Files Aren’t Dead, They Just Need to Become Invisible

In There Will Be No Files In The Cloud Fred Wilson argues that file-based cloud computing will become a thing of the past:

This is why I love Google Docs so much. I just create a document and email a link. Nobody downloads anything. There are no attachments in the email. Just a link. Just like the web, following links, getting [stuff] done. I love it. That’s the future. I’m pretty sure of it.

He has a point, but I think it’s important to clarify what he means by “file”. Sorry to go all Wikipedia on you, but I promise ther’s a point on the other side. Wikipedia defines a computer file as follows:

A computer file is a block of arbitrary information, or resource for storing information, which is available to a computer program and is usually based on some kind of durable storage. A file is durable in the sense that it remains available for programs to use after the current program has finished.

The point being that a file is a block of data that is accessible to the programs that need it. Based on that definition files are certainly not going away, because software will always need access to the data that makes it more than a pretty shell.

What is going away though is the need for users to care about files: where they’re located, what file extensions work with what, etc. The best example currently in the wild is probably Notational Velocity, a text editor for the Mac where you don’t need to worry about where your files are located. From the web sit’s description:

The same area is used both for creating notes and searching. I.e., in the process of entering the title for a new note, related notes appear below, letting users file information there if they choose. Likewise, if a search reveals nothing, one need simply press return to create a note with the appropriate title.

Those files still exist, you just don’t have to go into Finder and start a search from there. Ther’s no File | Open command because it’s not needed. The data is in the app, and you interact directly with it. So if that’s what Fred Wilson means by saying “That’s the future. I’m pretty sure of it.” then we agree. But if he means that w’ll lose the “computer file” as an entity, I disagree. Fred ends his piece with this:

So if you are working in the cloud storage space, I think you’ve got a bit of a conundrum. The reality of the market today is that people use files. You need to support that use case, enhance it, and make peopl’s lives easier. But over time, that use case will go away. And what people will want is a service that doesn’t have files as the atomic unit.

I don’t think it’s that big of a conundrum. Notational Velocity doesn’t care where I store my .txt files, but I happen to store them in Dropbox. It doesn’t mean I now have to think about my files and wonder if they’re ok over there. It just means that the app pulls its data from a folder in Dropbox.

So taking that example all the way to the future of the computer file, this could be a great selling point for cloud storage companies: we host your files/data so that your apps will work anywhere and on any computer. (Ok, that sentence might need some Marketing magic, but you catch the drift).

Even if manipulating files becomes a thing of the past, data isn’t going anywhere. BBEdit 10 is already going down this road – they are encouraging users to sync application support files with Dropbox so you can easily maintain multiple installs. My guess is that many apps will take this approach where they add seamless data syncing to their offering without having to go into the cloud storage business themselves.

We don’t have to kill files. We just have to build apps that allow users to stop thinking about them.