App centrism and document management

There’s an interesting discussion occuring on the GNOME Usability list at the moment. The topic: should file management be done using the file browser and file system, or using specialist applications each of which accesses their own files?

Allan Caeg opened the conversation by pointing out an article by Matt Asay titled The application is the new operating system. My contribution to the debate was written as a response to Matt’s article:

‘There are a few important points in the article. I’d like to focus on the idea of accessing files through apps instead of a file manager.

The idea of reducing the need for users to use the file manager is a good one. There are lots of reasons why; too many to list here. The main reason, though, is that file managers can’t accomodate many of the needs of users, like browsing their music by author, viewing their photos that were taken in a particular month, or organising their documents by non-exclusive categories.

What is interesting is how much file manager usage has aleady been replaced [in GNOME]. Most users don’t interact with their music files or their photos using a file manager. They use a media player or a photo organiser. There’s no need for users to open /home/<user>/Music in their file browser. They open Rhythmbox or Banshee instead, and most users have a better experience by doing so.

What I disagree with is the suggestion that files should only be accessible from the app which is used to view/edit them. That might work for phones or tablets, but it isn’t going to work for laptops and desktops. Why? Because for certain kinds of tasks (usually carried out with laptops and desktops), it is necessary to work with a range of different types of file. Additionally (and relatedly), organising, combining and reorganising different kinds of files is a use case in itself. If I start a new software design project, I might want to pull together a range of documents: images, notes, pdfs, odts, and so on. This ‘pulling together’ is an important part of many kinds of creative (in the broad sense) practice.

What I’m getting at is this: GNOME needs a document manager. We have photo organisers for photos and music apps for music, but there’s nothing for ‘documents’ (by which I mean anything that people tend to keep in /home/<user>/Documents). This isn’t a new idea. Paperbox [1] was a good first run at the problem, but we need something more elaborate. I can think of a few necessary features:

* metadata extraction and editing
* organisation of documents by non-exclusive categories (‘collections’ or ‘projects’, perhaps?) and tags
* integration with open and save as dialogs
* really good search
* browsing and exploration by metadata (‘show me all the articles I have by the author of document X’)
* versioning

[1] http://live.gnome.org/PaperBox&#8217;

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