Forget Folders, Think Smart Folders

14 Comments

Lee Gomes, in his column today in the Wall Street Journal says that the death of the folders is highly exaggerated. Google wants to do away with the whole concept of folders, and subfolders (Gmail for example!). Others believe that the rise of TAGS could be the death knell for folders, since the difference between our desktops and online presence is not very different. Gomes thinks folders are the way to go when looking for information. I agree. Except, I think folders (as we know them) are dead, long live the Smart Folders. If you have been using Apple Mail in Tiger, you know what I am talking about – smart folders that can be created on the fly, and what Apple calls “organically organized.” Do a spotlight search and create a folder that groups all the files that match your search command.

Smart Folders contain files grouped together based on search criteria instead of physical location, so the same file can appear in multiple Smart Folders without moving from its original saved location on your system. No need to duplicate, shift or update files: Spotlight Smart Folders keep everything organized for you.

Clearly, Apple has applied new thinking to folders, but PC users don’t have to wait for them. Sure Microsoft has promised “smarts” in Longhorn, but Blinkx lets you create these smart folders even now. (You can actually share them with others, but I wouldn’t advise that!)

surangaSuranga Chandratillake, the uber smart founder of Blinkx explained to me via email that the top-down hierarchical folder (or directory) system was all right when we did not have many files. A few directories made a lot of sense. Now everyone has a few gigabytes of data. (I personally have a terabyte of data floating around my apartment!) There’s no way the average human brain can accurately deal with a 4000+ folder hierarchy by memory, Suranga argues.

Blinkx’s Smart Folders use a feature of common operating systems – Unix for a long time and Windows/DOS more recently – ‘soft-links’ … which really means that a file really exists only in one place, but can ‘exist’ as a ‘soft-link’ in other directories. You can use it anywhere, edit it, change it, or even delete and the softlinks are updated on the fly. Blinkx, takes it one step further by look at the very content of the files as well. In other words, what they do with their search online, they do on the desktop as well. “I can do what I want with my email (even just leave all of it in my inbox), it’ll automatically get put in the right folder for me … and, if the email ought to be in more than one place at a time, it’ll automatically go into all the right places,” Suranga writes. Try it out guys – I am not much of a Windows user, but the newest version of blinkx is worth a download, for nothing else then just for creating smart folders.

PS: Given that how quickly others copy Blinkx features – video search, blog search, desktop search, it is only a matter of time before “smart folders” become common place.

14 Comments

Elvis Ripley

I use them in the Tiger finder and have started to use them in Mail. They are pretty sweet and change a lot about the way I work but mainly I use the new search functions to search for something when I need it and do away with folders all together, smart or not.

Russell Glass

Apple has really been a pioneer with smart folders — iTunes has been utilizing them to deliver a great UI for a few years now…

Suranga Chandratillake

Hi Om,

Thanks for mentioning our product in your discussion about this — I think it’s a topic that’s only going to get increasingly interesting as we all deal with more and more stuff on our computers/devices.

I just read the WSJ column and sort of agree. The hierarchical nature of folders is a very valuable as is the very idea of ‘foldering’ things … I think the problem is the assumption that this foldering somehow has to be a manual process.

In fact, if you have technology like blinkx’s it’s possible to define a hierarchy, build it and organise it yourself but, when things get overwhelming, let the computer use what you’ve started as a seed to helping you in the future.

I think the technology you use to achieve automatic sorting is the key here … most technologies today (gmail, Tiger and some of the others) depend on keyword searches and metadata — these work great in some cases but can be easily fooled in others with pretty annoying results (millions of documents because your home improvement folder on ‘windows’ suddenly picked up every mention of the OS’s name, etc). That’s why we’re focused on using conceptual technology in our own sorting approach that reads and understands the entirety of the files you’ve put in a folder, not just fixating on a keyword or two. If you do that and capture the nuance and subtleties of what someone’s trying to organise, you stand a much better chance of organising things effectively for them.

So, overall, I’d say folders are a good thing, their properties (hierarchy, controllability, etc) are all good things that mean that seach alone and/or tags can’t replace them. What does work, however, is giving those folders a bit of an intelligence boost which is exactly what we are trying to do.

cheers,
Suranga

raghu

I’m with JD. I installed it some time back only to uninstall in less than an hour. Somehow, the software is not very eye pleasing even if it is functionally good. I was having pretty hard time using it

Mark Wubben

Om, I’m sorry, but there’s a typo in the first sentence. The third word, “is”, should be “in” ;-)

Om Malik

JD,

I am frankly surprised because even as a mac users, i had no trouble using the smart folders etc via blinkx. it worked nicely for me. not much problems. sorry it didn’t pan out for you

JD

Om,

I installed the software and got the similar horrible icons/windows. The icons are small and are unique to the application, still no text accompanies them. I uninstalled it. [No, I didn’t try harder to figure out the software.] I think it will kill my eyes if I kept looking at that software for one more minute.

JD

Bonsai

The “soft-links”, as they are implemented in Windows/DOS do not update themselves, and this has always been the case (I don’t remember having them in MS-DOS).

So if you create a soft-link in Windows/DOS and them move the source file the link will be orphaned. And in comparison to Unix/Mac OS the soft-links will be updates with new location of the source file automatically.

All this aside, this sounds good for a PC user; but this it should really be incorporated into the OS and not add another layer on-top of the OS.

Damian

I believe the latest version of MS Outlook also has a concept very close to the smart folders you describe above Om…..

Om Malik

JD,

but the software is going to make you forget the ugly website. it is i tell you an abomination, but the software somehow makes up for it. anyway the software truly sucks on a mac

JD

Btw, could you tell him that his site looks horrible?

All, I see is big fonts, blinx logo and so much red color that my eye hurts. I would have never downloaded the software, if you didn’t plug it.

JD

Michael Darnton

I hardly think folders are dead. 98% of the data file on my computer are either un-renamed jpgs filed in folders by e event, or mp3s filed in folders parallel with my player’s layout. Neither of these would be helped at all by smart folders.

Yuri Ammosov

Unfortunately, does not support Thunderbird. Which makes it 50% worthless for me.

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