The End of Files – the biggest revolution in computer usability since the GUI?

I’m making a call to predict the end of files as we know them.

My relationship with computer files is on the rocks. They’re ugly. They’re messy. They multiply like rabbits. And I can never remember where I ‘file’ the bloody things.When the modern graphical user interface (GUI) was developed at Xerox PARC in the 70′s, it heralded a new era of usable computing. Gone was the command-line interface — and in was a beautiful ‘desktop’. Files, folders, icons. It was an environment we could all relate to and instinctively use, making computers accessible to ‘the rest of us’.

But in the 30-40 years since, nothing much has changed. Sure, operating systems have advanced. But we still have files. We still have folders. We still have desktops. It’s like the car developing without the engine. Can you imagine, a Lambourghini Murcielago pulled by a horse?

My problem isn’t with files themselves. Of course they’re needed. The problem is that we still need the user to manage those file relationships and structures at a conscious level.

It’s a problem of volume

Basically, it’s a problem of volume.

  1. More people are using computers for more things. They aren’t just for work anymore.We do everything on them from ordering groceries to listening to music. Our lives are on there.
  2. Software is becoming more specialised, thus increasing the number of software applications we’re likely to utilize. Gone are the days we had three or four major applications. Now we have 50 plus.
  3. We also have more devices, more places for storing files (locally, cloud etc), and more file types to contend with.

This has lead to an explosion (in a big way) of ‘files’ clogging up our desktops like hair in the pipes of Chewbacca’s shower. It’s no wonder the desktop computer is losing popularity amongst general consumers. The explosion of files is becoming a significant hindrance to the desktop experience and its usability.

What smart-phones are getting right

One part of the potential solution may lie in an ‘app-centric’ operating system (OS), instead of the current ‘file-centric’(OS). In an app-centric OS, the file/folder management is a background (system/app level) process, similar to what you find on current smart phones and tablets.

Consider the iPhone App RunKeeper (one of my favorites, although WalkKeeper would be a more apt name for my use case). To access the last ‘run’ I completed, I don’t have to wade through the files on my iPhone to find it. I simply open the app, and the relevant files are accessed and presented to me in a meaningful way within the app interface.

Some desktop applications are partially doing it

Spotify is an eample of a desktop application that uses the app-centric approach to file management. While files are still saved to your desktop, the task of accessing, storing, and managing these files is all handled in-app. As a user, you never need to see or touch a physical ‘file’ (unless you really want to).

I believe that’s the way of the future.

Forget file synching, cloud storage, file sharing, DropBox and all that. I mean I love DropBox, but I’d prefer not to need it at all. I don’t want to manage files. I have better things to do, like watch http://youtu.be/h14wr4pXZFk .

The challenge for Apple (and whoever else makes computers)

Unfortunately however, it’s not as easy as simply copying the smartphone approach in a desktop OS. With desktops, there is a mountain of incumbent software that would need to be re-written, and seriously more complex app/file relationships to manage. Not to mention consumer expectations of what a ‘desktop’ computer is. Would you pay $2500 for a computer that looked like a giant iPhone?

Creating such an OS would require a huge committment. You’d need to convince incumbent developers like Adobe and Microsoft to engage in expensive software re-writes. And you’d cop a helluva lot of criticism in the market. It would be a hard hard slog. Impossible even.

A true Lion Decision.

The opportunity

What makes this such a challenge, is also what makes it a huge opportunity. Imagine, reinventing the desktop computer to make it relevant again?

But it’s not just that that excites me. It’s the fact that incumbents like Apple on the hardware side, or Microsoft on the software side are simply too big, and too market sensitive to make a ballsy call like this, especially without a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates at the helm.

What does this mean? It means this could just be the fertile ground that will enable the NEXT Apple or Microsft to germinate, grow, and be the giant tech brands of the future.

It will happen

I believe it will eventually happen. And in my humble opinion it will not only herald the single biggest improvement in computer usability and use-efficiency since the adoption of the GUI in 1984, but it will see the rise of the “next Apple”.

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