Files are extremely important in current computing experience. Much too important. Files should be put in their place; they should be put away.
There are two aspects to this: the user experience, and the programmer experience. These are connected. Let’s start with the user experience.
Users see a hierarchical file system (HFS), with directories represented as folders. The idea of an HFS goes way back. The folder was popularized by Apple - first with the Apple Lisa , the ill-fated precursor of the mac, and then with the mac itself.
Historical Tangent: The desktop metaphor comes from Xerox PARC. I know some of that history is controversial, but one thing Steve Jobs did NOT see at the legendary 1979 Smalltalk demo was a folder. Smalltalk had no file system to put folders in. To be fair though, Smalltalk had a category hierarchy navigated via a multi-pane browser much like the file browsers we see in MacOS today. The folder came later, with the Xerox Star (1981 or so).
David Gelernter has said that computers are turning us into filing clerks. Sadly, his attempt to fix this was a commercial failure, but his point is well taken. We have seen attempts to improve the situation - things like Apple’s spotlight and Google desktop search - but this is only a transition.
Vista was supposed to have a database as a file system. This is where we’re going. Web apps don’t have access to the file system. Instead we see mechanisms like persistent object stores and/or databases. Future computers will abstract away the underlying file system - just like the iPhone and iPad. Jobs gave us the folder (i.e., the graphical/UI metaphor for the HFS) and Jobs taketh away.
This trend is driven in part by an attempt to improve the user experience, but there are also other considerations. One of these is security - and better security is also better user experience. Ultimately, it is about control: If you don’t have a file system, it becomes harder for you to download content from unauthorized sources. This is also good for security, and in a perverse way, for the user experience. And it’s also good for software service providers.
Tangent: This is closely tied to my previous post regarding the trend toward software services that run on restricted clients.
Which brings us to the programmer experience. File APIs will disappear from client platforms (as in the web browser). So programmers will become accustomed to working with persistent object stores as provided by HTML 5, Air etc. And as they do, they will get less attached to files as code representation as well.
Most programmers today have a deep attachment to files as a program representation. Take the common convention of representing the Java package hierarchy as a directory hierarchy, with individual classes as files within those directories.
Unlike C or C++, there is nothing in the Java programming language that requires this. Java wisely dispensed with header files, include directives and the C preprocessor culture. This is a great help in fighting bloat, inordinately long compilation times, platform dependencies etc.
A Java program consists of packages, which in turn consist of compilation units. There are no files to be found. And yet, the convention of using directories as a proxy for the package hierarchy persists.
Of course, it’s not just Java programmers. Programmers in almost any language waste their time fretting over files. The only significant exception is (bien sur!) Smalltalk (and its relatives).
Files are an artifact that has nothing to do with the algorithms your program uses, or its data structures, or the problem the program is trying to solve. You don’t need to know how your code is scattered among files anymore than you need to know what disk sector it’s on. Worrying about it is just unnecessary cognitive load. Programmers need not be filing clerks either.
With modern IDEs, one can easily view the structure of the program instead. In fact, the IDE can load your Java program that much faster if it doesn’t use the standard convention. You can still export your code in files for transport or storage but that is pretty much the only use for them.
I suspect these comments will spur a heated response. Most programmers have used the file system as a surrogate IDE for so long that they find it hard to break old habits and imagine a cleaner, simpler way of doing business. But do note that I am not arguing for the Smalltalk image model here - I’ve discussed its strengths and weaknesses elsewhere.
What I am saying is that your data - including but not limited to program code - should be viewed in a structured, searchable, semantically meaningful form. Not text files, not byte streams, but (collections of) objects.
As file systems disappear from the user experience, and from client APIs, newer generations of coders will be increasingly open to the idea of storing their code in something more like a database or object store. It will take time, and better tooling (especially IDEs and source control systems) but it will happen.
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