directory tree structure we use is the problem.
iCloud does away with the directory tree structure, or at least iCloud modifies it in a few ways:
- Apps each have their own isolated directories
- Folders can only exist at the top level
- Each directory is cloud synced
- File extensions no longer matter
Let me talk about the first two points which are the most important to understand.
Using iCloud, each app can save and open its own documents. An app can’t access the documents on another app’s iCloud. Whether an app is on a Mac, an iPhone, or an iPad, it always gets access to the same files with iCloud. Usually updates to a file are saved in real-time and pushed to all devices.
The easiest way to start thinking about documents on iCloud isn’t as files in folders on your computer, but as belonging to applications. This is very different from how things have traditionally worked on the Mac, but it’s how iOS has worked since the beginning.
iCloud makes the task of finding and opening files much easier by reducing the complexity of the directory tree. Before iCloud, files could have been saved within three, but often many more levels of folders. Using iCloud, opening files will feel a lot like launching an app on iOS. Each document will either be immediately visible, or it will be within a single folder.
The folders on iCloud work more like the app folders on iOS or like Launchpad on the Mac than what we’ve traditionally been used to. The big difference with iCloud’s folders is that you can only have folders at the top level, or in other words, you can’t have folders within folders.
The classic file system is like a big lake and iCloud is more like many shallow ponds. In the old file system, all of our documents were mixed together and files could be saved deep within folders within folders within folders. Using iCloud, each application is its own little pond of files. It’s easy to know what pond a file is in, and the pond is so shallow that you can always see the bottom.
If you use five different text editors, move documents between applications, or something like Dropbox, then iCloud is going to require working with files differently. If you’re an adept user like this, iCloud might not fit the workflow you’ve developed.
iCloud improves the way regular users have had to do things:
- It’s easier to open applications than files on the file system. (ex. Launchpad & iOS)
- iCloud is already set-up on the Mac and iOS
- iCloud is ubiquitous across multiple macs and iOS devices
- iCloud is free
No matter if you’re an expert or a novice, iOS has quickly helped users adopt the mental model of launching an app then choosing your file. Like much of what Apple’s doing, the habits and mental models people have developed on iOS are being implemented on the Mac. iCloud will be a bumpy transition for some, but for most users it will give them a single mental model and a single language to use. Making things simpler is key to making them easier, and effortless.
Just like purchasing and installing applications, the file system is the next element of classic computing to fade into the background.