The Mac OS 10.7 “Lion” Report: Fix File Management

October 15th, 2010

This is an article that will have a short shelf life. On October 20th, you’ll witness Apple’s first public demonstration of the next great version of Mac OS X, code-named Lion. That this may be the true “king of the beasts,” in keeping with the name, may mean that there will be huge changes.

All I can say is that it’s about time.

You see, there have been lingering problems with the Mac OS that essentially afflict all graphical operating systems. But since the Mac was the leader of the pack, more or less, many of its fundamental (and troublesome) file management conventions have simply been imitated with minor changes in other OS, especially Microsoft Windows.

While the file and folder method may seem utterly simple and intuitive to many of you, I cannot tell you how many people remain flummoxed by Mac file management, not to mention the permissions issues the OS inherited from its Unix core.

Consider a recent episode involving a client, a professional photographer, who had her data recovered after the hard drive in an old Power Mac G4 failed.

Now the recovery process was pretty straightforward and it did appear that all of her files — at least the ones she needed and failed to back up — were intact and copied to a portable drive. But the permissions were “wonky,” as it were. Every other folder was inaccessible unless she changed access permissions via Get Info. That involved manually entering her password each time.

Yes, I grant there are shareware utilities that can do batch file permission changes, but there weren’t enough critical folders to access to warrant such a solution. However, you’d think that permissions issues would be few and far between on a world-class operating system. Mac users shouldn’t have to spend a moment dealing with such matters. The operating system needs to manage such disparities behind the scenes.

Indeed when it comes to working “behind the scenes,” the confusing task of handling files and folders should be on the top of the list among the features that need to be changed for the 21st century.

Certainly Apple has moved very far in the other direction with the iOS, which is, as you know, based on the very same Unix core as Mac OS X. So far as anyone can see, there is no file system to deal with. That level of simplicity can present all sorts of complications in its own right, simply because you don’t have any built-in method on your iOS device to manage the files created with any of the iWork apps, or, for that matter, other productivity software, except within the app itself. There’s no doubt an app for that, but Apple needs to move slightly in the other direction towards real file management.

Certainly, the interfaces if iPhoto and iTunes provide a neat method of file handling. You can get the photos, music or videos you want without having to consider where they’re located. Setting up a playlist, or a photo album, is the closest equivalent of the traditional folder, and is meant to serve essentially the same purpose. Since the Finder has taken on more and more of the characteristics of iTunes, making it easy to manage your stuff is an important next step.

Yes, I grant that Smart Folders helps, although their existence isn’t apparent unless you look at the Finder’s Sidebar or pay attention to the Help screens about creating them.

Here’s a typical example of how the situation gets crazy: As you probably know, many Mac users aren’t aware that there’s such a thing as an Open dialog box. When I say “choose Open from the File menu,” I’ll often get strange looks. Far too many of you simply double-click your files from a Finder window to open them, even if the app that created those programs is already running.

When it comes to saving a file, just where does it go? Yes, you can make that decision in the Save dialog, but far too many Mac users simply OK whatever default location is presented, then wonder where that file went. So suddenly Spotlight is called into action, and that shouldn’t be necessary.

Instead of giving the Finder the bi-annual shave and haircut, Apple ought to rethink and simplify file system management. You shouldn’t have to think about where your files are located, or how to access them. They should be readily available at your beck and call.

I suppose Apple had the right idea with the Simple Finder of the Classic Mac OS, or perhaps the Launcher, both of which clearly inspired Microsoft in building Windows Mobile 7. But what’s really needed is a sophisticated file system that stays virtually invisible to everyone but the power user who craves a “Classic” interface. For the rest of us, present the files in an orderly fashion, categorized the way you want, without considering the abstract of folders and subfolders and all the rest of that old fashioned misery.

Before I go on, I do not pretend to have a final answer to this problem. Maybe Apple can be inspired by some of the Finder substitute apps out there, but I rather think they have enough brilliant programmers in house who can deliver a file management scheme that is simple, elegant, and finally takes the Mac Finder into the 21st century.

I’d like to see such a solution in Mac OS 10.7. I want to be amazed, but if it doesn’t happen, you can bet I’ll be lobbying for the Finder of the future in 10.8.

