Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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449 words

Home folder icon Where are my files stored? That's an important question. Both for finding them but also to be able to make complete backups of your relevant data. I think that in OS X, the locations for storing files aren't always well chosen.

You start off with your home folder. Apple pre-organises it into desktop, documents, library, movies, music, pictures, public and sites. Many of these folders must be mysterious to Joe average user but it's not too bad. Changing the structure is probably not recommended as many OS X programs will be dumb enough to make assumptions about the names of folders. This in turn means that while this is my home folder, I am not the one to dictate its looks. Bad one. Accepting Apple's choice and using the folders according to their names – which I often find hard as not all of my photos are not documents at the same time &c – this leaves two outstanding folders in my opinion: The one for your documents and the one for the library.

Documents folder icon If my home folder isn't actually owned by me, I'd consider the documents folder my personal kingdom. There is exactly one person to decide its fate – and that's me. Unfortunately this isn't true. Many applications simply create (and re-create) folders with their own name in there. Many of them won't ask you whether you approve of this intrusion nor do they give you an option that stops them from doing so. There goes your private folder in your home folder on your hard drive in your computer...

Library folder icon The library folder is the opposite – it can be considered 'mystery' or 'owned by the system'. The system will dump the junk it needs to run there, e.g. preferences or caches. If you want to add something to the system, your additions go in there, it's your place for customising the system. Do you see a question coming? If you don't go read the back issues and see how predictable I am... Why the f.. is my mail stored in there? ... and my address book and my stickies?

Somehow this blurs the whole distinction of what the different folders are for even more. Furthermore, it can leave with the feeling that they don't know where those particular bits of what presumably are their data are and how to copy them, back them up or delete them.

In short: I should be able to choose the location where any of my data are stores – for as long as we have to deal with folder and path based file systems at least – and the distinction between my own folders and the computer's should be clear.

November 11, 2003, 11:41


Comment by Ross: User icon

This article brings up an interesting point: I’ve come to “accept” the policy that Apple has adopted with some of its iApps (iTunes, iPhoto in particular) that the app is responsible for managing the details of where document files (mp3s) and meta-data files (playlists) are stored, and since the app provides the mechanism for searching/adding/renaming/deleting files, thus the exact locations and layouts of the files on the filesystem are not needed by the user.

But the case of backing up files is not covered. For that operation, a user might very well need to know more details. True - in many cases the answer is simply “back up everything in your music (or photos) directory and don’t worry about what’s inside”, but it’s not clear that works in all cases (and incremental restoration from a file loss would be difficult at best).

Perhaps a system-level service for backup/restore that could be accessed by any application that is responsible for its document file management? I don’t have any idea what that would look like though.

November 11, 2003, 17:23

Comment by steve h: User icon

I don’t know that I really understood the post, but the organization seems pretty logical to me. I mean, there has to be some kind of organization unless each app is going to just scatter it’s files whereever it sees fit (as on Windows). At least with Apples organization, the division between system settings and user settings is clearly defined. And your Library folder is not populated by the system, the system doesn’t need it at all to run, it is populated with user-specific settings. So what better place than the user’s folder? Or is the argument that it should be hidden? Personally I like being able to go into it when I need to troublshoot an app.

As for the Documents folder, some apps use it religiously and some are easy to steer elsewhere. Personally I don’t keep much there and haven’t had any significant problems with that (I agree it is annoying that Adobe and MS seem to always want to recreate folders in there, but that’s hardly Apples fault).

Ross: you can tell iTunes where to store the music database in the Preferences->Advanced panel (I keep mine on an external firewire drive). You can achieve the same effect for iPhoto by creating a symbolic link in the Pictures/iPhoto directory to your library at another location (Apple should make it a preference as in iTunes though).

November 11, 2003, 20:21

Comment by joe: User icon

I agree withyou about the naming for the Documents folder, it should be for the user, or apple should have created an additional folder as an alternative like “my files”. That would help clear up confusion for new users and switchers (from win and 9). Or apple should have used a name such as “Application Data”.

I have no problem with the Documents folder being filled with application files, but Apple should have created clear guidelines for developers about where to put files. This would have reduced the confusion about where app data can be found.

