Is Our Current File & Folder System Flawed?

Since personal computers have first appeared on the market, their file systems have been organized in a very similar way to the method we use for organizing things in the physical world. Libraries, historical archives, hospital records, and many other things are organized in a hierarchical manner to make it easier to conjure up any information we would need at any point in time. Similarly, computers work with one root directory and a hierarchy of subfolders that let us easily browse to any file we wish. We’ve been using this system for the better part of all recorded history, which begs the question: Can we do better?

To answer the question we asked earlier, we need to think about whether the file and folder system has flaws at all. It turns out that there is actually one enormous issue with the way we organize our data: The typical file on a computer today is more than a simple document; it is multimedia that can be organized in several ways, with many attributes attached to each piece of data. Films – to point out one example – have a genre, lead actors, a soundtrack, a director, and many other things that can make it difficult to classify them into a single-attribute data structure.

What criterion do you choose to ultimately organize your movie collection with? If you organize it by genre (Action, Comedy, Thriller, etc.), you can only find a film easily by using that particular aspect when browsing through your collection. In other words, it would take you quite a while to find a film directed by someone who likes to venture into various genres.

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In October 16, 2015, a journalist from the BBC went to see a couple of Finnish developers making a computer system that is meant to revolutionize the way we organize our files. Named Solu, this small touchscreen-based device can connect to your monitor and features a map-style file system. There are no folders, and there are no files. All you see are icons showing projects and how they are divided. There aren’t many details on this system, and it’s unlikely that Solu will reach mainstream use. All we know is that the developers told the journalist that the file system promotes productivity. This isn’t extremely helpful, but I suspect that it is just a project map leading to a number of apps grouped by function and importance. It runs, after all, on a very heavily-modified version of Android.

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Since 2003, Microsoft has been developing a new file system that would replace the file-folder hierarchy we all know and love. WinFS was supposed to be released with Windows Vista in 2006, but development was significantly slower than expected. It promised a relational database hierarchy, which would organize files based on various relationships that they possess to one another. One of the drawbacks of this system was the fact that it presented several complications to programmers who want to make full use of it in their new releases. Yes, many other file systems exist that try to replicate this, but they exist in a vacuum somewhere on the internet for a reason.

While relational databases might make it easier for people to browse in their computers, they present an incredible challenge to programmers who would much rather use the file-folder hierarchy. The truth is that using relational databases complicates things excessively.

Many attempts have been made in the past to replace the hierarchy we currently use to browse our files. Most of them have seen limited amounts of success in some niche communities, but the tried-and-true method of using files, folders, and subfolders overcomes its drawbacks with its simplicity for both the user and the developer. Although it is indeed difficult to categorize all types of data, it is easy to learn to use and it doesn’t require a lot of convoluted code.

Do you know of any alternatives that could potentially beat the traditional file system? Tell us about it in a comment!