I remember when I was a kid I asked my parents to buy me a computer. I didn't ask for a Mac or a Pc, I just wanted "a computer". Maybe I should have been more specific in my request, because my parents did buy me a computer, but one of those fake ones kids use to play around with english words and learn basic word processing. Just like this one. Thing is, I wanted a computer, but I had to get along with that. Assuming that we're calling my first computer an actual computer, I reckon that thing had some sort of desktop with icons to switch back and forth between "programs" and choose which would have been the next step. Should I open the word processor or the dictionary? That's what was bothering me back then. But even though that was nothing more than a toy, that computer initiated me to the concepts of desktops and apps, the basics or modern computing life.
As you can guess, a real computer came, and it was a PC. Yes, I once was a PC guy. Man, God knows how many hours I spent on that PC. I'm not afraid to say that if I'm where I am now, it's partially thanks to that clunky and slow PC which got me started to real programs and files, English and the internet. And again, I cared so much about my desktop. I was always trying to keep it organized and clutter-free, choosing elegant and gorgeous wallpapers and avoiding to create too many folders and shortcuts on it. That PC was my personal Nirvana of desktop and file management.
What happened after the PC was a game changer for me: I switched to a Mac, and after a few years realized I could make a living out of my passion for talking about everything Apple. Still, there was something my Mac and the dusty PC had in common: the desktop, and the fact that I was always playing around with files. That's pretty much still happening at the moment of writing this, too.
You may have heard of some rumors regarding Apple willing to erase the whole desktop and file system concepts from the next iteration of Mac OS X, following the trend established by products such as the iPhone and iPad. A computer where the desktop is nothing but a container of icons (e.g. apps) like the iPhone's Springboard and where each app has has its own database (or Library) and the user doesn't have to create files, move them around, save.
I think that's a very fascinating concept, and I'm be definitely up for this. There are some considerations to make though.
The iPhone model works great, because it perfectly fits to a device like the iPhone which, in case you've forgotten, it was born as a phone, a breakthrough internet communicator and an iPod. A phone with extended features and functions to make it stand out from a crowded market, and show people like "us" that there could be a better way to..call, perhaps? No, to intend the whole mobile phone concept overall. Meant to be always on the go, Apple thought that a portable device should be able to make you productive on the go, thus the inclusion of applications like Safari, Mail and Calendar. The same applies to 3rd party apps: if you look at the big picture (and by big picture I mean business, financial, utility and productivity apps), it's clear that developers focused on creating software to let you do things with your phone. Ego, Pastebot, Tweetie, Dropbox: a perfect example. With the iPhone you don't have to care about files, or the file system: you have an app, you just have to open it, use it, close it. It saves all your progress without requiring you to do it. In the best case, it even saves your position allowing you to restart from where you left the app the last time. This is the new way of thinking an OS: it's the automatic transmission metaphor. You don't have to know how it works: it just works. All of this applies to the iPad, as well.
Now let's look at the Mac. Sure there are applications that are based on the iPhone model, see iTunes, iPhoto or DEVONthink. These apps have their own library, they don't need you to mess with files and folders (well, maybe just not too much) and they definitely differ from the Finder, in a way that you only care about throwing stuff into them and forget about it. The desktop, on the other hand, is a place where people use to "come back" when they quit an app. It's visual: you close an application? You see the desktop. You minimize a window? There's the desktop behind it. Actually, the desktop is a folder itself, but users don't have to know about it. Unlike any other generic folder on Mac OS X, the Desktop has special "properties" like the possibility to have a full screen background and, all in all, what differentiates the Desktop from the Finder is..the lack of the Finder chrome. Think about it: if a desktop is a folder, and you can see stuff like the menubar and the dock while navigating every Finder window, then what makes the Desktop special is that it's without chrome. Sure, you can access the desktop with a Finder window, too. What's important though, is that users have come to see the Desktop as a container (just like on iPhone) of files, rather than apps. I bet you have some folders, documents and aliases on your desktop right now. So, the dock is for apps (and perhaps you also use an application launcher and a shortcut to your /Applications folder) and the Desktop is for everything else.
Now that we've cleared the basic differences, I have to admit that I wouldn't be bothered by an iPhone-inspired Mac OS X at all. Actually, I think that's the right path to follow. Rather than enabling users to do many things in many different ways, I think it's best to make them focus on be productive rather than do things with the file system. Do you really want to care about caches and permissions, or would you prefer to just work, and nothing else? Because we all know that Mac OS X shouldn't require any maintenance at all, but let's face it - it does. And even if you have to run maintenance tasks every once in a while, that's still something you have to do instead of working, period. What really bugs me though, is the idea that on a desktop computer people should have the final word on everything. Keeping everything under control. This is a heritage from the past, where people wanted to learn computers and Microsoft let them do that by exposing the file system. Today, people don't want to know anything about computers other than how to access Facebook and do email. My friends just want to share their photo library and fire up iTunes' playlists at parties. They don't care whether Dock.app has permissions set at 755 or 777, they don't even know what permissions are. They want to do things with their computers. They don't create aliases on the desktop. They don't need the menubar at all. Guess what, they don't know what a "login item" is. But then again, they're forced to see folders and files and, in the worst case, to install apps like CleanMyMac to make their computers run fine. Do these people need an easier, streamlined computer? They would love it. I'll tell you what, they would adore a Mac OS X computer like that.
The problem is with the people like us. The geeks and nerds who have a voice on the internet and have the power to persuade people to not buy a product. Just imagine: "An Apple computer that doesn't let you create files! Guys, files!". It's a lobby. Sadly, we're stuck into this loop with the idea that what we like is what the industry needs. It's not like that. It's the opposite: in most cases what we don't like at first turns out to be the greatest success in history. Look at the Wii, unlock your iPhone and hug your fresh iPad: we were so damn wrong at the beginning.
"Hell, it doesn't support HD!"
"It doesn't have a file system!"
"It's a big iPod Touch!"
And people proved us wrong. (Of course there are some enlightened guys among us, who saw the potentialities of a product even when the whole internet was mad at it)
As far as the idea of a file-system & desktop less Mac goes, I think we're pretty much halfway there, at least with the concept. A computer made of apps (not of files and folders) where you don't have to save, backup and organize the OS, you just focus on one app at a time (let's face it: you don't multitask. You leave multiple apps open at the same time) and work, work, work. Are you getting it? A computer, a container of apps, an internet communicator. Every app has its own library, you don't save and revert to a previous backup, the "Finder" could be the name of a search function. As the Posterous founder wrote, the Finder is dead.
I don't expect you to agree with me. I just hope you can look at the bright side of this just as I can. Do you think a Finder less Mac would be a tremendous disaster? I don't see the reason, honestly. What's the difference between saving a file into a Finder's folder and let the app auto-save it in its library? The library is still a folder under the hood, but you don't see it. Just like with a BMW's engine, you can't see anything, unless you want to. Sure I'd like to have to have the chance to play around with the OS anyway, because I'm a geek and by natural inclination I want to see how things work. But not having the chance at all? Not that big of a deal, in the very end - as far as the computer works. Give me a bigger iPad with a physical keyboard, DEVONthink and Mars Edit and I'll be a happy man.
Anyway, when I was 5 I had the greatest computer ever: it didn't require me to maintain it, I just used applications. I wish I'll be able to do it again at 25.