Lion Without the Finder

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.