What was old is new again

I have really enjoyed Steven Frank’s insights in the wake of the iPad introduction. If you haven’t read his article, I encourage you to do so, especially if you think you haven’t exactly had a ‘gotcha’ moment when you first saw the iPad.

For the scope of this blog, I’ll extrapolate one interesting bit:

New World devices are easy to learn and highly usable because they do not expose the filesystem to users and they are “data islands”. We are no longer working with “files” but we are still working with data blobs that it would be valuable to be able to exchange with each other. Perhaps the network wins here. Perhaps flash drives that we never see the contents of. The Newton was, to my knowledge, the first generally available device where you could just say “put this app and all data I’ve created with it on this removable card” without ever once seeing a file or a folder. Its sizable Achilles’ Heel was that only other Newtons understood the data format.

Document- (or data-) centric systems like the Newton OS and the Lisa Office System have always been a half-forgotten minority. The application-centric model of Windows, Mac OS, and other major operating systems is what has reigned so far, without question; with it, the usual desktop metaphor, with exposed files and folder hierarchy. Now things may change, and if the touch platform model — with its filesystem that’s kept invisible to the user’s eye — proves to be successful and more usable (and why shouldn’t it?), perhaps we’ll see more devices behaving like the good old Newton in the 1993-1998 years.

The Newton OS behaviour so aptly pointed out by Frank is one of the characteristics I enjoy more, along with handwriting recognition, and both these elements are, in my opinion, what still makes the Newton environment stand out, even if Newton OS is less than perfect and is not aging so well from a strictly technical point of view.

Those who are accustomed to their beloved files and folder hierarchy might think that hiding such structure from the user is just insane. They may feel a bit lost: Where are my files? Where did the application store that document I just created? And where is the Save command? Believe me, it’s more intuitive than you think. What I’ve always found ironic is that in the Newton the office/desktop metaphor might not be as obvious as in a Mac or Windows PC or Linux box, but it turns out to be a more organised ‘office’ than the one these other systems offer.

Objects in the Newton OS can reside in the internal memory or in an external linear flash card. Each place is like an office ‘room’ (or a storage closet if you like). In each office room, objects are divided into categories: they can be Applications, Extensions, Help elements, Setup elements, and Storage (soups). When you open the Extras drawer (note the office nomenclature here as well), you always have an overview of all the contents thanks to a pull-down menu which lets you easily browse them, no matter where they are. A similar kind of organisation is kept by each application. There are some default folder names and they, too, hint at some sort of office-like file management: Business, Personal, Miscellaneous; or you just can leave the document unfiled (there’s a None (Unfiled) folder), which is a bit like leaving it on the ‘desktop’.

This kind of filing system may suggest some vagueness and its categories may look too broad. Of course when filing a document you can choose to create a new folder and name it as you please, but I never find myself being too specific as I would be on a Mac, where I have hundreds of folders and the more detailed and specific a folder name is, the more quickly I’ll find my stuff when looking for it.

On the Newton each application contains its data and you just tap the Overview button to look at a list of them. The same folder labels I mentioned before can be used inside each application for consistency. But even if you leave dozens of documents unfiled, you tap Overview and they’re there. The list view shows if they have been stored internally or on some external card: you can file them under the same folder label (e.g. “Personal”) but at the same time you can specify, for example, that three of them be filed in the internal store, and two of them on a card. When the card is inserted and you look at your documents in the Personal folder, you’ll see everything. On a Mac, you would navigate to the external volume root directory, then to a folder named “Personal” and then inside that folder. Layers that get in the way.

When you see the Newton filing system in action, it is so intuitive and feels so ‘human’ it hurts. You really don’t have to worry where you stuff is all the time. With the Newton, you know it’s there. And on the Newton there is no Save command because every document you create is persistently stored in memory. This emphasises the creation of stuff, not its constant maintenance. You start a document in the Notes app and what you write there is always ‘saved’. You can even forget to name it, each new document has its creation date set as default name. You can even forget to file it: it’ll remain available in an Unfiled folder. You can switch off the Newton at any time and when you turn it back on, everything is exactly where you left it. Even when batteries die. With this method I find myself truly focused on my work. Two weeks ago I lost nearly half of a translation work because I was working in an unsaved “Untitled Document” on my Mac, there was an unexpected crash, and after a forced reboot the document was gone. If only had I remembered to save it.

In the end I’ll be more than happy if thanks to the touch platform (iPhone, iPod touch, iPad) we’ll get to a point where devices will behave as Steven Frank predicts — more like the Newton than an Old World device. In my opinion, hiding the filesystem from the user, shifting the filing paradigm so that the user gets more focused on what he/she creates rather than being obsessed with saving, organisation and file management, can only be beneficial to the user without any real loss of control over the content.

It seems that the Newton keeps getting younger, eh?

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