Siracusa on the Finder

At Ars Technica, John Siracusa writes about the sorry state of the Mac OS X Finder. It’s long and deep, and effectively covers two topics: 1) a descriptive, balanced, and fair look at what is wrong with the Finder; 2) a proposed design for how Apple could fix it.

Several of the ideas in his proposed design do not appeal to me; nonetheless, it’s without question a better design than the existing Mac OS X Finder. It also shows, once again, that it’s not true that critics of the Mac OS X Finder are simply clamoring for the Finder to act and behave exactly like the Mac OS 9 Finder.

His analysis of what’s wrong with the current OS X Finder, on the other hand, is spot-on accurate. E.g.:

Some would say that the Spatial Finder is unnecessarily limiting, and that it leads to a “messy” desktop full of windows that have to be managed manually. Steve Jobs himself has made this claim, condemning interfaces that ask the user to be “the janitor.” It would be better, the argument goes, if the computer could be “the janitor”, avoiding the chaos of multiple windows by divorcing the spatial properties of any given window from the hierarchy of the file system. In such an interface, a file’s position in the hierarchy can be expressed as a simple “file path” in a single window, rather than by the relationships between a series of individual windows.

Although it may offend Mr. Jobs’s aesthetic sensibilities, the simple fact is that humans are much more adept at dealing with visual/spatial clutter than mental clutter. By compromising the user’s ability to manage files and folders based on familiar spatial cues and behaviors, all the complexity of the file system hierarchy is simply moved from the screen into the user’s mind.

Back in November and December, I wrote several articles criticizing the OS X Finder:

I probably received more email in response to those articles than anything else I’ve written about at Daring Fireball. And although the vast majority of the email was highly favorable, there was sizable amount of mail from people who disagreed. But every single person who wrote expressing satisfaction with the current OS X Finder had one thing in common: they are all computer nerds.

The browser metaphor the OS X Finder relies on requires you to understand and to be conscious of the hierarchical structure of your volumes. That you can open two windows viewing the same files requires you to understand how it can be that you’re looking at the same file in two places at once, and not two separate files. That’s great for some people; it’s not so great for many others.

My last aforementioned article (“Welch and Tsai…” ) points to an article from Michael Tsai that I think sums up the situation best. There are two camps in this Finder argument: spatial and browser. But it’s absolutely possible that Apple could design a Finder with features that make both camps happy. The problem with the current Finder is that every Finder window is a browser, and the spatial features are really just browser windows masquerading as spatial windows.