Do Mac and iPhone users really need a file system?

“Many Mac power users and developers are concerned about the iOS-ification of the Mac OS and how much more of that process will be found in sessions at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) next week in San Francisco. A recent developer blog post recalls talks by Steve Jobs from a 6 years ago, where he speculated on whether computer users really needed to interact with a file system. But to me, it also recalls a mostly forgotten Apple OS from around 20 years ago,” David Morgenstern writes for ZDNet. “In his blog, iOS developer Ole Begemann, tells of watching a 2005 video of Jobs speaking at the D: All Things Digital conference.”

In every user interface study we’ve ever done […], [we found] it’s pretty easy to learn how to use these things ‘til you hit the file system and then the learning curve goes vertical. So you ask yourself, why is the file system the face of the OS? Wouldn’t it be better if there was a better way to find stuff?

Now, e-mail, there’s always been a better way to find stuff. You don’t keep your e-mail on your file system, right? The app manages it. And that was the breakthrough, as an example, in iTunes. You don’t keep your music in the file system, that would be crazy. You keep it in this app that knows about music and knows how to find things in lots of different ways. Same with photos: we’ve got an app that knows all about photos. And these apps manage their own file storage. […]

And eventually, the file system management is just gonna be an app for pros and consumers aren’t gonna need to use it. – Apple CEO Steve Jobs, 2005

“Begemann said this sounds in many ways like iOS and its relation to users and data,” Morgenstern writes. “However, to my ears, it also sounds like the object-soup file approach that Apple used in the Newton OS, which was first released with the Newton MessagePad in 1993, almost 20 years ago.”

Much more in the full article here.


  1. Macs have always had multiple ways to do things. The OS always has its file system.

    Only question is what the casual user sees. If he uses email and pictures & movies , then iPhoto or Aperture becomes his file system, much like Mail is his email file system.

    For those who have to maintain safe email archives, then you have to move beyond Mail. That means copies of emails somehow. MailSteward does a great archiving job for me and in effect becomes a file system for archived email.

    With over 200,000 files on my laptop, I can’t imagine trying to organize the information without a file & folder hierarchy. I use PathFinder to great advantage in finding, dupe, move, versions and aliasing files. Just no way around it.

  2. What drives me crazy sometime is there is no file system on iOS. Some sites, I need to upload files for work, so the iPhone is worthless. I can’t saves a file from dropbox and upload it somewhere else.

  3. User Interface designers have been talking about this for years. Then the iPhone was released – suddenly all these ideas UI people have talked about in near utopian terms were actually realized with near perfect execution.

    There are still issues in sharing files between Apps and synchronizing files between devices, which Apple is making steady progress in improving.

    Under the hood, the file system is actually still there, and you can tinker away at it after Jail-breaking. I don’t see any problem with this. It’s great to have the file system there for tinkering. What’s important is that the device is always useful and functional without ever needing to use the file system directly.

  4. Us OCD people need to put our stuff where WE think it should go. We live to organize — everything! This is my single, absolute, one and only dislike of iOS. I just cannot seem to bend filing to MY will.

  5. For your basic 17-year-old girl texting her boyfriend while driving her Honda and listening to music, having iTunes manage your music works fine; the types of files being managed are quite distinct (movies, music, email) and life is so very simple. But…

    Here’s why users of full-tilt computers need direct manipulative access to the file system: Because grownups create and manage full-tilt projects on full-tilt computers.

    Full-tilt computers are used for complex projects where there might be Word docs and CAD images and Keynote presentations and Photoshop images and lists of components and… whatever. All these disparate files, which are so highly varied it is hard to remember the possible file types and the programs used to create them, share a single, common connection: they are associated with a particular month-long project.

    Until the next Steve Jobs comes along who stumbles into a Xerox PARC inhabited by people with I.Q.s 30 point greater dreamed up a game changer, the best known way to organize files on full-tilt computers is a file system featured nested folders and aliases so the user can logically organize files that share common themes.

    1. Exactly right, its not really a teenage world even though they would like us to think they are the font of all knowledge about how things should be done.

      They graduate high school, and then go on to the worlds most expensive dating service, college.

