In Search of a Silver Bullet for iPad File Management

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Is file management essential, hazardous, or a relic? Judging from the comments posted to my column two weeks ago, "Microsoft's killer tablet opportunity," and to last week's piece, "Crowdsourcing the killer business tablet," the question is surprisingly controversial.

Some commenters were adamant that file management is dangerous because unsophisticated users don't know how to handle it. Because these hapless folks ask for help finding a missing document, they explain, the tools provided for keeping files organized are at fault.

This isn't much of an argument. Depriving sophisticated users of valuable tools because other users don't know how to work with them makes little sense. Educating unsophisticated users is a far better solution, for reasons so obvious I trust they need no further explanation.

The more thoughtful arguments against file management have fallen into two groups. One insists that with effective search, file management becomes unnecessary. The other proposes using metadata as an alternative to traditional file management.

Where Search Falls Short
Someday, search by itself might be as effective and convenient as navigating a well-organized folder tree. If it does, it won't be search as we use the term today.

As pointed out last week, the proof lies no further than your nearest browser. Bring up your favorite search engine and search for "using search instead of file management" -- in quotes. You won't get any hits, even though you and I know of at least two recent articles on the subject. (Well, you might get one hit, for this post, if it has been indexed by the time you perform the search.)

Next, search for "iPad file management critique" without the quotation marks. You'll get somewhere between 670,000 (Google) and 18,600,000 hits (Bing), which isn't narrow enough to be helpful. Again, no Advice Line commentary on the subject appears on the first three pages.

What's that you say? Make the search "ipad file management critique 'advice line'"? That works. It also demonstrates the importance of file management, because by adding "advice line" to the search, you identified the location of the article, along with the contents.

Don't get me wrong. I'd hate to do without search, even the irritatingly slow Windows search engine. There are times when it's the only tool for the job, even if it isn't very precise.

What Search Needs: Semantic Indexing
Search won't be versatile enough to replace file management until someone perfects semantic search -- which actually is the wrong way to say what's needed. The right way to state the problem is that we need semantic indexing and won't have it for a very long time. Semantic indexing is the difference between finding the three files on my system that discuss "using search instead of file management" and only those files, versus getting either zero or a zillion hits.

Almost certainly, Apple won't be the company that develops it. Apple isn't a company that tackles hard computing problems. Even the very clever Siri is built on Nuance's speech-recognition technology. As is so often the case, Apple's brilliance was in its recognition that the technology was ready for adoption and polishing.

Microsoft also won't be the company that develops it. If it could, Bing would be more than a me-too search engine.

Nor will it be Google, because if Google could tackle the job, it would tackle the job. That's its core business, and Google has developers who are as good as they come.

Right now, the only company with the chops to solve semantic indexing is IBM. Watson shows that it's more or less possible. Scaling Watson up to the Web (not our subject right now) is a lot of scaling. Let me rephrase that: It's a lot of scaling.

Scaling Watson down to fit into an iPad, or a laptop, or even a server-based content management system? Easily as difficult as scaling it up.

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