Launching Environments & Launching Projects

When I am using OS X, I work in two ways.

One way is enviromentally-oriented. For example, I open Chrome to look at websites. I launch an environment to access a bunch of things of the same type; in this case, websites.

Another way is project-oriented. I almost never open InDesign by itself. Instead, I launch a project; in this case, a specific design that I’m working on. I just click on the file I want, and the relevant application opens it.

Of course, it’s not just work. The same goes for play and (gasp!) consumption too. I open iTunes to open an environment for music. But I click on an mp4 file to launch VLC to play a video.

I like having these two modes of workflow available. To me, it makes no sense to open InDesign, and then click on “File”, and then click on “Open”, and then browse through the file architecture to find the project I’m working on, and then finally opening it. Even with a keyboard shortcut, accessing the file architecture from within the environment feels like an unnecessary chore. Similarly, I cannot even imagine clicking on a specific URL (file?) to open Chrome. Sometimes it just makes sense to launch environments, and other times it just makes sense to launch projects.

In fact, the two workflow modes are not merely two ways to work (and play and consume). They represent two ways of thinking: tool-oriented and task-oriented. Of course, in thinking about what to do, one always has to think about both how to best do it and what needs to be done. But the questions can be prioritized. Sometimes it is more important to think first about the tool to use, and other times it is more important to think first about the task to be accomplished.

The problem with the iOS environment is that it exclusively privileges the environmentally-oriented workflow. While, to emphasize again, there is nothing wrong with thinking about tools first in some cases, it’s entirely unobvious that this way of thinking is preferable in all cases. Yet, the universal preference for tool-oriented thinking is exactly what the core design philosophy of iOS assumes, builds on, and mandates. Everything is to be done from an app environment. And so I am worried that the same core design philosophy appears to be creeping into OS X with the increasing prominence of iCloud in Mountain Lion.

The core design philosophy that exclusively privileges tool-oriented thinking is, obviously, no accident. Steve Jobs articulated this vision in 2005 (thanks to @tiny_mach for the reference):

Now, e-mail, there’s always been a better way to find stuff. You don’t keep your e-mail on your file system, right? The app manages it. And that was the breakthrough, as an example, in iTunes. You don’t keep your music in the file system, that would be crazy. You keep it in this app that knows about music and knows how to find things in lots of different ways. Same with photos: we’ve got an app that knows all about photos. And these apps manage their own file storage.

And eventually, the file system management is just gonna be an app for pros and consumers aren’t gonna need to use it.

Jobs is clearly right, about email and music and photos. What is doubtful is that his point generalizes: that the environment-oriented workflow is always the better way of managing things.

Importantly, contrary to what Jobs seems to think, the project-oriented workflow is not exclusive to geeks and pros. Recent discussions on the shortcomings of iCloud makes this point apparent (my emphasis):

But Pierce added that “the biggest limitation to Dropbox is that it works with traditional file and folders.” There are times such a traditional approach feels entirely appropriate—as with text editors, where users are accustomed to saving individual documents.

Even ordinary users, when it comes to writing, prefers to launch a project, and not to launch an environment. It’s not, I believe, merely a matter of tradition versus the future. Instead, the two modes of workflow exist because there exist two ways of thinking, each good in some contexts but not others. (Of course, what those respective contexts are may well vary from person to person.)

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

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2 thoughts on “Launching Environments & Launching Projects

  1. Great post. Your environment vs. project (or tool vs. task) breakdown is right on, and raises some huge questions about the future of computing.

    Whether Jobs is right or wrong depends on how you define “pros” and “consumers” (“ordinary users”). I think there’s probably a huge segment of ordinary users (i.e., a majority of potential consumers) like my parents and siblings who don’t care about launching projects. (My sister asked me recently about how to duplicate and rename a Word doc from within Word’s Open File dialog; my sense is she was thinking very environmentally.)

    I agree though that seeing how iCloud is being folded into Mountain Lion raises big concerns about where OS X’s file system is headed. If their iCloud strategy is any indication, it seems like OS X will either have to be forked into consumer (iCloud-like file system) and pro (hierarchical file system) branches, or else iCloud file storage will have to get much more complex. Surely Apple has a roadmap for all this. I wanna see it!!

    Incidentally, in his book “The Humane Interface”, the late Jef Raskin (the guy who led the Macintosh project in the early ’80s before Steve Jobs took it over) has a section called “Applications Abolished” about this issue of tools vs. tasks. His view may be the inverse of Jobs’s. Raskin wanted to do away with environment (app) silos, and instead change the whole paradigm so apps would become just toolsets you could use on any document. If I remember correctly, his vision for a “humane” OS would be, in a sense, all file structure, but not a hierarchical one, but a spatial one — one that you could zoom in and out of. I can’t remember how he thought “environment-centric” apps like email or web browsers would work, but his view is good food for thought. (Could you have an “app economy” in that paradigm? What would it look like?)

    Again, great inaugural post.

  2. Pingback: Forget the File System | Raging Thunderbolt

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