What Microsoft can learn from Apple’s file system

In Apple’s OS X 10.7 “Lion”, there are a couple of features that Microsoft could learn from.

What Microsoft can learn from Apple's file system

First, in Lion, Apple has subtly modified the way the file system works. It’s built on the Time Machine backup engine, and now lets you store a whole bunch of backup versions of your files, and do so automatically.

Even better, it takes away the need to save anything, because the OS does it for you. It gets better still: any document file that’s more than two months old is automatically locked as being read-only, on the grounds that this is no longer a current document that you’re modifying.

Locking the file automatically can prevent those weird changes happening to files that no longer look right, but you’re not sure what happened to them. If you want to modify a locked older file, click on the title bar of the application and choose to make a new version of the file, or else copy it out to a new name.

In one step Apple has introduced versioning and proper historical version control to the file system. Even better, with the forthcoming iCloud services, this will be automatically synchronised to the cloud and to all of your devices, whether they’re OS X desktop machines or iOS devices.

This means you’ll be able to work on a document on your desktop, walk away and then later pick up where you left off on your tablet. Want to undo these changes? Simply click and go back to an earlier version using an interface that’s similar to the one used by Time Machine.

Time Machine

Now ask yourself this question: you could have this stuff today, or else you could wait until 2012 for a new file copy dialog to arrive in Windows 8? Which firm is pushing the boundaries in file system design and implementation, in a manner that’s focused on making users’ work easier? And safer, too?

Automator

One feature that isn’t new to Lion, but has been around for a long time is Automator. It really is a hidden powerhouse for the file system, and I can’t recommend strongly enough that you take a long hard look at this utility.

I’ve been using it as part of my daily work for years, and it’s one of those things that makes me scream whenever I have to sit down in front of a Windows 7 desktop – why can’t Windows do what Automator does?

The basic idea behind Automator is to introduce event handling into the file system – for example, so that a folder can have an event handler added to it.

The idea behind Automator is to introduce event handling into the file system

To give a real-world example, imagine dropping a RAW photograph file into a certain folder: when you do this, that RAW file is automatically resized, colour balanced, inserted into a new document and then emailed to a predefined email address.

All of this activity is simply triggered by a file drop. I use Automator for a bunch of simple things such as resizing graphics for online use, converting between different file formats, collecting stuff that’s then zipped up and sent in an email to a client as a zipped bundle. Want to apply a whole batch of new metadata to a bunch of PDF files in one go? Trivial.

All good OS X applications support Automator actions and publish them into its framework. Start up Automator itself and you’ll find two main buttons called Actions and Variables.

Actions is a good place to start. It gives you a library view of all the “stuff” in your system: Calendar, Contacts, Developer, Documents, Files and Folders, Fonts, Internet, Mail, Movies, Music, PDFs, Photos, Presentations, Text, Utilities, and Other.

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