Lion Without the Finder

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

After reflecting on the parade of new features coming in OS X Lion, as revealed at the WWDC Keynote, I was struck by one omission. As far as I can recall, the word “Finder” was never mentioned. True, there were occasional references to “the Desktop,” but not the Finder itself. This seemed a bit odd at first, given that the Finder has been a core component of Mac OS versions dating all the way back to 1984. It has practically defined the Aqua user interface of Mac OS X.

True, many of the apps representing the more than 250 features in Lion were not mentioned in the Keynote. And, as it turns out, there are several new wrinkles added to the Finder in OS X Lion. The most notable is an All My Files view that shows all your personal files in a single window, organized by categories (such as PDFs, Music). Still, I remained surprised by the Finder omission, until Apple’s likely rationale hit me over the head.

In my view, what is most significant about the Finder in Lion is how much the OS allows you to ignore it. In fact, I believe Apple is in the process of deprecating the Finder (“deprecate” is AppleSpeak for “reducing a feature’s presence over time, with an ultimate goal of eliminating it altogether”). Why? It is all part of Apple’s strategy to move OS X away from a traditional file-based view of our data and towards one that is more closely aligned with iOS (which, by the way, has no Finder). Apple’s new view of your computer works like this: You have photos on your Mac; you access these photos from applications such as iPhoto; there is no need to search for photo files in some artificial Finder folder hierarchy.

Calm down! Take a deep breath.

The Finder is still very much alive in Lion. In fact, after installing the upgrade, you can still do just about everything with the Finder in Lion that you could do with the Finder in Snow Leopard. If the Finder is to eventually die sometime down the road, that time is still a ways off.

However, Apple doesn’t have to ever actually kill the Finder to accomplish its goal. What will likely happen is that the Finder’s importance will be steadily reduced over time until the vast majority of Mac users will be content not to use it. In this regard, the Finder will become similar to what Terminal is today: an application that exists for those people who want it, but remaining untouched by the typical user. 

How will Apple accomplish this Finder vanishing act? The surprising answer is that almost all the tools necessary to do so are already in place in Lion. With only minor modifications to the OS, Apple could vastly reduce the role of the Finder in Lion. It’s as if Apple has done all the behind-the-walls rewiring necessary to  carry this out. All that remains is for Apple to throw the switch.

Allow me to demonstrate. Let’s walk through how an OS X session might proceed once Apple has flipped the metaphorical switch:

Starting up

Currently, when your Mac starts up, it typically finishes in the Finder, leaving you at your Desktop. Without much effort, startup could instead terminate in Launchpad. You can already pretty much accomplish this shift yourself, simply by making Launchpad the final item in your account’s Login Items list.

From Launchpad, you can open any application in your Applications folder. New software downloaded from the Mac App Store (which is how Apple wants you to get all your software) is automatically added to Launchpad, so you will always be up-to-date.

What if you want to start by opening a document rather than an application? Apple doesn’t encourage this, but you can still do so without the Finder. Assuming what you want is in the Documents folder, you can access it from the Documents item in the Dock (which remains visible while in Launchpad). Here is one area where Apple will likely make some interface changes before we can adios the Finder. I can easily imagine a future OS X update where the Finder’s All My Files view is accessible as a component of Launchpad, rather than a Finder window. Additionally, how about if, when you shift-click on an application icon in Launchpad, a menu pops up containing all the documents openable by that program?

Working in an app

After launching an application from Launchpad, the program typically opens up to a window — with the Finder’s desktop in the background. Uh-oh. This is not what you would want if you were trying to hide the Finder. The solution to this already exists in Lion: full-screen view.

When an app is in full-screen view, all you see is the app’s interface. If Lion made opening in full-screen view the default option, the desktop would be absent from view almost all the time. The problem with doing this is that most current software needs to be rewritten to support full-screen view. So Apple can’t make full-screen the default yet. But trust me, it’s coming.

In full-screen view, even the menubar is hidden — until you move the pointer (what used to be called the cursor) to the top of the screen. I expect that, over time, apps will be rewritten so that common and essential features can be accessed directly from the screen view itself (as is the case with most iOS apps today) — eliminating most of the need for ever going to the menubar.