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15 Responses to “The Mac OS 10.7 “Lion” Report: Fix File Management”

  1. Kaleberg says:

    I always felt the answer revolved around the idea of “events”, sort of like the events used by iPhoto. You want your stuff automatically clustered by time and by close together use. When I pull up one file, perhaps by date or content, I should be able to see files that were used to create it (i.e. opened as part of the creation process) and files that might have used it in their creation as well as files with similar content. There are clustering algorithms now that could go far towards this, but the OS would need to log each file open and save, rather than just the most recent. (They could throw in URLs and emails referenced to make the pie even more interesting.)

    I expect we’ll be seeing more programs that use clustering over the next 3 – 5 years, and when someone figures something out, then we’ll see Apple get into the act. Of course, if Apple did take the jump, it would put them well ahead of the flock.

  2. Thomas says:

    Your user password cannot be blank for this to work, but this will help you in the future.

    Open terminal…

    Change permissions on a folder and a contents to read/write for all users enter the following

    sudo chmod -R 777 DRAGyourUSERfolderHERE

    Then hit return and enter your password and hit return again. NOTE: It will not appear as if the computer is actually typing your password but it is.

    Or, if you also need to change ownership use the following

    sudo chown -R TYPEyourUSERfolderNAMEhereCASEsensitive DRAGyourUSERfolderHERE

    Then hit return and enter your password and hit return again. NOTE: It will not appear as if the computer is actually typing your password but it is.

    …. Or alternatively, when you’re in the “get info” window there is a button near the bottom left that looks like a gear. (also the lock at the bottom must be unlocked to do this) Click on the gear and select apply to enclosed items.

    Terminal can also be used to recover files off of drives that present errors and/or do not copy when using the Finder. Holding down option while drag-dropping files using Finder also seems to “force” things to behave a bit better.

    The sweeeeeet part of this is that most of these features were built right in starting in the 10.0 public beta.

    Hopefully you find this info useful if you ever find yourself with a failing drive and no backup!


    • @Thomas, Neat tip. There are always Terminal and/or shareware solutions. In the case of my friend, she only needed to access files from a few folders, so it wasn’t worth the time. I’m thinking, however, that a long-term solution is what’s really needed.

      You shouldn’t have to do command line tricks to fix a problem that the system should be fixing for you.


  3. SteveP says:

    @Gene -if it is an external volume, and you are a single user, you could just do a GET INFO on the volume and tell it to ignore permissions. Then you have the freedom to do whatever you wish. Unless Apple removed that option, I haven’t check for a while and don’t have an external drive to mess with. But in any event, you could at least do a GET INFO on the volume and set the permissions for the user in question and tell it to apply to everything underneath there and it should work.

    The point for me that your arguments above fall apart is the comparison of a multi-user system (like the Mac OS desktop, Unix, etc) with a single-user piece of equipment (iOS – iPhone, iPad, etc). There are issues required for things like multi-user to work properly, and one of them is appropriate enforcement and management of permissions. Those issues largely disappear for a single user system, except for a distinction between system and user files.

    Still, that is not to say that there isn’t a better way, but quite frankly every other “innovative” approach I have seen over the years has left me scratching my head and wanting kmuch more. To simplify means (far too often) removing a great deal of flexibility and control. Some may not care, but many do.

  4. David says:

    I must assume that the person who recovered the data was not the photographer and the machine used was not her own. Unix expects to be able to find the ID of each user who should have access to a file or directory. By using a different computer with different users, some of which may have had the same internal ID as hers, it was quite simply impossible for the OS to determine the correct permissions. Thus some repair after the fact must be performed.

    Unless you’re truly advocating that Apple abandon Unix then your automatic permissions “fixing” wish can never be granted.

    In my opinion Apple does expect you to buy one iDevice for each member of the family. If you can’t afford the cost of entry to the Apple ecosystem then they don’t want you as a customer.

    • @David, I do not expect Apple to drop Unix, but an automatic permissions fixer would be nice. With Terminal commands and third-party batch permissions fixers out there, this isn’t something that is beyond Apple to deliver.

      As to the client’s files, it was a mixture. Some of the permissions were correct; some weren’t.


  5. SteveP says:

    @Gene – you seem to have missed the many suggestions so far of how to “fix” the permissions, using the GUI, with no additional software required. Is that not good enough? And how can the OS “fix” them automatically unless it becomes a mind-reader to know what your idea of “fixed” is? And, without knowing what steps were involved in the recovery, which very likely were well outside normal OS operations, it is hard to say how they get to the way they were, or what “best” permissions would be.

