Managing all of your photos, music, docs and video files is a real hassle, especially when you start adding computers, game systems, and other digital devices to your home network. When you're a content creator, it's much worse, because you often need immediate access to different kinds files spanning many different kinds of media (CD, DVD, hard drives, and video tapes). As people have increasing need for easy access to files across all of their devices (home or office), I believe the next stage of evolution in computing is an operating system that manages files and folder locations for you--it won't need to ask you where to put files because it just knows where to put them, and it won't require an expensive piece of third-party software to do this. This concept is not without precedent, and there are similar management systems already being used in consumer products by Apple and Google. More on this in a moment. But first, I have to address all the skeptics out there...
Why Not Just Use Search?
Why do we need a new organization system when operating systems already offer useful tracking features like OS X's Spotlight or Windows' file search utility? Both Macs and PCs offer polite suggestions about smart places to put your files (applications, my documents, my music, etc.) and there are dozens of third-party software solutions to help you track where files are located, even if you deviate from these suggested locations. But I've never been satisfied with these programs, because all they do is tell you what drive or folder a file is sitting in, and that's not enough.
What's Wrong With Folders?
I think we're fast approaching the time to do away with folders completely. Folders in computer systems represent an organization system that's been around much longer than computers--but folders have only been obsolete for the last few years or so. This might seem like a pretty bold claim, so let me dive in more thoroughly. Conceptually, folders in computers are actually a pretty good way to organize our files, because they equate to a system that's been around for a long time, and the system is one that we can easily wrap our brains around. I think this is why they've managed to stick around so long. For organization junkies, it can even be somewhat therapeutic to spend hours developing elaborate file systems consisting of meticulously-constructed levels of nesting, designed to route files into sacred locations where they cannot possibly be lost--that is, until they try to find these files a year or two later. As our homes grow to include multiple computers, backup drives, gaming platforms, and other digital devices (smart phones, home automation systems, etc.), folders are quickly becoming a method of increasing segregation, when what we really need is a more integrated solution, and better interoperability.
Okay, Mr. Smarty-Pants, What Comes Next?
Since there is always a lag time between the introduction of a new technology and humanity's ability to adopt it, I believe it is not so ironic that clues to the organization systems of the future come from the past. Wouldn't it be nice if we could just throw all of our files into a big bin and then pull out what we need, when we need it, based on one or more search parameters? This is essentially the concept of a database, which been around for years now. The concept has been stretched a little in Gmail, which offers something called Labels, which can be assigned to your conversations to help you sort through them. Similarly, iPhoto lets you sort your pictures by event or by someone's face, and geotagging is likely to become the next most useful piece of metadata when deciding how photos should be sorted--and here's the distinction: the computer should be smart enough to do this for you. iTunes currently comes the closest to describing the sort of organizational power that I would like to see applied--it actually has the ability to reconstruct your folder system for you, based on artist and album. This is a good step forward, but I would like to see this taken much further--why can't we rearrange our music collections by genre, or by file size? You can easily display the files in this way now, so why not go further and actually construct file systems this way? There would be no need to move the files to different folders, because there would be no folders--only metadata and filters. And why not apply this concept to all of our files, constructing file systems on the fly, arranging their contents according to these metadata and filters? Clearing this technological hurdle will pave the way for automated, intelligent networks that span multiple computers and put data where it needs to be so that you can find it quickly and eliminate redundancy, but still back it up so you don't have to worry about losing it. But this is just my idea--I'd love to hear your ideas about organizational systems that are smarter than folders.