My solution has been to create a folder within home called ” joe data” with a space in front of my name, and then a folder called “——————” as a spacer. This puts my data folder, then I really don’t use the other folders in home. I create an alias for ” joe data” in the dock, the favoritesfolder, and in the finder browser - for easy access to the folder that actually holds my data.

November 11, 2003, 21:22

Comment by James LeMay: User icon

I agree that you should choose where your home folder is located. I would go much farthter than that.

I would prefer to keep my stuff (this means fonts, addresses, mail, iTunes, iPhotos, all my various documents, Safari bookmarks and all preferences… maybe even applications) on a non-system drive. I believe in keeping the system and my data separate. It makes data backups (and system updates) much easier. How in the world will I migrate my stuff to a G5? It will require moving all addresses, mail, photos, music, preferences, bookmarks, and data to an external drive, and then moving all that data back to the G5 in the Apple-prescribed places. I know iSync will handle some of it, but not all of it. Apple should allow users to create their own structures for storing data. I do most my organization by project. So the documents folder has no meaning to me, and besides there simply isn’t room on my system drive for all the audio, video, animation and flash that go into my work.

How about a preference pane that allows a user to set the folders where each type of data is stored? The defaults could stay as-is, but individuals could change those defaults to other locations. That way, I could set my HOME folder to be on a separate (more portable) drive. Perhaps this is a limitation of the UNIX system underneath, but I think Apple could easily find a way around.

November 11, 2003, 22:46

Comment by Mike Cohen: User icon

I keep my documents in a folder called “Mike’s Docs” and all of my work in a folder called Projects.

For my email, I’ve installed UW imapd and I archive all of my email to the local server, which stores it in a MAIL folder in my home directory. I’m now in the process of migrating my email archives from Eudora mailboxes to the local server, so I can access it from Mail.app or any other mail client.

November 12, 2003, 3:04

Comment by James Katt: User icon

The folder structure of Mac OS X allows you to protect your files when you have separate accounts for people. It also allows programs to have a default place for files.

It doesn’t mean you have to use your default folders.

Think outside the box.

You can create your own document folder, for example, at the level of the hard drive - i.e. “hardrive/Joes_documents”. You can set the ownership to yourself and the permissions, so no one else can change what is inside or read what is inside. You can then store your stuff there and open files with your applications of choice there. You can even place your document folder on another hard drive. I put my iTunes music on another hard drive so that iTunes can play without interruptions from disk accesses from other applications.

November 12, 2003, 5:24

Comment by ssp: User icon

Whew, many points made here. Thanks everybody for your comments and additional thoughts.

Just to clarify a few things first: I don’t think Apple’s default folders in your home folder are too bad. I do think, though that the library and documents folders are special (as are the sites and public folders, but much fewer people will use them) in that they are tied into the system:

The system will store its defaults within the library folder and components the system accesses will go in there. The library folder is rightly placed within your home folder and as any, well most, files shouldn’t be hidden. But it does have a special purpose and a some mystery surrounding it o many users.

The documents folder is also special as it is the folder open and save dialogue boxes will default to. I consider that a good idea as it makes it easy for people to organise their documents well. The thing I dislike is the fact that applications will store documents and folders in there without asking the user. While this is in principle an application level problem and not a system level one – Apple does set a bad example with their own applications. The fact that other applications, e.g. Mail, don’t store the data you entrust them with in the documents folder doesn’t make things better.

I also see that many of the problems I see can probably be worked around using symlinks or mroe advanced technical tools doing the appropriate magic. But that wasn’t my point – which was more aimed towards Joe average user who may not want to do or even know about these tricks. The way file management works should be ‘just right’ from the beginning. Of course you should still be able to customise everything to suit your particular advanced needs but the default should be cleaner and less confusing.

Ross: While I’d in principle say that the user should have the ultimate control over his files, I agree that using iApps is a reasonable compromise. I tend to find iTunes doing its job particularly well, as it actually aids your own file management. iPhoto’s file management is too cluttered for my taste – but I don’t use iPhoto, so I don’t mind too much.

November 13, 2003, 0:21

Comment by d.w.: User icon

Sven — open tag in this entry, I think. It gives Firebird fits.

November 14, 2003, 19:23

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