    If you had a drive of files, either set the external drive to the right permissions and use the “Change all”, or pick the folder under which your files live and do it there. Either way, it is fairly straight-forward, and I really prefer that than having Apple try to put some logic in there to “guess” what is right in every application.

    • @SteveP, The drive wouldn’t take a “Change All” setting. That’s where it started; it had to be a folder level alteration. It’s not that I ignored anything.

      What you ignore is that there are usual and customary permissions for one’s document files, unless you specifically change them. Being able to automatically configure that should be sufficient for all but the power users.


  6. ihadmeavision says:

    Apple really does need to get it’s act together with permissions in the GUI. If you use the get info settings on almost anything, it never really works for me. I need to resort to using Terminal and also need to get rid of unique os x attributes sometimes. Hopefully the Finder will also get native file/folder merging but I’m not holding my breath.

  7. James Ludtke says:

    IMHO, the way files are handled in iTunes is an abomination. I do not use iTunes other than to play music files stored outside the iTunes environment. I am not at all opposed to a better way of organizing files, but any new system must give me the control to save files WHERE I know I can find them. Or, to put it more correctly, I must be able to associate any file with one or more keywords. Where the file is actually stored is of no concern to me.

  8. nik says:

    @Thomas, Well yeah. I am a programmer and quite familiar with the terminal.

    But the mere fact that I have a shell script that will “fix” files and folders with a recursive chown followed by a recursive permissions set is an indication that things are seriously broken in the current Finder. Why should I need this, and how on earth is a normal person supposed to figure this out on their own?

    I can’t find anything either – I try to keep organized, but kind of like my living room, things get messy very quickly. The entire Finder interface is clumsy and un-intuitive. The only exception is the Dock.

  9. tom b says:

    Regarding simple ideas that resonate with people: I just bought my wife a MacBook. She really loves the “download folder” feature. Instead of being strewn all over the desktop, or sent who knows where, she likes the convenience of having them go to one obvious place.

  10. dfs says:

    Seems to me that the permissions thing is a Unix issue, not an OSX one. Without abandoning its Unix underpinnings, how could Apple possibliy fix the problems it may create? Anyway, if anybody’s personal experience counts for anything, back in OS X.1 days, yes, I had some permissions issues. So I quickly latched on to the free utility BatCHmod, which got me out of my difficulties with ease. But then as time went out and the OSX version numbers crept up, I noticed I needed to use it less and less, and then hardly at all (maybe once in the last two yor three years?). I keep it on my h. d. just for luck, but my hunch is that, without giving it any particular publicity, Apple has made significant strides in fixing whatever problems were originally associated with Unix permissions. (I have an automated utility, Cocktail, which “fixes permissions“ every week, but I have no real idea whether this is at all necessary any more – I never repair permissions before or after a system upgrade and haven’t suffered anything at all, so I also wonder whether the idea that this is necessary is anything more than a bit of urban folklore). More urgent, I think, is the kind of file handling which eats up a remarkable amount of space on Time Machine. Sometimes I go through a GB in a day, even though I haven’t done anything radical that day such as installing new software or adding a lot of new media. My Time Machine backups go back to May 2008, and I’m already down to 630 GB on a 1 TB hard disk. I’d love it if Apple could improve its file system so that this sort of thing would stop.

  11. Ilgaz says:

    I think the rising importance of “ACL” (access control lists) and no way to repair “home permissions” (except booting from Leopard DVD and run password reset utility) makes macs really insecure because people really doesn’t understand the logic of an UNIX system.
    I have seen people sharing home folder with whole world just because they didn’t understand the implications of that nice&easy looking “Shared”.
    Unfortunately, it is Apple who has to learn from MS this time. MS makes it almost impossible to share everything like that, it warns you very seriously (no balloons to ignore!) and tells about dangers of doing such thing. In fact, there is also a step involved “install file and printer sharing” which I think they made on purpose.
    Anyway, basically “disk utility” needs “repair home permissions” option, e.g. in “File” menu, like “Fix OS 9 Permissions”. Or, third party tools. OK, they are nice for now and they do what they say on the box but trust me, it will change once OS X/Mac gets even more popular. Any Windows switchers will agree to me.

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