Transitioning among apps

Another advantage of full-screen view, for bypassing the Finder, is that each application is in its own separate space. You can shift among spaces (by three-finger right or left swipes of the screen) without any need for the Finder or a trip to the Desktop. Alternatively, you can go to Mission Control (via a three-fingered swipe up) and quickly navigate to any space or open window of any application — regardless of where it would otherwise be in the sequence of spaces.

Refinements are still needed. For example, at least in the current build of Lion, applications in full-screen view have trouble maintaining that view if you try to open more than one document window at a time. But this could be easily fixed. The major construction is already completed and in place.

Quitting apps

When you quit an app, you are typically returned to the Finder. With almost no effort, this could be changed so that you go to Launchpad by default instead.

Actually, there may be little need for quitting apps at all. Rather, as in iOS, once you launch an app it could just stay open indefinitely. By building on the new Resume and Auto Save features in Lion, apps not currently in use could stay open with just a minimum of memory — so there will be no need to quit them. If and when you return to an inactive app, it will quickly “re-activate” and display exactly the state where you last left it.  

If you decide that you do need to really quit an app, you’ll do so from the Quit (or, if needed, Force Quit) option in each application’s Dock menu. Command-Q would also still work. Again, this eliminates any need to go to the Finder or the menubar at the top of the screen.

Bottom line

My point here isn’t that the Finder will be gone in Lion. Clearly, it isn’t. As I said, it remains almost as prevalent in Lion as it has been in prior OS X versions. Nor is my point that Apple easily could have chosen to dispense with the Finder in Lion. Nope. There are still too many situations where going to the Finder is critical. What I am saying is this: The building blocks needed to push the Finder aside are all present in Lion. It doesn’t require much of a stretch to imagine how Apple could accomplish deprecating the Finder in some future, not-too-distant update to OS X.

Is this a good thing? Am I looking forward this transition? My reaction is mixed.

On the one hand, I anticipate enjoying many of the new Lion features. Using Mission Control, especially on a laptop, is far superior to dealing with clicking through overlapping windows in the Finder. Even compared to Exposé and Spaces, Mission Control is a step forward. Despite my initial concern that full-screen views would be like reverting back to the days before “Multi-Finder,” I find myself liking the more immersive experience that this view provides.

On the other hand, I am very far from ready to abandon the Finder. I prefer to be able to see my files and organize them into folders of my choosing (even if they contain documents from several different applications). I like using the Desktop as a temporary spot for storing items. The Finder is still the best interface for dealing with batches of files — for editing, copying, moving or deleting. Copying text and graphics across apps also works better in a multi-windowed multi-application environment. At least until Apple includes a search function in Launchpad, the Finder/Spotlight is also the best way to locate items on your drive. Finally, for troubleshooting and such, I prefer to maintain access to the full hierarchy on my drive, including the System files. And so on. And so on.

The day may come when Apple develops a way to handle all of these tasks without requiring the Finder. But that day is not yet here. My fear is that Apple may instead push the Finder aside without ever providing an adequate alternative — much as it has done with iOS on the iPad. We will be left to simply “deal with it.” I love my iPad, but I’m not at all convinced that I want my Mac to work exactly like one.

Regardless, the iOSification of OS X has clearly begun. Except for the lack of a touchscreen (which is impressively mimicked by multi-touch gestures on a trackpad), Mac OS X Lion already functions similarly to an iOS environment in significant ways. You may relish Apple’s push towards a “Post-PC” world. Or you may dread it. It doesn’t matter. It’s where Apple and OS X are going.

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I LIKE the “All My Files” option. I only have 7,715 files to search through when I need to know what my sales results were back in February. One, massive, breathtaking list of files is MUCH more convenient than those nasty “folder” thingies: Sales -> Reports ->2011. Who needs that hassle? Much easier to simply look at a massive list of EVERYTHING on my computer and find what I need.


I like Apple 99% of the time, I really do. But ALL my files in one list? How did THAT get by Steve? Maybe things are slipping through because of his medical leave.

Ted Landau

Even by application I have some with hundreds of thousands of documents in a particular application format.

Not to disagree with your overall sentiment (with which I concur), you have to know that you are an extreme outlier here. I can’t imagine, for example, having even 10,000 documents that I had created in a single app such as Word or Pages etc.

