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In Gnome 2.6 there has been a fairly major change to the Nautilus file manager: it now sports a new spatial interface. This means that each folder is treated as its own object; it remembers its position on screen, its view and layout, any colours you might associate with it and so on. This does mean that each folder opens in a “new” window. I place the new in inverted commas because, in actual fact, it is not opening in a new window at all; it is opening in its own window.

Many people lambasted the spatial nautilus for opening lots of windows and cluttering the screen. Some people compared it to Microsoft’s “Open each folder in a new window” option in Windows 95. That really was a new window: the window was just dropped on the screen without any attempt to remember details about it. This was just extra screen clutter with no real use, and gave the whole spatial idea a bad name.

The first widespread spatial interface was in MacOS classic. The finder (MacOSs file browser) was spatial through and through. This illusion that a folder was a real object in the GUI, rather than just a representation of a folder on disk, was carefully maintained. The result of this was a generation of Mac users that were able to manage their folders in a way that Just Worked for them. When OSX arrived, many Mac users were annoyed that Apple had removed the spatial finder. The spatial finder of the Mac was far, far better carried out than the more widespread Windows 95 hash of an implementation that gave the paradigm a bad name.

I had first come across the spatial idea in Windows 95, and immediately turned it off; there seemed no use for it. The new folders did not offer any benefit over single window browsing that I had been used to in the old Win3.1 Filemanager application. Thus it was that I viewed the new spatial nautilus with some trepidation.

I resolved to try it out before dismissing it out of hand. I didn’t think I would like it. For the first few days I didn’t like it. All these windows? Cluttering up my screen? It did feel like the old Windows 95 way of doing things. This was, however, an annoyance because — for the first few days — folders were popping up in random places; I hadn’t opened the folders before, so of course nautilus had to leave them wherever the window manager wished to put them. As I carried on using it I started to like it more. Folders were appearing where I left them. If I wanted to get to a university project, I started to know where I would have to put the mouse. Things were staying in the same place.

I’ve been using spatial nautilus for a month or so now and I much prefer it. I was in labs a few days ago, doing some last minute fixes for a group project. They run a Gnome 2.2 install there. Navigating the file system seemed to take much longer; forever hitting the Up a directory button, drilling back down, cutting this, pasting that. With my spatial windows, it would have been navigate here, flick to window a few levels up, navigate there, drag, done. It seems much smoother, especially when your hands start to realise that downloads are here and music directory is here, to move do this and so on.

Spatial file management does feel — and is — random, open a new window all over the place-style, for a week or so. If you stick with it and allow your mind to soak up where things live, however, it really does become a very comfortable and intuitive way of working. So, before you give up, try it for a reasonable length of time. The whole idea of spatial is you just know how things are going to be: give some time for your memory to get to know!

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