Recently I was met with the task of having to reinstall my operating system from scratch.
This is something I have been known to engage in for fun, so the actual work didn’t bother me at all. What it did do, however, was get me thinking more and more about how our documents are stored today, and how they might be stored in the future.
For most of my computing life, saving a document meant having a digital file on a physical medium within your control. This could have been a floppy drive, a cd-rom, or even a hard disk. As the size and speed of hard drives rapidly grew, we started keeping more and more of our stuff on them, often foregoing removable media for the sake of convenience.
The documents folder on my laptop is now over 90 GB large and contains over 30,000 files. Navigating this maze requires me to be studious about naming folders and file versions, but it also gives me a lot of flexibility. While it can sometimes be hard to find exactly what I need, search technology has grown to help me track things down more efficiently.
Such a system of folders and files can be quite complex. On the desktop front, this manifests itself as completely cluttered desktops and personal files scattered in all corners of a hard drive.
With iOS, Apple had a brand new platform on its hands, and one of their early decisions was to completely remove this idea of a file system with folders. The iPhone’s hardware is just like any other computing device, it has a processor and memory as well as the capability to store files. Apple completely hides this capability from the user.
In iOS, the data you create is tied very closely to the application that you created it in. You open the app, and you can see your documents. Outside of that app, one would have no clue as to where the data lives, just know that when the app is launched, the data shows up. The beauty of this approach is that the location of a file shouldn’t matter. It should always be accessible, but never hidden, and integrating closely with the application that made it is one way to streamline this experience.
Parallel to the growth of mobile devices has been the growth of the cloud. Faster mobile networks and devices meant that we wanted all those same documents we worked on at home to be accessible on the road as well.
The cloud functions much like a typical file system with folders, but it has the benefit of being in sync at multiple locations. What this also means is that any workstation one logs into can potentially have access to all the files that are on the cloud, so instead of storage tied to a single machine, our data moves with us.
iCloud and Mountain Lion aim to bring these paradigms together by integrating a cloud based workflow within the operating system itself. The local workstation has its feet in both camps, able to maintain local storage, but have easy access to cloud documents.
I find Apple’s goals here admirable, but I must admit that I am just not sold yet. For years, a file was a file, so my data and the applications that I used to manipulate them were separate. Trying to couple these two things feels both limiting and really only appropriate for a less experienced user.
Where does that leave our future storage needs then? I have no doubt that ubiquitous access to our stuff is going to happen. Eliminating the fragility of local machines and leaving ones data in the hands of powerful server farms makes a lot of sense. I think what still needs to be figured out is how to seamlessly bridge the local/mobile/cloud gap. How do I still feel in control of my own data? How do these new methods of working with data grow as I do? How do we avoid recreating the mess of local storage in the cloud?
Difficult questions, but fun to consider.