Even with your large number, I would guess that the odds you need ready access to the complete list is slim. I would imagine that a list of the 25 or 50 most recently accessed files would suffice most of the time. Apple could include an “Other” option for when you needed to get a more Finder-like full listing.


I have to admit, I have never been a big fan of full screen view; it reminds me of my time with Windows PCs in the early 90’s, and my having to help friends/colleagues find their way back to other applications (they were then called programmes).

Even though full screen view is available now on certain applications, like Pages and Word 2011, it does not take up the whole screen and I seldom use it. 

My work style is to move back and forth between open apps in a given space and between spaces, particularly moving content between them. Full screen view interferes with that fluidity. I will have to play with it on Lion to see if I want to use it.

As far as ditching the finder goes, I say it’s about time. iOS has shown us, unambiguously, how it can be done without compromising productivity. The finder was good for its day, but so too was the terminal, and I would add, the mouse (yes, I realise that many professions absolutely require it, but a lot of such use is simply inertial).

I also think that learning to access items without the finder is a necessary interim step to learning how to interact with the computer’s next evolutionary interface - voice.

Dave H

All files on my system, sorted by type, would be seriously annoying. It’s not simply that I have millions of files on-line…. but I do. Every digital photo, half my 35mm photos, every video I have shot, etc. live on my 8TB Drobo.

And often, the right answer is a heirarchy of folders. When I’m working on a project, like a DVD, all assets live in a folder, and many belong to multiple applications. But years later, it would be great to sort through all photos by dates, project subjects, or other contents… there’s certainly more than one App for that. The only OS that kind of did this right on the desktop was BeOS.

The idea of thousands of files is only really handled in iOS for music playback… and that does the kind things I’m talking about here.. I can view the same large data set in multiple ways: by song, year, artist, genre, etc. No other iOS model for fike management makes any sense on a lsrger machine. In fact, the lack of such management is already issue, and will get worse as iOS machines replace more PC functions.


The idea of thousands of files is only really handled in iOS for music playback? and that does the kind things I?m talking about here.. I can view the same large data set in multiple ways: by song, year, artist, genre, etc. No other iOS model for fike management makes any sense on a lsrger machine

Agreed, but I did not get the sense that that was on offer. Indeed, the finder is not going away, nor could it anytime soon - perhaps never (practically speaking).

I do think we are entering an era, however, where it no longer needs to be the primary portal of data access for most day to day use. That in turn is going to have substantial impact on how the next generation learns to interact with these devices, and in turn, how the device systems are designed.

Gareth Harris

I organize my work by project, not by application. A project has many types of files - text, databases, documents, drawings, calendars, etc.


I’m hoping that TotalFinder will be made a full screen app. Then I could just swipe over to do file stuff. Since it uses tabs it wouldn’t need multiple windows. Perfect!! :D


...and I was hoping iOS would get a Finder.  The future’s gonna suck.

Turn around Steve, you’re headed the wrong way!


This has got me thinking about my own files. As much as I like the idea of having “physical” locations for all my files, directory structure navigation is still a hassle. It requires a commitment of time and organization from the user.

The problem is that searches are slow and inaccurate, and piles of documents are page hogs. Even well-ordered directories can become long walks through the maze.

When it comes right down to it, I don’t care where most of my files are on the computer, I just want to have them at hand when I need them. iTunes playlist-style projects would more useful than the traditional directory structure in many ways, since files linked by working relationship in multiple ways would be more efficient than files grouped by directory.

I think Lion’s Version system will help this a fair bit, by reducing the need for multiple saves. Systems for sorting rich keyword metadata will help a lot. I kind of hope that the JPEG consortium will come up with a new file format that supports tagging, so that the community keyword tagging done on sites like Flickr, facebook and the Boorus is saved to the actual file, and preserved when downloaded.


People use different filing strategies. We have been taught, by our operating systems, to store things hierarchically, but that is not always how we process information, think, work or problem solve.

