Files are underrated

Owing to a recent crusade of mine to start dispensing opinions to companies who may or may not want want them, I found myself corresponding earlier this week with a software company that’s turning an app I love from being a document-based app that saves good old fashioned files on your computer, to being an app where there are no files and everything is managed in a database/iCloud.

It might seem like a benign difference (in a lot of ways everything still behaves like a file in the app), but this is a big regression, and it’s becoming an increasingly common move in software companies’ enshittification playbook. Files are great! I shared with this company the things I love about files, and here’s an altered version of that list:

  • If I have files, I can sync them in any web service I want. Dropbox,, iCloud, doesn’t matter. Hell, I can even sync them using git!
  • I can choose not to sync files if I want to, keeping them privately on my own hard drive.
  • I can make backups of files, and I have full control over the tools and strategy. I can use Time Machine, or a cloud service like Backblaze, or I can do something even simpler and just make extra copies of files whenever I’m about to make major revisions. I can use some combination of the above.
  • I can organize files however I want. I can have lots of different folders that are organized by whatever I like, and I can keep files in them. Hell, I can even alias/shortcut files and let the same file virtually be in more than one location (in fact, in macOS I can have hard links where they aren’t even shortcuts to each other; the same file can literally be in multiple places at once!)
  • When I’m working on a project and I have files I made with different apps, I can put all those related files into the same folder for that project instead of having to remember every app I used and then trying to find the file in each of those apps.
  • If I want to share a copy of something with someone, I can just email them a copy of the file. Or a link to the file in Dropbox, or put it on a flash drive, or use AirDrop, or one of countless other ways a file can be shared with someone.
  • If I stop paying a subscription fee to the app I use to make a file, the files I made with that app are still mine and there and accessible to me.
  • If the company that makes an app I’m using shuts down, my files remain intact.
  • I don’t have to worry that an app maker holding my file in the cloud lost it or corrupted the data; I and I alone am responsible for the safekeeping and backup of my files.
  • If I have a file on my hard drive, I can open it using any app that is willing and able to read that file. I don’t have to go through some rigamarole of exporting the file to the other app or sending a copy, or using a share sheet. I can just open a file in place with the app of my choice.
  • If I have a file from a completely different computer platform, even from decades ago, there’s still a very good chance I can open it with a modern app, maybe with some conversion. Data stored in some custom app database or online service is not likely to be accessible in the future.

Storing files isn’t the right choice for every app (a reminders app probably shouldn’t keep your to-dos as text files in a folder), but as a default, I love files. Files have withstood the test of time as a great abstraction of data, and the concept has persisted for decades, across a lot of different tech transitions.

The modern tech world is increasingly hostile to the concept of files though. Instead things live in web services as records in a database. Your Spotify library isn’t a folder of MP3 files; it’s a list of references to songs in Spotify’s catalog (and if Spotify loses the song in the catalog, you lost that song). Your documents are often not files anymore; they’re Google docs and they’re a pain in the ass to manage. Your phone might have a Files app but it sucks as a file manager.

And all these modern platforms are worse as productivity platforms for it, because we never really did improve on the file as the core of this kind of computer productivity.

Sure, some stuff is harder to do with files. You can’t easily do Google Docs-style real-time document collaboration with a plain old file in your hard drive.

But a file is something tangible that I can trust. I don’t know that Google will still be running Google Docs in 100 years, or even that Google will be around in 100 years. But I know that a text file I save today will be completely accessible in 100 years; I just have to keep and preserve the file.

PS: To the aforementioned company’s credit, I did get a response from their CEO, and although my message didn’t singlehandedly change his mind, the response was personally written and thoughtful, and I can at least appreciate that!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *