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I Thought I Could Organise Folders; How Scandinavian of Me

August 6, 2011

Typing this while I’m at work. Weekends are slo-o-o-w.  This is fine by me but it does get boring after a while. There’s only so many Cracked lists you can read and flash games you can play before your brain wants to run away from you.

During a lunch break the other day I was ranting to some poor co-worker about how the way we’re saving files on computers is horribly old-fashioned. This is something I’ve been thinking about for like ten years or so and it’s not by any means a novel idea.

My beef is with the directory/folder paradigm of saving files. The reason for this is that whenever I try to organise files I have a hard time assign categories to stuff. Or rather, to assign a single category to stuff. Some things seem to fit equally well in two different folders, but you can’t put them in two folders at once.

Well, actually you sort of can via shortcuts or symbolic links and such but it’s not exactly quick and easy to do (especially the links).

So way back I had the not-very-revolutionary idea of having “dynamic folders” that would for example show all files on the drive having a certain extension. From that idea it’s not a huge leap to start tagging files and just searching by those instead. It’s a popular idea; Google Mail makes little real difference between tags and folders, for instance, and Windows has had support for freeform tagging of files since like Windows 2000 I think. (Not until recently that it was easily accessible, though).

Still, it’s clunky as holy hell.

Here’s what I would want:

Whenever you save a file, it would automatically be assigned a certain set of tags, depending on file/MIME type and maybe other criteria as well. So a JPEG file would get tags like “image” and “JPEG”. In addition to these automatic assignments you would be allowed to enter/select your own tags in the save dialog.

Then you would have these “dynamic folders” which would aggregate all files matching certain criteria. So you could make a folder called “Pictures” that would show all files on the computer that have one of the tags “image” or “picture” or “photo” or whatever.

This sounds like a retardedly roundabout way of doing what we’re already doing until you tag some images “vacation” or something. Then you could have a “Vacation” folder which would show all files with that particular tag. The images tagged “vacation” would then show up there, as would other things with the same tag; maybe a text file with the name and number of the hotel you will be staying at, maybe all the emails you sent and received while planning it. And so on.

The key thing here would be that these files could (and almost certainly would)  appear in several folders at once, without the user having to do anything other than tagging stuff and setting up dynamic folders. That would be the whole point really; to be able to sort things into several categories at the same time – that vacation image would still show up in the image folder and the text file in the text folder, but the files would only exist as single data streams on the physical disk.

Since I like generic things, I further imagine you would not be bound by tags when setting up folder filters, but have all of the files’ metadata to work with. I suspect this would meld somewhat with searching, in that you would perhaps search for files using all manner of criteria like attributes, file size ranges, creation time and so on. Then you would have the option of creating a dynamic folder using that particular search filter.

Add to this some sort of content awareness in the OS itself and you would really get cooking. Things like ID3 tags of MP3s and dimensions and EXIF data of JPEGs being handled natively would open up all kinds of interesting possibilities (stop me if I sound like a Powerpoint presentation).

Let’s say you want to have a folder showing all images larger than 1024×768 pixels and whose EXIF data showed exposure time of more than .5 seconds, then you could do that by a search, then click a button – et voilà, you now have such a folder. Or perhaps you want to list all files larger than a gigabyte; search, click, pow!

There are some applications for tagging files but those I’ve tried are cumbersome and clunky. I want something integrated into the OS, something easy to use. Otherwise, the only tags files would get would be those applied by the OS itself.

This recent pondering about the virtues of file-tagging came about when someone at that same lunch break mentioned how some people less knowledgeable about computers sometimes “tidied up” in system folders, to disastrous results. It got me thinking that the regular, “normal” folder structure should be hidden from the average user. That in turn got me thinking that “being in a folder” would perhaps simply mean having a specific tag denoting the folder structure, meaning that there would be no “real” folders at all.

But then again, having a “normal” folder structure could be beneficial for that very purpose of putting up an extra layer of insulation between user and system. So that when they moved system files around, they would only move them in terms of tag assignment, which would mean that the OS could operate on the lower level of regular folder structure, like we all do now.

But then yet again, that could be accomplished via file permissions anyways.

Still, I do very much want tag-based storage to become the norm.

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