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On File Management (2)

Part two.


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Apple's file manager is Finder. Finder is an application that's met with consistent criticism on a level unmatched by that of any other Apple software. Things have been so bad that Apple's own recruiting ad for Finder called it 'notorious'. Finder's critics are basically in two groups: those who yearn for the days of yesteryear when everything was simpler; and those who understand that Finder can't possibly meet the requirements of a file manager on a modern computer system.

Rixstep received a number of curious inquiries back in 2002 from people who gawked at the complexity of ACP software and the OS X system in general. They seriously proposed, amongst other things, that both Rixstep and Apple strive to do as many things as possible in one and the same program and have but one 'folder' to put it all in. The sarcastic tag line of the Rixstep newsletter for months was 'One Program - And One Folder to Put It In', this from the famous line by Kevin Kline in the movie French Kiss.

'You prefer one cheese? And one hamburger to put it on? And one restaurant to eat it in?'

The retro group objected to many things in OS X back then and NeXT/Apple chief engineer Avie Tevanian met with a lot of criticism. Apple computers weren't supposed to be able to communicate with the rest of the world - they were better than the rest of the world! Who cares about the blasted Internet! And file managers - at least 'folders' - have to be 'spatial'!

Spatiality was an OK thing - at least for some users - back in the days of Apple's System 7 when essentially users could cope with a starting count of two folders and cautiously work their way up from there. It was nice that those folders always popped up in the same place, that one could arrange the icons any damn way one pleased, and that those settings stuck. Obviously, if one spent considerable time arranging things the way one liked, it was a time-consuming bother to have to do it all over again next time one began 'computing'.

Microsoft followed suit with their Windows 95, introducing what they called 'streams' in their Registry which held positional data for 'folders' that had been opened.

Those were the old days with two basic folders and not much more. Apple's operating systems were so simple they could almost be called 'innocent' and they certainly gave that impression to the user, something that probably sold a lot of people on the platform. And again: there's nothing wrong with simplicity. Every good course, every good educational process, begins with simplicity. And the most complex systems in the world ultimately attain to an amazing simplicity. As Unix co-creator Dennis Ritchie once quipped:

'Unix is basically a simple operating system but you have to be a genius to appreciate the simplicity.'

Spatiality doesn't work any more. It's not a defensible system design. But Apple nevertheless introduced a sort of 'Windows idea' in OS X 10.3 Panther - Finder could be flipped into different modes. In 'textured window' mode Finder acted like a file manager; in ordinary 'pin stripe' mode Finder displayed folders (and the folders 'stuck'). To this day, Finder still spits out the reviled .DS_Store ('directory services store') files which were supposed to be mostly gone over ten years ago. And these files (normally not seen as the name begins with a 'dot') contain display information for the current 'folder'.

Apple purchased the code to Cover Flow, first for their iTunes application, and later integrated into their 'file manager'. What's amazing about this development is that most Finder users don't want it. They either stick with the 'big icon' view or move into the NSBrowser view or use the almost robust NSOutlineView. But none of them will at the end of the day do the job.

Finder is the most popular file manager on the OS X desktop because it's glued there. And because it's already there, people will click on its dock icon and use it. And they'll try to cope. They can expend a lot more energy trying to cope than by using an alternative file manager, but there's an inertia involved that's difficult to overcome. And Finder's icon can't be kicked off the dock save with extraordinary hacking, and it's traditionally taken a bit of legerdemain to even disable it (and now more so with 10.6 where it's controlled by Apple's launchd).

But simplicity is a prison unless there's an obvious door to use. Apple's dock is a far cry from the OPENSTEP dock which immediately preceded it. The OPENSTEP dock had tabs. It was brilliant but admittedly a bit too much for first time users. Yet Apple's current dock has no secret switch to flip the user into an OPENSTEP mode. That functionality is simply gone. Users are allowed to advance in their skills but only up to a point. They meet a brick wall after that.

Functionality and speed and efficiency are important considerations but when the enforced simplicity undermines the best interests of the user, then things have gone over to the other side and become the antithesis of 'user friendly'. That's what's long ago happened with Apple's file manager. Truth be told, Apple's file manager has actually never been a real file manager.

  1. You can't fully control file permissions.
  2. You can't control extended file mode attributes at all.
  3. You can't even see system file types.
  4. You have one indirect access to only one file flag of twelve.
  5. You have no access to extended attributes.
  6. You have no access to access control entries.
  7. You have no ability to control file time stamps.
  8. You can't see components of a file size.
  9. You can't see the file's inode.
  10. You can't see the file's number of links.
  11. You can't see the file's device number.
  12. You can't control directory access through mode attributes.
  13. You can't see or control 'set ID' privilege escalation mechanisms.
  14. You can't control executable bits on files or directories.

See Also
Learning Curve: On File Management (1)

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