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Future Finder

Are you happy with the Finder? Most people like it a fair amount, and there's people who would die before using anything else like DOS. But let's face it, the Finder is far from perfect, and even Apple knows it. Unfortunately for Apple, one of their original human interface gurus, Bruce Tognazzini (better known as TOG, and author of "TOG on Interface") has reportedly just departed for Sun.

I don't mean to imply that the Finder is dead or dying, but from some plans that I've heard, it will have some real competition in about a year. Keisuke Hara, the author of a slick Finder-replacement DA called MaxFiles, is hard at work on a new program that will truly replace the Finder, something no other program has ever successfully done. It's not a trivial project, and Hara does not expect to finish any time soon, but here are some of the highlights from our discussions of his new Finder-replacement, currently called FileMax.

File database -- Perhaps the main problem with the Finder is that it tries to be too many things to too many people. Whenever that happens, people become disappointed. At its base level, the Finder is a database, one that keeps track of the many files and folders on your hard disk and the various attributes that each of those files and folder have. On top of that database sits a graphical shell for working with database records (the files). That term, "working with" is intentionally general because so many of the Finder's functions seem to be rather tacked on at the end without much thought for how they should really act. A classic example of this is the awkward method of dismounting a floppy by dragging it to the trash.

So the first thing that FileMax will have is an extremely fast database engine that will work with the current Desktop file(s) so you can always go back to the Finder if you wish. Most people will never mess with the database engine of FileMax simply because it doesn't really do all that much different from the current Finder database engine. The main difference is that FileMax will be completely wired with AppleEvents so that other programmers can extend the functionality of the Finder quickly and easily by hooking into the various events.

New interface ideas -- This is where we get into the more interesting proposals for FileMax. To solve the Finder problem with dragging floppies to the trash, FileMax will have a DiskBox that holds aliases to all your floppies. (Actually this DiskBox idea is in the process of being implemented for System 7 already by an enterprising shareware author - look for it soon.) When you want to dismount a floppy, you simply drag it to your DiskBox icon, which is actually a tiny program. That program ejects the disk and saves an alias of the contents of that disk so that you can find its files easily later on. Speaking of finding files, FileMax will have a more powerful Find command than currently exists in the Finder today, most notably in that you can create what are called "collections" of files with the results. So if you find all your MacWrite documents that haven't changed in two years you can create a collection of them (which is optionally either the original files or a bunch of temporary aliases) and then do whatever you want with that collection.

Aliases will be much improved in FileMax. If you want to create one, merely hold down the command key and drag the appropriate icon where you want the alias to be, much like option-dragging copies a file now. FileMax will also be better about making the aliases work exactly like the originals, even in places they don't right now. For instance, Get Info... on an alias now does not allow you to work on the original file, which is the main reason you would use Get Info on an alias in the first place.

Still, this stuff is interesting, but not that radical. There are a few radical concepts in FileMax which may become extremely popular. The first is what's called a "super folder." It's a normal folder in which you put a set of files, then you set a "super folder" bit in the Get Info, and the folder no longer opens when you double-click on it. Instead, it runs all the applications contained inside and opens all the documents. Option-double-clicking would open the folder like a normal folder for editing of the contents. This feature could be especially handy for reducing the massive clutter that now comes with many applications. In addition, programs that are stupid about the locations of their support files like Word 5.0 (the Word Commands folder has to be at the same folder level as Word 5.0 itself) could simply be combined in a single super folder and ignored. Finally, it would be trivial to set up work sets of various applications and documents by storing aliases to the various files in different super folders.

Balloon help was a neat idea, but frankly, Apple implemented it badly. Most people who realize that it's there turn it on briefly and then turn it off, and even if you want to use it on occasion, you're still insulted with the balloon popping up as you select Hide Balloons. FileMax will have balloon help too, but will also have a Control Panel for setting the equivalent of a user level. So if I consider myself to be a level three user out of a possible five, I would only see the balloons that are coded for more advanced users. There is also an exception rule for the first time you see something, since a simple control might need explanation, but only once. Like some of the shareware and freeware utilities, FileMax's balloon help will also be easy to toggle with a key. Perhaps most interesting though, will be the replacement of the Get Info dialog box with an editable balloon when you are pointing at a particular icon. This will let you view and edit comments and click the locked and stationery bits without having to select the file, choose a menu item, and then close the Get Info window when you're done. That's way too clumsy.

New SFDialog -- I wrote above about the concept of the collection in terms of dealing with the set of found files. FileMax actually will take the concept of the collection further yet, patching the System in an area which isn't generally handled by the Finder. One of the oldest and most outdated parts of the Macintosh interface is the Standard File Dialog because it was designed for 128K Macs running a single application on a small screen. FileMax uses a simple modeless (in contrast to modal, which means that you have to exit that mode, i.e. close the dialog, before you can do anything else) dialog displaying a collection of files and any application-specific features like file-type selection buttons. The collection is displayed in an outline mode reminiscent of the Finder's outline mode in System 7, but much faster and with all the volumes as the top level. What differentiates this collection from a normal outline is that it respects the application's wishes in terms of which files to display, and since it's modeless, you can use FileMax's Find function or any other function while in that collection. It also features two special folders at the top of the outline hierarchy, Recent and Permanent, which track recently-accessed and permanent files and folders, much as Super Boomerang and ShortCut do. Saving is slightly different, because you have to assign a name and location to your file. At the top of the outline is the name of the current folder (which is also indicated graphically in the outline list but you can shrink the whole thing so you don't have to look at the outline) and a text entry box for the filename. Alongside is a Save button which is grey when no changes have been made. Since this Save dialog is modeless, it's a single click to save your file at any time. Save As is simply a matter of changing the name or location and saving again. I'm drooling for this one, and I'm sure it will become even smoother before release.

Other tweaks -- Because FileMax will be completely wired with AppleEvents and is totally modular, some obvious openings for products appear. Many of you miss the Finder Sounds hack that went away with Finder 6 because Apple removed the sound hooks in Finder 7. That, along with the custom icon family features of SunDesk which stopped working in Finder 7, will both be back in FileMax. The possibilities for additional customization, even with something like UserLand's Frontier event scripting program, are endless.

Other little tweaks that will please the die-hard Mac user include much faster copying of files (done by another small application in the background if desired, as in DiskDoubler), stable file comments, iconization of open applications, drag & drop printing, and an outline list view that starts with the mounted volumes, which does not cut off long files names, and which allows you to customize the order of the fields, so if you want to have name followed immediately by label, date, then size, so be it. One thing that's not in FileMax is a hierarchical Apple menu, or an Apple menu at all. Instead FileMax will have a resizable floating palette that will list whatever the user wants to put in it, including running applications. One interesting feature of this palette is that it can turn itself into a menu if the user drags it up to the menu bar, satisfying both the big screen and the small screen users.

I've talked a lot about what this program will do, based on various discussions, but to tell the truth, I don't think this program will ever make it to market. I see no reason why Apple won't just hire Hara and buy the rights because it's easier than allowing a third-party shell like FileMax to become common in the marketplace, something Apple doesn't really want to happen because it would hurt the Mac in terms of consistency. I also suspect that the Apple system software teams will realize that FileMax embodies a lot of good ideas, probably helped along by many people who have thought long and hard about what's wrong with the current Macintosh system software. I would certainly hope that they would be able to accept external input into what's right and wrong with the Finder and modify it to make it both easier and far more powerful at the same time.

Information from:
Kiesuke Hara, MaxFiles author


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