Folders Are Bad

I’ve written before about how much I despise baby talk descriptions of operating system abstractions as promoted by Microsoft.

The use of “folder” is particularly pernicious.

Why use the word “folder”? Many computers pre-Windows had a way to group files or other groupings of files. Systems in the past used words like “catalog” or “directory”, not “folder”. A real life folder, a bi-fold paper or plastic contrivance, holds the contents of one real life file. That’s why a real life folder has a tab on the side: you write the category name of the contents, “2018 taxes” or “ISO-8601” or “Y2K compliance” on the tab. Inside the folder, you keep many documents, some single pages, some multiple pages stapled or clipped together. A real life folder contains a single file, a single conceptual grouping of documents.

The word “folder” is arguably inappropriate for the use Microsoft promotes. I suppose that when Microsoft (and Apple for that matter) wanted to call a file a “document”, then “folder” might be appropriate. The whole “document” thing has gone by the wayside.

Hagrid says “folders”

That leads us to another reason to hate this kind of ambiguous, indefinite naming: it ages poorly.

Long ago, in days of old, when magic filled the air, winter 1991, I witnessed a demo of a NeXT computer. The email client they showed me actually got me to purchase one, but that’s another story.

The sales person called directories “folders”. I had never heard that word applied before, and it offended me. I asked what they were going to do when (not if) nobody had a real desktop any more, and nobody used paper. All their “desktop metaphors” like trash cans, and folders, and all that other dumbness wouldn’t make any sense.

Well, it’s happened. How many paper or plastic folders do you, yes you, own? When was the last time you used one to group loose papers together? Unless you’re a metaphorical dinosaur like me, you won’t even know. So why call something abstract, like a grouping of computer files, a “folder”?

This is almost as dumb as using a 1.44MB diskette image as the “save” icon, another huge mistake perpetrated by the Standard Operating System.

1.44MB floppy disk

You’re even less likely to have used a 1.44MB floppy in the last 10 years than you are to have used a manila folder in the last 6 months. What a shortsighted idea.

The entire “desktop” metaphor was fatally flawed. Did you drag-n-drop a “document” on an image of a xerox machine to copy it? No, you did some combination of special keys plus a drag-n-drop in a different “folder”. Skeuomorphisms aside, they couldn’t even keep their metaphors straight. But now the entire horrid mess of “desktop metaphor” is so deeply embedded in the human psyche that we’ll never be rid of it, like the 360 degrees in a circle that originated in Babylon.