Files and folders: apps vs documents

The other day I had a conversation with a friend who pointed out that one of the reasons he purchased a Microsoft Surface Pro tablet as opposed to an iPad Pro was the fact that Windows 10 has proper file management mechanisms whereas the iPad does not. I am not going to debate a personal preference here, but I do want to discuss the concept of “work context.”

What constitutes “work context” in GUI metaphors has been the subject of debate in the software industry for ages. In the 1990s IBM OS/2 introduced a concept of object-oriented desktop metaphor that focused on documents, rather than applications that operate on the documents:

New documents can be created using the programs which create them, but it’s often easier to drag a template to the location you wish to create the new object. It acts just as a pack of yellow stickies – you can just keep pulling off a copy of the template. You will often use templates to create new folders and text files. You can also create your own templates from new or modified files, just by setting an option in the object’s properties.

The way OS/2 desktop metaphor worked was that the user started with a document, rather than with the application. The desktop was the context. If you wanted to write a document or a spreadsheet you first created a document from a template on your desktop and then double clicked on it to open the application. In other words, you didn’t start work by opening an application. Instead, you initiated work by opening a document. Applications designed for this metaphor actually flowed better and were more intuitive.

At the time, Microsoft Windows and Apple System 8 and System 9 focused on applications as a context of work, although both supported hierarchical folder structures. In these operating systems you started work by opening an application, and from within that application you operated on and managed both files and hierarchical folders.

The object-oriented GUI metaphor of OS/2 has not survived. People tend to think of applications as their context. In modern operating systems like Windows 10 and OS X most people initiate work by opening an app first, rather than by finding and double clicking on the file. That is despite the fact that both support hierarchical file systems.

Apple has hidden the file management deep in the iOS. Just like in Windows and OS X, you start work by opening an app first and then from within the app you manage your files and folders. The concept of the file system is more nebulous, because the file system could be some cloud storage such as Dropbox, iCloud or One Drive.

When I open Word or Excel from Office 365 on my iPad, I have an opportunity to manage their respective files in my OneDrive. The same applies to Apple’s suite of apps, as well as Google. The ByWord app I use to write this article works with Dropbox in much the same way.

Judging by the popularity of the iOS devices, the concept of an app as “work context” seems intuitive to most people. There will always be diehards who need a native file system for one reason or another. In many ways I am one of them and I too long for days where I could control where my files live. Yet, the iOS way managing storage is not entirely foreign or unacceptable – and it works.

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