[Thunar-dev] Spatial or not-spatial?

Brian J. Tarricone bjt23 at cornell.edu
Tue Feb 22 00:57:40 CET 2005

Benedikt Meurer wrote:

> After some talk on IRC with some of you, I have been thinking about 
> the possibility to use a spatial user interface for Thunar.
> My initial intention was to use a browser-like user interface for 
> Thunar, basicly because I always thought the browser-like UI would be 
> somewhat easier and more intuitive. But it turned that this myth was 
> solely based on my ignorance, and not any real experience. So, in the 
> end, I realized for myself, that it wasn't the file manager that 
> caused trouble, but it was my mind that caused the problem.
> And thats exactly the problem. Fixing software is easy, but fixing 
> peoples minds is a hard job (probably impossible).
> So, what do you think:
> (a) Better for Xfce to ship an old-school file manager to make 
> existing users happy.
> (b) Better have a simple file manager to attract new users, but 
> probably frustrate existing users.

As an existing user, I suppose it's obvious that I'd be an advocate for (a).

/me takes a deep breath and dives in

I just did a bit of reading on spatial interfaces, because I realised 
that I didn't really have a good definition in my head as to what it 
really means to have a spatial interface. In the most abstract sense, 
the idea is to create an interface which maps objects on screen to 
objects on disk in a one-to-one relationship. For a file manager, that 
means that you have a directory, and you have a window that maps to it. 
Sure, why not.

Now, my impression is just that a spatial file manager is just a 
navigational file manager, but without a treeview, and with 
per-directory settings that describe how each window is displayed on 
screen. Also, you have a distinct window for each folder, so you get the 
impression that moving around in your directory structure actually means 
you are moving to a new item, not that you're looking down on something 
and making it show you different views.

Another way to look at it is that the window IS the folder. Whereas, 
with a navigational file manager, the window is an application shell 
that provides views of different locations on the filesystem.

So is it fair to say that I have a pretty accurate picture in my head of 
exactly what we want to implement here?

Supposedly, a spatial file manager is more intuitive because it provides 
a one-to-one relationship between the GUI objects and your storage. I 
think this only really matters if your goal is to create a desktop 
environment where you can do everything from the GUI, and not need a 
shell (or other tools that "break" the metaphor) at all. IMHO, Xfce is 
not a DE where that's the case, and I don't think that's really the 
goal. I'm not saying that that makes Xfce harder to use, or that the 
goal isn't ease-of-use, but I think it's pretty fair to say that Xfce 
isn't going to provide the "complete solution" for the desktop. And, 
because of that, I think pushing the spatial metaphor in Xfce's file 
manager is completely useless.

For a practical problem, it encourages too many windows to be open at 
once. I have enough windows open as it is, and the spatial metaphor 
basically guarantees that moving around in your filesystem means you end 
up with a bunch of windows on your screen, and often you won't care 
about many of them. I believe Nautilus has an option (or maybe a key 
combo) to close the current window when you open a folder from it, but - 
to borrow Benny's phrase again - that sounds like an "unbreak my 
software" option.

In "the user problem" of Benny's document, Benny makes observations 
about his own home directory, and that it's too cluttered, and has a bad 
directory structure. But... why is it bad? It seems like the argument 
here is "because I can't effectively use my home directory using a 
spatial view, it must mean that my home directory is at fault." Why 
isn't the spatial metaphor at fault? I have a hugely cluttered home 
directory, and I have no problems finding things. Sure, there are 
probably a few old files that I haven't seen in years, but that's not 
because I've "lost" them - it's because I don't need them anymore, and 
because I'm a packrat, I haven't deleted them. Benny, you say, "I 
realize that it wasn’t the file manager that was bad, but my handling of 
files and directories was wrong." What? Why is it your fault? Why does 
the software win? IMO, the software should conform to how our minds 
work, not the other way around. Just because our minds work the way they 
do because they've gotten used to a different model doesn't mean that 
the other model is bad. Maybe it has a steeper learning curve, but 
that's not an absolute negative. It's easy to argue that Linux and *BSD 
have a steeper learning curve than Windows does, but I'm sure we'd 
fiercely maintain that our OS/distro of choice is superior than Windows.

So, I dunno. Not to sound like an ass, but if Thunar ends up being a 
spatial file manager, I won't use it. Not because I want to be a dick, 
but because it isn't going to work for me, and even if it's possible to 
put energy and time into it to make my mind work in a way that makes a 
spatial file manager work well, I don't think that's a productive use of 
my time when I consider the benefits. Whatever they may be - I can't 
come up with anything, aside from "it'll make my home directory look 
more organised." Um... so what? It works fine how it is. I don't care 
how it looks.

So, to summarise my views:

* A spatial file browser only makes sense for environments where you can 
do everything in the GUI, and there's no need or desire to do anything 
outside of the metaphor that the DE tries to create. Xfce doesn't fit in 
this box.
* For existing users, a spatial file manager defeats the purpose of 
software. Software should conform to the model we have in our minds; it 
shouldn't require us to change how we think and/or organise our data.
* Practically, it's annoying. The model virtually guarantees having 
multiple unused windows open, which have to be closed manually. 
Automatically closing them is problematic, and sounds hacky.

For my parting shot... Note that Apple, who arguably designs some of the 
best user interfaces in the world, ditched the spatial metaphor for OS 
X[0]. In hindsight, the first GUI file manager I used that wasn't the 
old Windows 3.1 fileman.exe was the Finder on Mac System 7. It annoyed 
me then, too: I distinctly remember the day I learned that, if you hold 
down the option key while closing a window, it'll close all of its 
parent windows too. I was so happy to have found a way to get rid of all 
those useless, space-wasting windows without having to manually close 
each one.

I'm not inherently against having a spatial file manager: I do see that 
it probably has some benefits for new users (though probably not as many 
as you'd think). But to be useful for me, it needs to have an option to 
go into navigational mode.


[0] Yes, I know you can make OS X's Finder behave spatially, but it's 
not the default, and it's not easily discoverable.

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