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iPhoto, iTunes, & The Finder
March 4th, 2004

I was sitting in a bar with a buddy on a Friday night. My friend, Trevor, is a guy that has always used PCs at work, and so it made sense for him to buy PCs at home. Now, believe it or not, when I am just hanging out, I am not constantly evangelizing Macs. In fact, a year earlier, when Trevor asked me to recommend a computer for him, I was a little reluctant to say, "Get a Mac, dude!"

The reason for that is I wasn't sure if he would appreciate all that a Mac can be. This kind of goes to my point from my last column that a lot of PC users see their machines as a means to an end, whereas a lot of Macheads just love their Macs as an end to itself.

In fact, I say that from personal experience. My very first work computer was a cranky old DOS machine that I used to painstakingly create Wordstar documents. I felt it was a very slight improvement to an IBM Selectric.

Then I got a job managing a Kinko's-style shop, and it had two Mac SE/30's. I almost immediately began to dream of the possibilities. Man, I was going to change the world with my Mac!

The thing is, however, is that I have always been a techie. From designing and building car stereos in high school, drooling over the very first CD player, and programming basic games on an Apple IIe, this stuff was in my genes. I wasn't sure if Trevor was going to appreciate a Mac. However, since he is a good friend of mine, I recommended an iMac, and he bought a first generation, flat-panel model.

I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like the old saying goes, "No good deed goes unpunished." That was not the case, however. He immediately got into iMovie, iTunes, iPhoto, and .Mac. He uses iChat to talk with his family, and tells me regularly that he is happy that he got a Mac. Trevor did ask some questions about his new Mac, all of which were good ones. The best one had me stumped for a while.

He asked me why iPhoto and iTunes create their own unintelligible folder structure within their respective media folders. (In iTunes this is optional, although it caused quite an uproar when iTunes for Windows came out, because the default setting was to "Organize iTunes Library". Apple quickly released an update to correct this.) He explained that he had spent quite a bit of time rearranging his photos, renaming folders things like "Family Ski Trip" and "My Trip to the VD Clinic". D'oh! I wasn't supposed to let that one out of the bag. I guess I could just delete that, but I am rolling here. Screw it.

Anyway, when he went back into iPhoto, of course, his library was hosed. In his words, "That was a 'What the f*#$?' moment."

Stalling for time, I started with, "Well, Windows is notorious for doing just that. It will place files all over the place, with obscure names, that can totally hose your machine if they are ever tampered with." I realized that, while true, this was a smokescreen and wasn't answering the question. Actually, it was troubling. This did seem like anti-Mac behavior. So I gave it some thought and got back to him.

Sometimes the obvious goes unnoticed, and that is what happened with iTunes and iPhoto for me. I assumed that they were music jukebox and photo management software, but I was wrong. In fact, they are primarily file browsers, nothing more than a specialized, glorified Finder window. The windows are similar to Finder windows, with sidebars, a metal interface (that I actually like), and widgets that, say, change the view in a Finder window, and get rid of red-eye in an iPhoto window.

If you think about it, the Finder doesn't show the reality of the file structure on your hard drive either. It presents that information in a nice, understandable, graphical interface complete with folders that open when you drag items over them. Think command line, and you will be getting closer to a more accurate representation of the file structure on your hard drive.

Just like Apple would discourage you from using a low-level editor to bypass the graphical user interface to manipulate bits on your hard drive, they are also discouraging you from using the Finder to access your music and photo files. You can do it, but why?

Once I got my head wrapped around that one, it made sense to me. However, Apple has this maddening way of showing you the goal line but dropping the ball on the ten. What I mean is that are flashes of brilliance in Mac OS X everywhere, but when you see one of those flashes, you almost always want to know why they didn't go all the way with it. (For example, did you know if you hover a scrolling mouse over the minimized iTunes window, or over the volume slider in the full-sized iTunes window, you can use your scroll-wheel to adjust the volume? Cool, right? Well, I immediately tried it on the volume slider in the menu bar. Of course it doesn't work. What the....?)

This is how I feel about iTunes and iPhoto. If they are meant to be specialized Finders, then why not go all the way? The Finder lets you put folders into folder to create a convenient nested hierarchy. Why the hell can I still not create an album in iPhoto called Vacations, and then create sub-albums of each vacation? I am also frustrated that my iTunes and iPhoto libraries are presented as if the files are in one directory. I know, I know, there is a search field at the top, and besides isn't that what playlists and albums are for? I am just asking for some simple disclosure triangles so that if I am viewing my songs by artist, I can see Bruce Springsteen next to Brian Setzer without seeing the hundreds of songs I have by each guy. I guess browse mode is supposed to be the answer to that problem, but I find myself very rarely using it.

And, finally it does beg the question, "Should there even be future versions of iTunes and iPhoto?" Why not fold their functionality into the Finder? The Finder already has contextual menus that change based on what you are clicking on. Why not have contextual windows that change as well? Click on a music file and the window widgets and sidebar instantly change to play buttons and playlists and artwork. Click on a picture file and bam, there are your albums and the widgets now let you order prints and crop the pictures.

A solution like this would solve Trevor's and many others' dilemma. It would behoove users to keep their music file in one location, but they wouldn't have to. The Finder handles all of the behind the scenes action anyway, so why not let it take care of these media files without the confusion that can be caused when one tries to delve into the iPhoto folder? If the expected improvements in the way the Finder deals with metadata (file identifying information tucked into the structure of the file itself) come about, this would be relatively straight-forward to implement.

But should Apple do it? Let me know.

is an Idiot. He is the co-founder of IWS Interactive, a New York (and now Houston) based development company for Macintosh. Now he spends his time writing about, developing for, and getting clients to buy Macs. Oh, yeah, and he recently had a kid. So his days are filled with taking care of little Jack, then playing with his Mac. He wouldn't have it any other way.

You can send your comments directly to Gary, or you can also post your comments below.

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