Thursday, December 20, 2012

Desktop Environments and File Uploads

I remember when I used to see web applications with forms that had up to ten file fields, you know, in case you wanted to be more productive and submit many files in the same post. I smile when I think about those forms, not just because they looked funny, what with the repeating vertically-stacked file inputs, but also because of the whole file upload concept. Beyond sharing images on social networks, the practical use of user-generated files on the web has it's limitations. Think about where most of our tools are located. We're generally not screaming for new desktop applications, unless we're part of a particular crowd — like developers, graphic designers, hardcore gamers. We need desktop applications for these purposes, and these applications deal with files. But the vast majority of internet use isn't to this degree of specialization. What use does the general internet population have for file?

Well, the idea that the general population doesn't use files anymore may not be entirely true. It's certainly the case that we're using less of them, due in large part to the tools that create files, where these tools live, and how files are consumed. But let's think about the everyday desktop environment, where the very idea of a file is key. You have audio files, video files, and a plethora of documents. I, for that matter, still have an environment not unlike this. But I do occasionally, or often, depending on the time of year, need to share these resources with others. Either for collaboratively editing something or for the sake of passing on possession. It used to be that I could use a shared service, that is, a web service that allowed me to upload the files I wanted to share with others. This, of course, requires that the others I'm sharing with be a member of the same service. Fine. But uploads imply downloads. Why else you upload something — the intent is that it'll be downloaded, from the other side of the service by one, two, 500 people. Downloads, as are uploads, an inherently manual process. And manual processes are prone to error.

We're talking about sharing files. This rarely implies two or three, but synchronizing entire directory structures. And this is where the idea of file uploads and downloads breaks down. This is a process that should be not only automated, but seamlessly carried out behind the scenes at the operating system level. This is what Dropbox does and is why it is so successful. It automates the sharing of files. The whole concept of the user even sending their file elsewhere is at the back of their mind. They don't press a button to make it happen, they just organize their files locally. This idea of seamless file sharing, cuts out the middleman — the web server with the file upload form. When you upload a file, where is it going? To be consumed by another human in almost every case. It's rare that we see user-generated files uploaded, parsed for semantic content, and discarded. Files provide an envelope — a level of portability for information exchanged by humans.

Going to back to the idea of tools for creating files — how does this change, if anything, the idea of files on the desktop? The reason we have file upload forms and the reason we have seamless file sharing technology is because the tools that generate the content often live on the desktop. Or did live on the desktop — less and less so today. The vast majority of internet users generate photos. They'll take them from the camera, onto the desktop, and from there, upload them to their social network of choice. But cameras now have built-in upload capabilities. The user doesn't need to think about it — they can just instruct the device that they're taking this picture for one reason and one reason only — to share it. Instantly. So if devices can be configured with this in mind, the image file as for as the user is concerned, is only a transient thing.

The idea of a file is also lost on the users that consume media over the internet. It's so easy to stream media, that it makes sense to do so rather than carry the overhead of having to maintain files locally. It's funny, actually, because it seams that that's what it has come to. When there is so much information available to each an every one of us, the less of we have to own and manage locally, the easier life is. The tools we use on an everyday basis are moving toward the web. Browser-based interfaces exist for nearly every application you would find in the desktop domain, taking into account their lack of maturity of course. But beyond the usability concern of web applications and the complete abandonment of files — we have to think about data possession. As convenient as not having to manage any files is, you should always have the right to download all your data.