Monday, June 1, 2009

Lisa's folder and your folder, part two

Folders by Phil (Flawka) used under a Creative Commons License

In my previous post, I looked at the revolutionary introduction of the folder concept to computer user interfaces in 1983, noting that the concept has pretty much remained unchanged over the past quarter century. To illustrate this, it's helpful to compare the standard computer folder with a real folder that you and I might use in the physical world.

There are certainly some similarities between virtual and physical folders. You can use both types of folders to store documents, and you can even use them to store other folders.

But there are some differences. The one advantage of a virtual folder is that if you drop it and turn it upside down, the contents of the folder aren't scattered all over the place. Unfortunately, the reason for this "advantage" is simple - you can't drop a folder like you would in real life. Oh, you can "drag and drop" a folder, but it's not really the same.

For one thing, your interaction with a virtual folder is two-dimensional, if not one-dimensional. In most cases, you grab a folder by putting an oval object in your hand, sliding it around on a two-dimensional surface, and moving your finger in a special way to "select" the folder. Now I'm not minimizing the importance of the mouse in computer user interface history, but when I have to dive into files in my filing cabinet, I'm not restricted to two-dimensional space or doing weird things with my finger.

But what of a touchscreen? you may ask. Frankly, it's not much better. If you have a touchscreen, then you don't have to put the oval object in your hand, but you still have to place your finger on a two-dimensional surface, perhaps tapping your finger or performing some other action to "select" the folder.

I don't know about you, but I don't deal with my file cabinet that way. I open the file cabinet and just grab the folder I want. I may grab it with my left hand, or I may grab it with my right hand. If it's big, I may grab it with both hands. Or maybe I might grab it with two fingers, or if I'm feeling particularly creative, I may grab it with my mouth, or take my shoes off and grab it with my feet.

I could spend hours describing all the limitations of virtual folders, but let me cite another example. Let's say I've selected/grabbed the folder, opened it, and am ready to look at the contents. If I'm using a virtual folder, I may get presented with a screen like this:

In my example here, I can sort the contents of the folder (in this case, other folders) by name, date modified, type, or tags. (If there's a way to sort folders by size in Windows Vista, I don't know it.) Now certainly the smarter people among you can argue that you can customize your operating system to include other sort parameters, but even if you do so, you are limited to a finite number of sort methods that can be represented in computer language.

Now in the real world (and perhaps in some intelligent user interface that I don't know about), you can sort the contents of a folder by any criteria that you can make up in your head. Perhaps I want to sort by the Dewey Decimal System, which means that I'd put the Bible studies in the 200s. And yes, I know that Windows Vista could allow me to do this by putting the appropriate tags on the folders, but that's just it - I have to tell the computer something, then I have to do the sort. Why not do it all in one step, without having to bother with all this "typing stuff into the computer" insanity?

And that illustrates the entire problem. To get a computer to do something, you have to describe the action in a logical way that the computer can understand.

There's got to be a better way.
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