2013-02-10

Next from Apple: better information management?

At the moment, all desktop operating systems and all mobile operating systems are remarkably similar. Is there anything genuinely new that could be done in this space? Information management is an area that is still neglected – especially by Apple. But signs indicate that that might change.

Where we are

The most prevalent way of managing information is still via hierarchical file systems. But file systems are not good at this task:
  • People want to pile, not file. If archiving information can’t be done easily on a computer, people resort to other means such as post-it notes. People want to “pile”, to quickly put information away, whereas a file system forces them to “file” – they have to decide on a file name and on a folder in which to put the file.
  • Hierarchies don’t cut it. What makes filing so annoying on hierarchical file systems is that no single hierarchy works for all use cases. For example, you might want to store your pictures in the folder photos/2012/paris. But what if you want to get all pictures of Paris? Or all data that you created in 2012? Tags are a much better solution. They have the added benefit of being easier to decide on: You don’t have to browse an existing hierarchy, you can simply jot down a few words that you associate with the file. Put differently: folders make much more sense if a file can be in multiple folders at the same time. But that is basically what tags are: non-exclusive folders.
  • Content segregation is bad. On OS X, not all data is stored in the file system, much of it lives in databases stored in the file system. For example: songs in iTunes and photos in iPhoto. Having to transfer data between those databases and the file system is not very user friendly. The situation is worse on the iOS, where each app is its own data silo and it’s impossible to group data from different apps. No wonder that Dropbox is so popular on iOS. But even on desktop systems, there is no simple way of keeping the following data all in one place: “For project X, I need this email, that bookmark, that tweet, that geo-location and that calendar event.”
I’m surprised that solutions to these problems aren’t further established by now. There have certainly been enough ideas (e.g. Microsoft’s Longhorn).

Where Apple might be going

Remember that Apple now patents everything it does (after bad experiences with the iPod and Creative Technology). Thus, it is interesting that they recently bought a group of 18 user interface patents from the Canadian firm Maya-Systems. Their main product is called “IamOrganized” and has the following features, among others. Quoting the website:
  • Axes-Based Interface: IamOrganized’s uniquely distinctive, patented feature is its axes-based interface. Intuitive and elegant, axes herald a new era in content management. They show and manage content more meaningfully than ever.

    Unlike folder trees based on file location, axes group files by subject (any attribute, really) and display them along a timeline.

    Scroll an axis to view more files. Zoom in. Zoom out. Navigate swiftly between projects by displaying several axes on your screen.

    Attribute-based, orderly and relational, axes give users a meaningful and integrated view of their files.

  • Advanced Content Tagging: IamOrganized redefines content classification by enabling virtually infinite tagging options: subject, project, place, person or purpose, any attribute can become a tag used to define and retrieve files.
  • Other features: a sharing platform (think Dropbox, iCloud), and custom reports (reminiscent of Lifestreams [1]).
Let’s assume that Apple wants to add similar capabilities to the Finder. The foundations for this step were laid long ago, via the Spotlight search engine that is built into OS X. Interestingly, calendar events, contacts and emails are searchable only because each of those pieces of data is actually a file. That was initially a major hurdle for making that data available to Spotlight.

Spotlight is completely ready for tagging. In principle, you can already put all of your files in a single folder and retrieve them via hashtags such as #paris or #2012. You can either add these hashtags to the file name or to the Spotlight Comments (editable via the “Get Info” dialog in the Finder).

Another hint as to where Apple might be going is the Finder’s “All My Files” view that shows all files in a long list, grouped by file type. There are no folders! This user interface feels oddly out of place in an otherwise hierarchical Finder.

It’s possible that this kind of information management will also affect iLife and iWork: “Job Postings and Patent Acquisitions Hint at Potential Overhaul of iLife and iWork”.

Let’s hope that iOS also sees improvements in how it handles data.

The vision

To summarize, the vision is: All your data (files, emails, contacts, calendar events, bookmarks, etc.) resides in the same big “database” (the file system) and can be organized freely via tags. On OS X, most of the foundational technology is already there, via Spotlight. Additionally, we only need:
  • Access to all application-specific data via Spotlight, similarly to what’s already possible with email, contacts, etc.
  • Tag management: add tags to single files and sets of files; remove tags from single files and sets of files; browse existing tags; etc.
  • Tag-based navigation: use tags to navigate the data. The main challenge will be to keep things usable even with many tags.
  • Obviously, the tags should be accessible both via the Finder and via the apps.

Further reading

David Gelernter’s “Lifestreams” [1] can be seen as an elaboration of the ideas sketched here. It’s an intriguing approach, look it up.

Reference

  1. Information management classics: Lifestreams (1996)

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