Open and shut
Microsoft has been trying, ever since the introduction of Windows 95, to move users away from thinking about drive letters. Office applications nowadays encourage users not to just strew document files ‘anywhere on the C drive’ but to store them instead under the My Documents folder tree. This folder is tucked away out of sight and users are discouraged from navigating to it by hand – big blue messages pop up saying ‘These files are hidden’ and ‘You should not modify the contents [of this folder]’ if you try to get there by any unauthorised route. There are faster ways to get to your My Documents folder than Start | My Computer | Local Disk (C:) | Ummm, where next? There are big shortcuts that take you directly to My Documents on the Start menu, in the helper bar of every Explorer window and in the File Open and File Save As dialogs. That blue helper bar on the left of every Explorer window contains lots of useful links, and what is shown there changes according to what folder or file you are looking at. Keep an eye on it next time you are browsing around your computer.
If there are multiple users of a computer, each user gets their own My Documents folder, which helps to keep everyone’s files separate. In a standard Windows XP setup, each person’s My Documents folder is stored under C:\Documents and Settings\username, but it may not be held only there, or it may not be there at all. The network administrator can arrange for everyone’s My Documents folder (and others) to be synchronised to and from a server every time a user logs on. These ‘roaming profiles’ mean that whichever PC on the network you log into, you will see your documents, your Desktop and the applications working the way you want them. Alternatively, the administrator could arrange for everyone’s My Documents folder to be stored on a server permanently and never on the local PC. Keeping your documents on the network servers, or synchronising them with the server, means your documents (and settings) can get backed up centrally, so you will not lose data if your PC dies.
Of course, you will probably need to share departmental or corporate data with your colleagues, and storing those documents in My Documents, which is generally intended to be personal to you, is not a good idea. To share documents, you will need some shared storage space on a server, and you will access this either through a mapped drive or your My Network Places folder.
Mapped drives have been around since PC networks started. Mapping a network drive makes a drive letter on your PC point to a shared folder on another machine. That other machine is usually a server, but it could be another user’s PC if they have marked some of their folders as shared. You could map a drive temporarily, or you could mark the mapping to be recreated each time you start Windows. A network administrator could also create a script, to be run whenever a user logs in, that automatically maps certain drive letters to certain servers and shares. To map a drive under Windows XP, you choose Tools | Map Network Drive from any Explorer window (for example, My Computer).
Mapped drives look similar to the local hard disks and CD/DVD drives in your PC. They all appear under My Computer and, if you need to write a filename down, such as X:\accounts\forecast2006.xls, it looks similar to files on the C drive, except that now Microsoft has effectively hidden the drive letter and actual path of where you store documents under My Documents that drive letter prefix may not be so familiar to newer users.