For example, I have hierarchically organised my file system into, among other things, Active… Proposals, Projects, etc. Under Proposals, I have other categories like Clinical_Trials, Immunology, Vaccine_Trials, Surveillance, for example. Under Vaccine_Trials, I have headings like Influenza, Pneumococcal, Typhoid etc, and under these, lists of various individual trials. Once a proposal is approved, then I manually port it to Active…Projects, and insert it into the right type of project, using only the approved protocols, SOPs and other working documents. Tedious, but effective. At least for me.

The problem arises when I access a particular vaccine trial proposal, for example. I will have a mix of different file types, including both Word and Pages, Excel, Powerpoint and Keynote, PDFs - and that does not include any background Stata datasets, email or Notebook notes. What I would ideally like is to be able to tag all of my documents (i.e. files) by a specific proposal,  and have my OS, on the back end, organise that for me in whatever way it sees fit, so long as it becomes a true relational dataset. This way, I should be able, in Star Trek fashion, to ask the computer to bring up my ‘Live attenuated flu vaccine trial 2011’, for example, and everything is at my beck and call. I should be able to ask it to list all Stata datasets, graphics, Word documents or slides associated with this proposal, and see them all. I should further be able to ask it (or perhaps an application - I don’t care which responds so long as it is the right response) to show me the latest, say, Word document for the protocol.

Instead, I have to manually go back to my artificially created hierarchy, and search for these, and God help me if I have misfiled something under another proposal I am working on simultaneously (it has happened more than once). [Further edit - Spotlight is a lifesaver here.]

Does Lion offer a solution to free me from this organisational toil? Probably not, nor has anything else I have examined under real world, time-pressured conditions. Rather, the mere fact that Apple are at least rethinking the finder gives me hope that we are moving, at last, past the 1980s, and that either they, or some enterprising third party, will develop a viable solution that boosts my productivity without taxing my time, and allows me to work the way I actually think.


I have thousands of images in my Aperture library.  I retrieve them by Keywords.  I have hundreds and hundreds of bookmarks all in a hierarchy of folders but I tend to google most of them, which is quicker than drilling down for them. 

The same can apply to documents.


Unless they can come up with a hierarchical filing system that does not involve Finder, then Finder will always be a part of computing.  In fact, since Finder IS, essentially, the user interface to a hierarchical filing system, Finder will always be with us no matter what they call it. Some people simply need an hierarchical filing system that they can manually adjust simply because of the sheer numbers of files they produce - and that is not limited to professionals like photographers who produce may produce tens of thousands of files a year. Simple things like home finance files are best arranged in hierarchies based on things like dates, types of transactions, etc.  Heck, even email programs allow for hierarchical storage of email.

Also, the data handling requirements of mobile devices is significantly different than full-capable computers. That is why iOS (currently) manages to do without a finder (hierarchical) storage system. And that will change as mobile devices add capabilities. Frankly, rather than Finder slowly being regulated to the background on computers, I see a more-finder like (if not full blown Finder) being aded to mobile devices as their capabilities become more like a full-blown computer.

In short, while a more-iOS like interface may be placed on top of Finder, Finder will be there for a LONG time to come - even with voice controls.


A minor point, but the “pointer” was never called the “cursor” except by those who are being imprecise or didn’t know better. The “cursor” has always been the marker on the display where keystrokes and “pastes” go. The “pointer” was always the on-screen representation of the pointing device, usually a mouse, trackball, joystick, etc. The cursor can usually be placed only in text fields; the pointer can be moved over any point on display to select, click, or draw.


I should be able, in Star Trek fashion, to ask the computer to bring up my ?Live attenuated flu vaccine trial 2011?,

If I’m understanding your need correctly: Upon creating any new doc that relates to the trial at hand, use Cmd-I and paste or type all such key terms into the info box. Wouldn’t a search then bring up all docs from that data?


f I?m understanding your need correctly: Upon creating any new doc that relates to the trial at hand, use Cmd-I and paste or type all such key terms into the info box

That is an excellent suggestion. I have tried this approach, but find it more tedious than the within-application/file approach that I currently use, and that works for me. Basically, I have to remember to do it from the finder, whereas I seem to be more mindful about tagging and filing from within the open file.

My complaint remains that my approach, and nearly any that requires my input, is both laborious and subject to gross human error. Perhaps what I need to do is create an Apple Script to do this for me, but have not made the time.

Still, thanks for following up with the suggestion.

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