The next version of OS X (Mavericks) is going to have file tagging capabilities built directly into Finder (as well as save dialogs and iCloud browsers). In fact, it works in the same way as OpenMeta – the system I’ve espoused all these years – using metadata on the file itself to store the information and expose it to Spotlight. Apple is on the tagging train, and I’m certain they’ll be conducting it in short order.

The disappearing filing system

For the average Mac user, tagging is probably an idea that will take some getting used to, and it may seem like a novelty at this point. However, there lies at its heart a major shift in the way we think about the filesystems we’ve worked with for decades. The core concept behind tagging on a computer is that your documents, photos and other files no longer need to have a specific location in the filesystem in order to create relationships (from the user’s perspective, anyway). Apple has long desired to move away from the idea of deeply-nested folders and an obvious filesystem (an idea that, in reality, probably began at NeXT). Spotlight, Saved Searches and other file-locating tools have been in OS X for a long time. In my opinion they’re still undervalued by most Mac users, but Apple is planning to change that.

Consider iOS. Do you know exactly where you save documents created by each app? Probably not, because you’re not supposed to have to think about it. Organization can get to be a pain in many iOS apps, though. Granted, you probably don’t have as many files on your iOS device as you do on your Mac, but even with a fraction of the number it’s not easy to search, especially across applications. Tagging is one of the missing pieces in this puzzle.

Sandboxing and iCloud are bringing about the removal of folders from our daily lives, for better or worse. Our filesystem is getting more and more opaque as we save documents into iCloud containers we can’t locate and are unable to see from other apps. It’s still possible to work around (see: Cloud Mate), but it’s only going to keep going in this direction as Apple exerts more control over the software ecosystem surrounding it.

The implications of Apple-supported tagging

So, why does OS-native tagging matter in all of this? Isn’t it just something nerds do? Apple’s Mavericks preview reads:

Tags are a powerful new way to organize and find your files, even documents stored in iCloud.

While I scoff at the idea that tagging is “new,” Apple sees that not only will tagging provide an improvement over folders, it will make Macs usable even if everything gets compartmentalized and sandboxed. Offering a universal system that allows files to pass seamlessly from one app to another and be organized in more powerful ways is not just a nice gesture, it’s integral to killing off our current file-in-folder mindset.

Rolling with it

I’m not opposed to this idea, at least for the time being. I’ve preferred tagging systems over folders for a long time. I use shallow folder hierarchies to split contexts apart, but rely on tagging to associate project files and related documents. The binder for all of this is Spotlight. Because I can rapidly (in most cases) search my entire hard drive for every file tagged “project x”, and then filter them by date, filetype and even content, I don’t need to dig through folders or have multiple Finder windows open to do my work.

With my OpenMeta-based tagging system, I rapidly tag my files using apps like Tags, Default Folder X, Leap, HoudahSpot and others. The beauty of the system is that – because Spotlight ties it all together – I’m not bound to one tool and my tags are portable. The same tools help me retrieve the files, but I can also just use Spotlight and I already integrate my tags directly with Finder and the rest of my system. I can create Saved Searches instead of folders, and the same file can exist in multiple Saved Searches simultaneously without duplication or aliases. I’m hoping that my favorite tools soon port over to using Mavericks version of tags1, but the idea of having their functionality built into my OS makes me tingly. It could be pinched nerves, I suppose, but I think it’s mostly relief that – instead of pulling the rug out from under me – Apple is giving me a flying carpet.

I’ve posted some of my thoughts on tagging and best practices before. I plan to take a thoughtful look at my system in the next few weeks and will post an updated version soon. Now that Apple is sailing this bit of productive nerdery to the masses, it’s a good time to jump on board. Your flotilla of folders may not be seaworthy for long.

  1. While switching from one xattr to another shouldn’t be a technical hurdle, I think some of the OpenMeta-based developers are going to lose some motivation. Hopefully we’ll just see them bring bigger, badder third-party tagging tools to show up Finder.