December 10, 2007

Nemo file manager organizes around a calendar

Author: Bruce Byfield

Nemo is the latest effort to provide a new paradigm for file managers. Its approach, at least in its first early development release, is to combine file management with calendar views. Questions remain, however, about whether the concept will scale, and whether it is an improvement on traditional file managers, or simply different.

Like Beagle and Tracker, Nemo starts with the idea that the hierarchical folder structure is difficult for new users. Ole Laursen, one of the founders of iola, the company that has released Nemo under the GNU Lesser General Public License, writes in his blog, "A lot of novices find it difficult to understand the hierarchical folder structure, and it's not particularly easy to navigate or keep in order for most computer literates either. People have trouble remembering what folder they put things in -- and they would rather not put things into folders if they can avoid it." The goal of Nemo, like other alternatives, is to find a simpler solution.

The 0.1 alpha version of Nemo is available in a tar file of the source, an Ubuntu repository (which you should add to /etc/apt/sources.list, then run apt-get update to use), or as a Debian package. If you use the source or the Debian package, be aware that they have no dependency resolution, and require the installation of both Mono and the unstable version of Tracker beforehand; the developers plan to let users work with any file indexer in later versions, but this release works only with Tracker.

The first time you run Nemo, it does an initial scan of your home directory. This process can take 20 or 30 minutes if you have gigabytes of files. Moreover, if you have a small, separate /tmp partition, the process is even slower, since it repeatedly swamps the partition.

In this first release, other functionality, such as deleting or renaming files, is not yet implemented; only search capability is available. You can search for files by name, MIME type, or saved search pattern. Results are displayed in a calendar according to the last time the file was saved. Like most calendars, Nemo's has separate views for day, week, month, and year that you change via arrow buttons.

This design has several advantages. It does not depend on users understanding abstract concepts such as a directory tree, and it's simple enough that most users should have little trouble discovering how to use Nemo. Even more importantly, it has the advantage of separating results into small chunks, making them easy for you to scan.

However, whether Nemo solves the problem of displaying a large number of results is another matter. Nemo does tackle this problem better than most alternative file managers, since you can change to a smaller unit of time to reduce the number of results. However, once you reach the day view, your only alternative is to click to expand the view if the results are too numerous to display in the space allotted, which obscures the results for other days and lessens the effectiveness of the calendar view in general. This constraint makes it suitable mainly for people who aren't constantly opening and closing dozens of files in a day.

And even if the problem of scaling can be solved, experienced users might question whether Nemo is a replacement for the familiar directory tree. You could argue that trying to save users from learning about directory trees is like suggesting that word processor users not learn about styles and use only manual formatting: You can do both, but only at the expense of encouraging sloppy habits.

If you learn to organize your files in folders, perhaps you do not need tools like Nemo or Beagle. Anyway, is the concept of directory hierarchies so arcane that new users -- surely an increasingly small number of people -- cannot pick it up in five minutes? Perhaps, too, it is too much a part of computer culture to discard.

Old-timers might also wonder if Nemo, for all its graphical sophistication, is any improvement on the command ls -c -l.

Like any attempt to rethink what we take for granted, Nemo is worthwhile simply as a challenge to re-examine convention. If nothing else, it serves as a reminder of what poor use most existing file managers make of time attributes. Perhaps in later releases, Nemo will reclaim other file attributes for the desktop users who have forgotten -- or never known -- that they exist. If so, then it will serve a useful purpose. But for now, despite its effort at innovation, Nemo seems more likely to find a niche as a supplement to a directory-tree-oriented file manager than as an independent alternative.


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