OS X Mavericks – File Tagging
Two years ago, after twenty years of PCs, I became a Mac user. One of the big reasons, in addition to the stability and reliability of OS X and its software and the Mac hardware, was the integrated way Apple products simply work with one another. I’d already had a 1st gen iPad from launch, so upgrading to a Macbook and soon after an Apple TV was a no-brainer – and they all worked together, seamlessly. Awesome.
The iCloud, however, not so much. Sure, it was a cool idea – all my Apple devices sharing a common online storage area – but the implementation didn’t meet my needs. It was basically flat – no nested file system which I, and indeed the whole world, had got used to over decades. It felt like a completely separate storage space, a massive undifferentiated digital bin-liner, sharing no paradigm with the file system I used on the Macbook, and indeed which other cloud services like Dropbox used so well. The iPad’s flat (and siloed) file system was a pain in the neck to use, so the idea of porting that to my main work machine was… ugh. Just, no.
So the iCloud languished. The one thing it was good for was seamlessly sharing a file between the iPad and the Macbook – say, working on a Pages document on the Macbook, saving it to iCloud, then opening it up when travelling to work on it on the iPad. Ideal. But, even there, there were problems: Pages on the iPad, for some bizarre reason, only had a subset of fonts, so you couldn’t trust the iPad not to screw up formatting if you didn’t use its limited font set for your document, even on the Macbook. And, second, the flat file system again; that massive bin-liner of documents in the iCloud meant sorting through documents was a pain, the moment you had, say, more than a couple of dozen.
All this is why, having updated to OS X Mavericks today, I’m very interested to see “file tagging” introduced to the Mac file system. What’s file tagging? Well, exactly what it says on the tin: you can save a document from any application with one or more textual “tags”, irrespective of where it lives. You can even go into the Finder and change and add tags to a document without opening it. Then, in Finder, you can click on a tag as though it was a folder, and see all documents tagged with it. So it’s basically like iMap folders or Gmail labels, only for documents on your file system.
This is interesting for one big reason. When Apple introduced the iCloud, I remember the announcement that they were “trying to move away” from the traditional file system paradigm of multiple nested folders. Obviously the old folder paradigm begins to crumble pretty quickly when you start sharing documents between machines, and particularly when you share them between people. If you’re working on a document on your iPhone, iPad, and laptop, you want it to just “be there” – you don’t want to have to be remembering where you put it. Likewise if you share that document with someone else – version control means things get snafu’d pretty quickly.
File tags seem to be a huge step towards that new paradigm. They offer an alternative to the traditional file system which is device agnostic, and which allows devices to easily address / use the same file. Very importantly, they allow for “virtual folders” to be shared between the file system and the iCloud (I think – I haven’t tested this yet), which if true will overcome a big limitation of iCloud so far. I’m looking forwards to playing around with it.
Will the replacement paradigm actually work? Well, there are a lot of questions, even with file tagging right now. What’s the theory when you share a document with someone? Do the tags get saved with the document and passed on to someone else? I’m not sure. iCloud seems more structured towards a single user’s shared file system across multiple devices, rather than the single file system, multiple users approach of, say, Dropbox. But there’s a redundancy there. Surely iCloud’s going to have to be multi-user too?
So, for the time being, I’ll be playing with file tagging, but not using it in anger. There are still a lot of unknowns – we’ve all got wedded to the nested folder file system over the past 30 years or so and Dropbox seems to be a good compromise between shareability and intuitive multi-device access. But I appreciate what Apple are trying to do, here – to take away the administrative overhead of managing a multi-level nested file system of zillions of files, in favour of a looser, more work-based approach. It’s a scary thought, letting go of the rigid structure of nested folders, but the ease-of-use of a set of devices which intelligently remember what you’re doing is surely the way ahead.