Steve Jobs on computer file systems: “Why is the file system the face of the OS?”

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Lack of user access to a document and folder level file system is one of the attributes I like least about Apple’s iOS mobile operating system. However, the iOS Development blog’s Ole Begemann reveals that getting rid of the file system was elemental to the late Steve Jobs’s OS game plan well before the iPhone’s debut.

Begemann points to All Things D’s release of a podcast containing videos of Steve Jobs’s five appearances at All Things D conferences between 2003 and 2010, specifically the session from 2005 in which Jobs reveals his ambition to make computing more user-friendly and easier to learn by getting rid of the file system as part of a computer’s UI. Begemann provides the following transcript:

…in every user interface study we’ve ever done [], [we found] it’s pretty easy to learn how to use these things till you hit the file system and then the learning curve goes vertical. So you ask yourself, why is the file system the face of the OS? Wouldn’t it be better if there was a better way to find stuff?

Now, email, there’s always been a better way to find stuff. You don’t keep your e-mail on your file system, right? The app manages it. And that was the breakthrough, as an example, in iTunes. You don’t keep your music in the file system, that would be crazy. You keep it in this app that knows about music and knows how to find things in lots of different ways. Same with photos: we’ve got an app that knows all about photos. And these apps manage their own file storage.

And eventually, the file system management is just gonna be an app for pros and consumer’s aren’t gonna need to use it.

What that sounds like to me is a Stevespeak manifesto for dumbing things down.

I’ll somewhat grudgingly concede that Jobs was probably right about the file system being confusing for many newbies and the indefatigably tech-illiterate (although I never personally found it so, even in my neophyte days on the Mac 20 years ago). However, the functional cost of getting rid of it in the iOS has been severe for production and efficiency oriented pro and power users, kneecapping iOS devices’ considerable potential as portable production platforms. If Jobs and Apple had followed through with the “file system management app for pros” Jobs alluded to in his 2005 comments, fair enough, but they didn’t, which makes, for example, such relatively mundane tasks as uploading images to illustrate articles like this one impossible to execute from an iPad.

And FWIW, when I’m looking for a file, I find the good old Mac OS Finder directory-based file system—with or without the aid of a good search utility—far less confusing and cumbersome, as well as usually much quicker, than digging through various iOS apps’ content lists when I can’t recall in which app the sought document was “parented.” I also much prefer to organize archived documents by subject matter category in respective folders, rather than having their storage and retrieval fragmented based on what particular app they were created in.

Not the first time I’ve philosophically parted company with Steve Jobs, nor likely the last, but this issue is pretty basic, and I’m inclined to bridle at dumbing-down in any context. Not that I worship making things gratuitously complex and difficult either. I use Macs (and iOS devices) and I’m anything but a command line jock. But my orientation is toward smartening things up, not the contrary, which is…you know…

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  • Tarik

    Nice article but what’s the point?
    I’d like the Application Support window you show. Is that a MAC program.

  • frank

    Will definitely agree with author, it wasn’t such a wise decision for Apple not include a way to handle files on the mobile OS that powers iOS. I think that things didn’t have to go too complicated to add a file system like OS X but a way to handle file more appropiately. Something like iOS handles music or photos with their respective applications…….. We will have to see if Apple could announce a file system in the upcoming release of the iOS 6.

  • jojowas aman

    Ha! Moore, you’re just too easy.
    One more brain frozen moron who can’t understand the distinction between “dumbed down” and “simplification”.
    Please stay FAR away from theoretical physics. Or anything progressive, for that matter.

  • GusDoeMatik

    Don’t expect that to change in iOS6. It’S not! And I personally like the deletion of the file system. Screw it! We don’t need it. But we do need a way to get the files off the iDevice without a file system. I know that sounds wierd. But it’s not. Just think different and you’ll see a way. There’s always a different way to do the samething.

  • Mark

    I don’t understand the eagerness to call the author a ‘brain frozen moron’. To pollute any sort of discussion with such obvious trolling doesn’t add anything valuable. Can’t we act like adults and talk nicely to each other? Please?

