The End of Hierarchical File Systems

I recall talking to someone recently about a computer issue and it dawned on me that thanks to interacting mostly with things like iTunes and iPhoto and Dock icons, she didn’t really understand the idea that there was a hierarchical structure of “folders” (directories) that contained folders, files, and applications. The first computer I was taught to use ran DOS, and there’s just no way to use a command-line interface without some explicit instruction into how it works. Things like System 6 or Windows 3 are much easier to use, but are basically a very direct translation of the underlying file structure into a visual format. But starting with the development of the “alias” idea we’ve more and more been moving away from that. And as Jon Gruber observes, the iPhone/iPad idea (and the Android competitor) involve getting away from all that:


Used to be that to drive a car, you, the driver, needed to operate a clutch pedal and gear shifter and manually change gears for the transmission as you accelerated and decelerated. Then came the automatic transmission. With an automatic, the transmission is entirely abstracted away. The clutch is gone. To go faster, you just press harder on the gas pedal.

That’s where Apple is taking computing. A car with an automatic transmission still shifts gears; the driver just doesn’t need to know about it. A computer running iPhone OS still has a hierarchical file system; the user just never sees it.

As he observes, people who really like cars—or who are trying to race cars professionally—still prefer the manual transmission. It is, in a sense, a far superior technology. And I personally find it somewhat annoying that you’re supposed to arrange what applications and files are on your iPhone through the iTunes interface rather than just having it appear as a disc on my desktop. But evidently the future lies in ways to obscure this underlying structure from people. The iPhone, it seems, is so simple that tiny babies can use it:

Still, I can’t help but feel that one crucial difference between computers and cars in this regard is that there’s no reason you can’t do both. Mac OS has its graphic interface, but you can also use the Terminal if you feel some pressing need to do so. The idea that we’re now secretly yearning for devices that can only be interacted with in such a mediated way—not the iTunes Store as one way to get songs, but the Ap Store as the only way to get programs—just seems weird. The general purpose computer is a very impressive invention. Why go through the trouble of crippling it?