File-Management and the iPad

January 29, 2010 Why the Popularity of iPhone OS Troubles Me

Speculative Fantasies: it fascinates me that almost everyone, whatever their level of experience with computing, has passionate opinions about the future of technology. Take the iPad, for example: few technologies provoke as much passionate conjuncture and widespread reactions as new Apple products, and the iPad is no exception. So far, 173 articles reacting to the iPad have come into my Google Reader account over the last two days written by everyone from iPhone experts to apple enthusiasts to architectural theorists to economist bloggers. 1 though whether Cube-provocative or iPhone-provocative remains to be seen.Clearly, the iPad is provocative.[1]

I think part of the reason reactions are so passionate is because the iPad is another step by Apple towards cementing the Finder-less, App Store approach as the company’s direction of choice for mobile consumer devices, and because this direction is a break from the history of how we understand our control over our digital assets. The iPad is not a “computer”, it is a “revolutionary mobile device”; for Apple there are no longer “computers”, “PDAs”, “music players”, and “phones”, just a mutable range of “devices”, each with different strengths and different market segments.[2] 2 Steve Jobs has long shown an interest in diagramming the market for personal computers, like the grid of budget / power machines from the early 2000′s. I suspect today’s diagram would be a long line, stretching from PowerMac to iPod Shuffle.

Grid of Current Apple Products
Lineup of Apple Hardware Platforms as of 2/2010, in rough order of capability

Correspondingly, these 173 pieces on the iPad should not be dismissed as reactionary backlash to pre-launch hype, for the iPad holds a special place in the history of our collective speculative fantasies of computing, and the specificity of its unveiling inevitably displaces many of these fantasies. Without a speculative Apple tablet to ground our hypothesizing, we are playing at science fiction, not industry soothsaying.

Indeed, the iPad is disappointing to many people because so much of the soothsaying predicted a new kind of computer, not just a new mobile device. The mythic tablet, it was intuitively hoped, would be where Apple finally delivered the next-generation personal-computer experience, one powered by the intimacy of multi-touch, the competency of the cloud, the elegance of metadata-enabled file-management, and the beauty of Apple design. The longer the existence of the tablet was withheld, the more such hopes grew, and when tablet was revealed Wednesday to be merely a rock-solid consumption device heavily focused on the intimacy of multi-touch (at the expense of the file-management and the dilution of its openness to the cloud), people couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Revolutionizing how we consume content is fundamental to the success of media worldwide, but what about revolutionizing the way users manage and collect said content in the first place?

After all, without file-management, we are dependent on third-party content delivery. Without file-management we are locked into DRM, to format re-buys, to regional lock-outs and prescribed channels of access. Our control over our files is our power over the content we have bought and created.[3] 3 Imagine something like Napster happening on the iPad. I’m all for beautiful experiences, but not at the expense of fundamental abilities, abilities that are essential to realizing the potentials of digital information in revolutionizing fundamental structures of society.

Of course, ultimately the iPad isn’t apocalyptic, it’s wonderful. The iPad is only one in a whole line of Apple products, and the Mac OS only one in a world of many capable operating systems. Yet had the iPad come with a new kind of file-management application, it would revolutionize how users control their content, not just how they consume it.

File-Management = User Control

The iPad (and iPod and iPhone) is different than a traditional PC. From what I can tell, it has no hierarchical file-management interface. It has no central file-management interface at all. File-management, when it does happens, occurs off-device via iTunes and another central machine, which is set to synch automatically. If you want to add a document to the iPad’s hard-drive, that document must be in a format that iTunes supports.[4] 4 Here again, iTunes and its spin-offs the App Store and iTunes store are probably the single most important piece of non-OS, user-facing software for Apple’s bottom-line. This is not accidental: I suspect, just empirically, that the Finder is the single most confusing aspect of the Mac OS, and that file-management and traversing is one of the hardest thing for many users to successfully perform on any platform. Any device that aims for usability above all else needs to confront the difficulty of managing files. The problem is that Apple has done this by hiding file-management in the OS and its default applications, not by empowering users.

This move away from file-management began in 2001 with the iPod. Instead of synching files to the iPod using the Finder – the Mac OS’s file-management interface – Apple designed the iPod to synch using iTunes, their file-type specific media application. Even if users wanted to access their iPod in the Finder, Apple hid the iPod’s media files in an invisible, arcanely-structured hierarchy of folders, and so the iPod is a one-way street: users can move files onto the iPod, but not back off without third-party software. On the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, the absence of file-management itself is a measure to protect copyright at the expense of user control, an act of DRM.

This kind of DRM is troubling. Apple has always been great about letting users manage personal photos, videos, contacts, etc. throughout their application ecosystems. But what about images, videos, and content discovered on the internet or sent through email? On devices like the iPhone or iPad, devices without a central file-management interface, collecting and managing such media can only be done by mixing personal media with found media. This gets very ugly very fast.

Mobile Device ≠ Mobile Computer

It is clear that hard drives running the iPhone OS are not meant to function like traditional hard drives, and so devices like the iPad cannot replicate the functionality of the personal computer. Yet they will probably replace computers for many users. Apple is revolutionizing usability, security, and simplicity for their customers at the expense of openness, flexibility, and user control, and it scares me.

So I ask: how can we redesign file-management interfaces for simplicity and usability while still retaining the openness of a traditional OS?

This is precisely what many enthusiasts want: a new personal computer, one in which file-management is not a chore that is ultimately corrupted by the detritus of myriad third-party installers. We’ve had Mac OS X for approaching a decade. Its interface improves every year-and-a-half, but so far these changes are not revolutionary.[5] 5 Spotlight is revolutionary on the back-end, but the Mac OS already had a similarly-comprehensive search application. Indeed, Apple’s revolutionary icon – the figure of Steve Jobs – has been distanced from Mac OS X, as Jobs has let other Apple executives make announcements about the platform to developers at the WWDC instead of at consumer-facing media events.

I am excited about the iPad. As someone who enjoys reading, browsing the internet, listening to music, and beautiful interfaces, the opportunity to experience these things simultaneously within an Apple-designed, sizable multi-touch device is very exciting. And as a designer, the opportunity to develop applications that users will experience in their laps and interact with directly using their fingers is nothing short of exhilarating. I’ll definitely be buying an iPad, and ultimately my decision to buy will vindicate Apple’s design decisions. But I still hope that Apple plans on revolutionizing the Finder itself. If Apple can’t, we must pin our hopes on Google’s Chrome OS. But Google doesn’t really do beautiful. They do functional. And of course there’s a certain beauty to functionality, but it’s not the same.

In the meantime, I am working hard to finish up my proposal for a new file-management interface based around the power of metadata and the unbeatable descriptive accuracy of the keyboard. Look for it soon.