WinFS – where are you?

I remember back before ‘Longhorn’ was released (which became Windows Vista) that one of the selling points was a replacement file system that at the time sounded like it was going to be a revolutionary replacement for the long established MS-DOS style file system with it’s hierarchical directory structure.

Sadly this never saw the light of day, but what made me think of this was this set of slides from Microsoft which are selling points for how a Windows 7 based tablet will compete with the success of the iPad. One particular slide caught my eye: Windows 7’s ‘rich, searchable file system’ is a selling point compared with iPad’s ‘no filesystem’ (according to the slides).

The funny thing about this (to me, at least), is that the majority of PC/Windows users (non-technical) have pretty much no idea of what the file system is on Windows, how it is structured, and how to store and their files sensibly (and no, storing all your documents, photos, and mp3s in the same directory is not sensible).

It’s always a reality check for me when you say something like ‘create a folder on c: and save your doc there so you’ll remember where you put it’ and your met with a blank stare and ‘err, how do I do that?’

It’s possible that a ‘revolutionary’ file system replacement for Windows (possibly would have been backed by a SQL Server backend?) may have been a step forward for Windows, but sadly this never appeared, and we’re still stuck with the heritage of MS-DOS lerking in the background.

The fact that Microsoft internally believe the Windows filesystem is ‘rich’ kind of boggles the mind. It’s richness is debatable, but the fact is that the majority of Windows users have no idea how to sensibly store their files on this ‘rich’ filesystem. Recent changes in Vista and 7 seem to default to saving files to the Desktop, which in itself is interesting when you see a user’s desktop which is entirely covered in all their document icons for the past couple of years, and they’ve no idea where they all come from, or how to organize them.

The Mac OS X approach is interesting from my opinion as a recent Mac switcher in the past couple of years, since the Finder has a couple of broad categories: ‘Documents’, your user folder, and Applications, which for most people is adequate and it’s easy to create additional folders within these areas, and what’s interesting from a technical point of view is that the actual physical location of the files on the file system is transparent to the user, and they never have to actually know where these locations are within the file system tree. BUT if you do want to dig deeper, as a technical user, it’s possible to navigate the *nix based file system structure at a level beneath the what the Finder shows you (or jump directly to directories in Finder if you know where to go). This dual approach is interesting to me, because it functions perfectly well for both types of users – non-technical users are shielded from the physical file directory structure by Finder, and technical users can dig deeper if they need.

I’m really not sure who these slides from Microsoft were written by or who they are aimed at, but I think it’s typical of Microsoft of the past few years that they really just don’t seem to get it.

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