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'A program for those who like keyboards'

Where's Joe?

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MacNN had a piece on Friday about an app called 'Commander One' that gives pause for thought.

Not mentioned is that Commander One (C1) is written in Swift, Apple's answer to the Bill Gates wet dream known as Visual Basic, and a worthy successor to REALbasic. But it is. Stick around awhile anyway, OK?

In all fairness, C1 isn't a bad app - for what it is. At least if you don't think 31 megabloats is a bit too much for a file manager. And of course it would have been nice to provide a release version instead of a far bulkier and slower debug version, but hey - disk space's cheap, right?

And hard drives - to the extent you still don't have an SSD today - are pretty fast, aren't they? So loading those 732 files before seeing the app get on screen - that shouldn't take too long, should it?

732 items. 30,650,951 bytes. 62,184 blocks. 0 bytes in extended attributes.

Actually an MBP does think it's a bit much. C1 pins the needle at 63% CPU for over two minutes (143 seconds).

But C1's come a long way, baby, from that first Norton Commander (NC) by that guy who later went to work for Ballmer.

The question that always needs to be asked with these NC knockoffs is how the @#$% they expect people to see, overview, and grapple with the complexity of modern personal file systems. Commander knockoffs aren't designed to handle it.

You need tools to oversee your system, tools to get into every nook and cranny all those nasty bastards and assorted thoroughbred idiots somehow seem to get into. Going to a Genius Bar is too time-consuming and won't help anyway.

As opposed to the stillborn NC, C1 can add as many panes as you want. And that's cool. But almost all Cocoa apps can add as many windows as they want. Windows, as opposed to panes, can go anywhere you want. They're not limited to the confines of a parent window, as with that old IBM MDI ('multi-document interface') paradigm.

C1's tabs (panes) have identical functionality. If you want the freedom of windows as opposed to tabs, you have to reduce each C1 window to a single tab, then open the additional windows you want.

NC (and C1) are very incongruous. They're an early pre-Mac and pre-Windows idea that wasn't too good at the time and simply doesn't fit with today's reality. NC users trip over their own feet, but don't expect them to admit it. They like things the way they are. Or were.

'This is a program for those who like keyboards', wrote MacNN. That's being kind. Mac users have already used keyboards much more than users on other platforms. They more or less made the keyboard shortcut a hit.

The list of Norton Commander knockoffs is almost endless, all basically the same app, just like the Explorer knockoffs are all basically the same giveaway (and free) MSDN source code that's been available since time immemorial. The NC knockoffs all have the same two-pane layout. Two directories. No file system overview.

Norton Commander (NC) predates window systems. A bit of pointing device logic perhaps, but none of those rectangles floating around on screen running their own processes (or almost running them). Hard drives didn't offer much back then. Zilog and Intel computers didn't have much more than A: and B: (the same physical device) and many didn't even have a C: (a real hard drive).

NC was a graphical PIP, no more.

NC knockoffs don't really have that much more to do with keyboards than other apps. Microsoft's Winfile was totally heavy on keyboards if you wanted it and knew how to use it right, and it did some fantastic stuff that no one's attempted to emulate, even today.

So what's the basic tenet of Norton Commander? Simple. You start with Peter Norton himself of course - that dude who always appeared on the cover of books in his white short-sleeved shirt with arms folded, telling you that 'yeah I got the situation under control' when actually most hackers knew as much or more but just didn't have his promotional connections. With a 'commander' app, you get two parallel directory listings: one on the left, and one on the right. Perhaps you're lucky and can move them to top and bottom instead. Wahoo. The panes are in the same window. You can't get a window with only one listing. And originally you couldn't get more than one window (full screen view) at all.

You can change the paths in the panes. So that you're listing different directories. No problem. All you gotta do is navigate. You probably get help from the Cocoa system in that regard - those 'Save As' and 'Open' dialogs which offer true hierarchy. After that you're back to your Neanderthal cave.

Or you can just double-click. Double-click on directories to drill down, and on '..' to drill back up again. Have fun.

Onto actual file management. Renaming and removing files (decrementing link counts) can be straightforward, but copying or moving files gets iffy. Mind you, back in the day when there was no real GUI, this could be mildly interesting. But you're not back there again, are you? No.

You can use your keyboard, or you can use your pointing device, to copy and move files that is, but here's the catch aka the practical joke: you can only copy and move them between the two directories you have on screen.

If you want to copy/move your files to a different destination, you gotta first change the path in one of your panels so you get there. THEN you can start your file op.

There's a reason technology passed the NC cult behind long ago. CP/M (Zilog Z80) and Apple DOS weren't the file systems of real operating systems. Rather likely that the NC people never browsed a VTOC. Even with MS-DOS 2.11, which gave Microsofties a hierarchical file system, things were all shipped in root (but smart users immediately moved most of the files to a directory they created themselves, augmenting $PATH accordingly).

Apple tried to emulate Alan Kay with MFS, but that was a disaster, and so HFS came along. IBM had a PC file system called HFS too. They were all hierarchical. And for a very good reason. You gotta be able to find things.

This is the kind of thing they confronted at Murray Hill. The PhDs more or less took the hierarchical file system mainstream. (Then Gates bought a licence, twisted a few punctuation symbols around, and gave PC users one as well.)

That is EONS ago. Like centuries. Part of the last millennium. IBM's been using their own hopped-up AIX ever since (on top of their old systems but still the same). You wanna talk hierarchy? Take a swim on an AIX.

The HFS+ system this piece is being written on has 2,519 directories. And that's just the local user area ('~'). There are over 100,000 directories on the overall system. How's an NC user supposed to navigate, see what's there, know where to go?

All of which is reminiscent of the time a few programmers shared office space with a word processor freak who was also a Mac freak who continually complained about Apple manufacturing standards. The coders conjured up the latest version of MS Word, an app not held in especially high regard, and loaded every last toolbar they could find.

There were toolbars at the top, at the bottom, on the left, and on the right. And there in the middle was the text area, about twenty characters wide, about three text lines high. That was where you were supposed to do your work. They called the freak over and asked him what he thought. The freak wrinkled his nose and finally said:

'Actually that's not too shabby, if you know what you're doing.'

C1 has features. They ooze off the menus. But at the end of the day, it's not about features or their number, but about getting the job done. It's often much more difficult to design and create a simpler app that helps you do that. As the wise men say:

'There is elegance in simplicity.'

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
 - Paul Simon

See Also
Xfile: Free Test Drive
CLIX: Learn How to Fish

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