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

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.