      THEN they have to go out and see how the world actually works when you actually build something. It generally takes 10-20 years for them to recover from the educational (more correctly, school) environment. Likely not the same thing.

      Education usually becomes real and functional after you get out of school. I have two BS degrees, but the one that has any value at all is my Doctorate in The School of Hard Knocks and Life Experience.

  6. Until they come with a better solution, then YES, we NEED a file system.

    Example of a lacking feature on iOS: If I need to upload a picture / document / file to a web site, I cannot do it from my iPad or iPhone, since there’s no “browse” option through files within the apps.

    Let’s not talk about programming. We all use them. Only a fw of use build them. And we use Macs to do it. No file system, no programming. At least, again, until they create somethng better.

  7. The thing is that with email it makes sense because realistically, even forgetting the fact that it’s available via the internet, in reality pretty much everyone is going to use one app for email and that’s it. Same goes for iTunes. It may have problems, but it’s a logical jump that a decent media manager could replace a finder/explorer like file manager. The same could be said for images, but for other files there are many instances where you need a file manager because you’re going to use those files in a variety of ways, within a variety of apps and processes. I have loads of text files, but I would in no way want them accessible in just one place in some sort of list. I would want to be able to categorise them and even ignore them entirely in some apps. I don’t think there is yet a decent enough solution to resolve the simple file/folder management structure.

    Try using a simple text file in more than one app in iOS, opening it one, editing it, then wanting to use it in another, it’s a pain. I have no problem in moving away from the traditional file system way of managing things, but I’ve not seen anything that would be better across the board.

  8. I am already preparing for this, so I am looking forward to it. I am a pro/power user, but filing stuff and finding it again and keeping up my various filing systems is just something I can do without.

    I am very detail-oriented, analytical, Mac savvy and organized; but I have around 4 or 5 TB of harddrives accessible at home (besides iCloud and Dropbox) and I don’t know what all is there anymore. All kinds of media, developer files and extensions, data, program files, fonts, bookmarks, snippets, etc.

    I’m just tired of it all. I would much rather spend my time organizing my clients’ content and media on their websites and networks as I do a lot of content strategy and management.

    So, to help prepare for this future, I have been using the app Yep!, billed as “iPhoto for your files”. It tags them, files them, rates them, shows different views and collections, all the things spotlight can do and more in a friendly interface. I can just drag a file to the edge of the screen to tag and file it.

  9. iOS has a file system too, it just doesn’t allow users to manually view/manipulate them.

    if the Mac OS denied us the ability to create/save/edit/manage/share files outside of application corrals, then we would likely divorce ourselves from future Mac use. There is simply too much file manipulation we do on multiple applications or using the Finder or Finder enhancements to allow such a stupid paradigm for computing. iOS is not designed for professional-level work, and it never will be. If you attempt to merge iOS and Mac OS, you will get something that resembles MS Windows 8, which is hideous and turns off both professionals and the new core market target, dumbass consumers.

  10. I’m not stupid. The OS File system is very easy to understand, to use, and to explain in a way that makes it easy for others to understand as well.

    On the desktop, the lack of a “Save As” option in iWorks apps makes it HARDER for me to keep tabs on documents I create. And no, “Save A Version” is not the same thing. Without the ability to name the copy something useful that would differentiate it from it’s “previous version” cousins, I’m stuck reading the entire document to see what the differences are…. a waste of time.

    With the exception of email, I never create content on my iPhone, so don’t see the need for a file system there.

  11. iOS has a file system. It is not exposed to the user. File systems matter. Interaction with them and how easy it is to interact with them is the real issue. There is nothing intrinsically difficult in file management except fools who make you think it’s difficult to master.

  12. iOS needs a file system !! It drives me nuts on my iPad that I cant save a document into a common file area that all other apps can access. Is it really that difficult ? You don’t need to expose the WHOLE file system but FCOL a “user documents” folder and sub folders wouldn’t hurt, it would go a long way !

    Its idiotic.. I sync a video to VLC, and want to play it in CineXplayer, I have to sync another copy into CineXplayer. Totally lame.
    “Open In” is just a 1/2 ass excuse to get around this need,.

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