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What is it?

Most file managers you will use at the moment use a browser metaphor - the same used by your web browser. You open a "browser window", and then click on links to jump between locations (folders) on your filesystem.

In a spatial file manager, an attempt is made to make a mental link in the user between the folder and how it is represented on-screen. Classic MacOS is the most obvious example of a system which uses a spatial file manager; though MacOS X uses a browser metaphor. The latest (2.6) version of GNOME also includes a version of Nautilus that uses a spatial system.

In a spatial system, there is only ever one view on a particular folder: it is not possible to open two windows that view the same folder. This is because the window is the folder. Windows remember their size, location on-screen, the place in the folder where you are scrolled to, etc. The next time you open that folder, you get the same view that you had before.

Windows 95 had a sort-of spatial system, though it was not a proper spatial system like MacOS. Explorer in Windows 95 defaulted to "Open in New Window", although there was not a strictly enforced relation between the window and the folder itself - you could open multiple windows viewing the same folder, for example. Also, its remembering of the specifics of windows was rather haphazard.

Why is this good?

Because it helps give folders a sense of location. Compare it to walking through a house: you dont recognise rooms by specifically the things that are in them, rather you tend to recognise them by the way those things are laid out. So the user can browse through his/her filesystem in the same way that he/she may walk through a house. More importantly, following the idea that the window is the folder, the user is given something visible to relate the folder to, in the form of something which can be manipulated on-screen.

Why is this bad?

One word: clutter.

In classic MacOS, the spatial system worked fairly well. However, classic MacOS had a fairly simple directory structure, and you didnt have to browse through too many to get to where you wanted to go. In other systems like Windows or on Unix based systems, there are a lot more folders/directories that you have to go through. So you run the risk of cluttering up your screen with windows as you attempt to reach your destination folder. Compare this to a browser-based system where you have a single window.

The new version of Nautilus attempts to combat this problem somewhat: for example, there is a menu option, "Close Parent Folders", so once you get to where you're going, you can close all the other windows you opened in order to get there. There are also other shortcuts: middle click on a folder opens that folder and closes the current folder, so you can browse through a system while only having one window open at a time.

Most importantly, Nautilus still retains the browser based interface of previous versions, so if you want to wander all round your filesystem, you can ditch the spatial metaphor whenever you want and do so. There is always an item on the menu, titled "Browse this Folder", to open a browser view instead. Effectively you get the best of both worlds.

Personally, from my experience using MacOS and the new version of Nautilus, I like the spatial metaphor. For browsing items on your desktop and document folders, it seems like the right thing to do, as the directory structures of these are likely to be fairly simple. However, for exploring more complex structures like the underlying directory structure of the Operating System, a browser-like system seems more sensible.

References:

  • "About the Finder":
    http://arstechnica.com/paedia/f/finder/finder-1.html
  • "Nautilus 2.6: We're going all spacial":
    http://mail.gnome.org/archives/desktop-devel-list/2003-September/msg00446.html

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