A Long Goodbye to File Systems

In response to Matt Gemmell’s “A farewell to the filesystem”

These days, I expect the machine to accept my query, and throw the relevant set of my stuff back at me. Browsing through directory windows seems anachronistic now, and - interestingly - it also feels artificial.

I wouldn’t have said that a few years ago. The file system was the only reality, and everything else was a fancy search interface, slicing and dicing my data from moment to moment with algorithmic sleight of hand.

While I share some of the same feelings, my experience is slightly different from Gemmell’s. Shortly after Spotlight came out in OS X Tiger, I quit using nested folders and instead started using Spotlight comments and its ability to look into the contents of files to find what I was looking for.

I wrote back in 2009:

As we accumulate more and more information on our computer systems, effective interfaces become even more necessary. Way back in the early days of the Internet, I realized that search was going to be a massive problem. And it was. The reason Google is now well on the way to becoming a tech behemoth is because sorting through the incredible amount of information on the Internet to find the few bits you’re looking for is the single most difficult and important task everyone needs to have done.

Our home systems will obviously never become as large as a worldwide network, but most users already are coming up against the limits of their capability or inclination to organize the information they do have. I reached my limit with self-organization years ago, which is why I had to find more effective ways of doing things. Creating better, more intuitive and effective tools for search and organization will continue to be a very important task for software engineers for a long time to come.

I tried out different launchers over the years, starting with Quicksilver, but nothing stuck particularly well. While all launchers allow you to do far more than just find files, most of the time that’s all I need to do: find it, open it, work on it. The vast majority of the other manipulations that utilities like Quicksilver, LaunchBar, and Alfred enable you to do are complicated overkill for me. I found that I spent far more time fiddling with learning how the tool worked than I did actually using it, and after a few days often forgot it was even installed and running.

I was a late convert to Hazel, but now I use it for creating a modicum of file hierarchies. In the rare case I can’t find something through Spotlight, I can fall back on looking for one of the shallowly-nested folders that I set up Hazel to automatically create and use as a sorting destination for various types of files and topics. Before system-level tagging was introduced in Mavericks, I started experimenting with OpenMeta tags, and tags within the files themselves in some cases. I detailed how I use these tools in writing and organization more extensively last year.

The thing both Gemmell and I agree on is that the traditional hierarchical file system is disappearing, and few users will miss it. While it may still be functioning behind the scenes, it will be at best a backup for search and other less linear systems.