    I think Moore raises some good points. I build websites and also manage thousands of other work-related files, and being able to take charge of the organisation of those files quickly and easily is essential, as is being able to take control over which applications open which files. For example, does an HTML file get opened in my text editor for coding or a browser for viewing? I need to control that.

    I’ve been a big fan – and user – of Apple computers for 20 years, but the shift from Snow Leopard to Lion has been the first time an upgrade has slowed down my workflow. Making all the icons in Finder sidebars monotone is just one example of an existing interface component losing – not gaining – some of its effectiveness in visual communication.

    What it all comes down to is, while I love my iPad for chilling out, sometimes I also need a computer.

  • Charles Moore

    Application Support is just a folder in the OS X Library in the screenshot shown in Column View.


    • Tarik2Nu

      Thank you!

  • winc06

    I agree. I can’t count the times I have helped someone who was flummoxed because they did not understand the filing system and did not know the name of a file to search for it. But I also know that even some college grads who made outlines to write papers can’t seen to grasp an outline when it is a filing system. The nice thing about Apple is that they have usually given you more than one way to do something. I would hate to see them step back from that.

  • Rick Simerka

    There is no 1 solution that fits all. But on a phone elimination of the file system was wise. For all u diddlers and the others that do have a legitimate reason to need access to the file system im sure u will find a way. for the rest of us good riddance. Do u pine for the days when there were still carburetors and u had to fiddle with a choke to get your car started? i say good riddance to that too. i think refinements will come in the future relating to this subject and we will all be glad that the file system as we know it dead.

  • ViewRoyal

    Charles, I have to disagree with you. Making the file system less noticeable is not “dumbing-down” the operating system, any more than moving to a GUI from a command-line was “dumbing-down” operating system.

    If anything, making the applications the focus, instead of the file manager, is a very smart move as it streamlines the use of iOS devices. This can also be said for moving desktop operating systems from the command line to the GUI twenty-five years ago.

    In both cases, using operating systems became faster and became more focused on the user’s needs, and less focused on the underlying operating system.

    After each change there were people who understood why this was an advancement and welcomed it, while at the same time there were those who clung to older methods of using computers. Yes, there are still a few people who will only use the command in Windows and OS X.

    The file system is still there in iOS, for anyone that really wants to access it… but most people don’t want to regress to an older, less productive interface. In fact, there are many file manager apps available that people can download and use.

    If you are looking for a file in a file system, it is because you want to use or edit it… Therefore after you find it, you want to open an application to work on it. But in a file system you only see the file name, size and icon.

    Opening that file in the application, without depending on the file system is much more efficient because it is a one step process instead of two, and because the application provides more information (meta data, preview, status, etc.) than the file system, so it’s easier to find the right file.

    When files are shared in iOS (for example photo files) they are automatically accessible in any app that can edit them. In a file system, you need to know which applications can edit the file, open that application, and then search for that file in the file system.

    As an aside, I’m hoping that Apple does the same thing with third-party applications in OS X. For example, open GraphicConverter on a Mac and it automatically has access to all of your photos from iPhoto and Photoshop, without having to search for them in the file system.

    Of course, this type of iOS-style interactivity would need to be initiated by Apple with the third-party developers for upcoming releases of their applications.

  • Tom Ferrell

    From the point of view of file and app access, remember that the folder system is exponential. Neither Apple nor Microsoft seem to have exploited this in the best way. Suppose, for example, a subject category folder contains 16 items or folders with a subject subcategory and inside each is another 16. Then the user can logically access 16X16X16 =4096 items with 3 double clicks and arrive at their destination with 2 quick looks. With 4 sequences the user can logically access any one of 65536 items. The key is to properly label and topically iconize the folders/directories. For example, there should never be an Applications folder with more than 16 items as the apps can all easily be grouped into 16 categories. (graphics, internet, video, productivity, utilities, audio, household, business, etc.–in fact, I use exactly 16 such categories) If you open the user preferences folder there is a very long list of files with few subfolders. This is one of the confusing things to many users and it could easily be remedied in a default configuration by Apple. The exponential feature of a file system simply needs a bit of logical design and it would substantially increase user friendliness and professional workflow.