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Virtual Folders—A Short History Lesson

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In order to truly understand virtual folders, it’s important to first understand the thinking that went into this feature. And since this is a feature that was originally scheduled for the ever-delayed Windows Vista, it might also be helpful to know about Microsoft’s original plans for the Vista shell and virtual folders and compare the plans with what eventually happened.

Microsoft originally envisioned that it would not include in Vista a traditional file system with drive letters, physical file system paths, and real folders. Instead, the software giant wanted to virtualize the entire file system so that you wouldn’t need to worry about such arcane things as “the root of C:” and the Program Files folder. Instead, you would just access your documents and applications, without ever thinking about where they resided on the disk. After all, that sort of electronic housekeeping is what a computer is good at, right?

This original vision required a healthy dose of technology. The core piece was a new storage engine called WinFS (short for Windows Future Storage), which would have combined the best features of the NTFS file system with the relational database functionality of Microsoft’s SQL Server products. As of this writing, Microsoft has been working on WinFS, and now its successors, for about a decade.

There was just one problem: the WinFS technology wasn’t even close to being ready in time for Windows Vista, so Microsoft pulled WinFS out of Vista and began developing it separately from the OS. Then, it completely cancelled plans to ship WinFS as a separate product. Instead, WinFS technologies would be integrated into other Windows versions—including Windows 7—and other Microsoft products.

Even though WinFS was out of the picture, Microsoft figured it could deliver much of that system’s benefits using an updated version of the file system indexer it has shipped in Windows for years. And for about a year of Vista’s development in 2004–05, that was the plan. Instead of special shell folders like Documents, users would access virtual folders such as All Documents, which would aggregate all of the documents on the hard drive and present them in a single location. Other special shell folders, like Pictures and Music, would also be replaced by virtual folders.

Problem solved, right? Wrong. Beta testers—who are presumably more technical than most PC users—found the transition from normal folders to virtual folders to be extremely confusing. In retrospect, this should have been obvious. After all, a virtual folder that displays all of your documents is kind of useful when you’re looking for something, but where do you save a new file? Is a virtual folder even a real place for applications that want to save data? And do users need to understand the differences between normal folders and virtual folders? Why are there both kinds of folders?

With the delays mounting, Microsoft stepped back from the virtual folder scheme, just as it had when it stripped out WinFS previously. Therefore, the file system that appeared in Windows Vista was actually quite similar to that in Windows XP and previous Windows versions. That is, the file system still used drive letters, normal folders, and special shell folders like (My) Documents and (My) Pictures. If you were familiar with any prior Windows version, you would feel right at home in the Vista shell. (Likewise, if you found the Windows file system to be a bit, well, lackluster, all the same complaints still applied in Vista as well.)

There was, however, one major difference between Vista’s file system and that of previous Windows versions, and this difference has been made central to the Windows 7 file system. Even though Microsoft had temporarily decided not to replace special shell folders with virtual folders in Windows Vista, the company still shipped virtual folder technology in the OS. The idea was that users could get used to virtual folders, and then perhaps a future Windows version would simply move to that system, and eventually we’d reach some “nerdvana” where all the silly file system constructs we use today were suddenly passé. That nerdvana, arguably, has arrived in Windows 7. No, Microsoft hasn’t relegated drive letters and physical folders to the dustbin of history, at least not yet. But they have implemented one of the early Vista file system plans in Windows 7: now, traditional special shell folders (but not the entire file system) have been replaced by virtual folders. This time around they’re called Libraries.

On a side note, the capability to create your own virtual folders is also available in Windows 7, just as it was in Vista. And as in Vista, this feature is somewhat hidden. Okay, it’s really well hidden, maybe even devilishly well hidden. That makes it a power-user feature and thus, for readers of this book, inherently interesting. Most people won’t even realize that Libraries are virtual folders, let alone discover that you can create your own virtual folders with their contained shared searches. But if you do want to harness some of the most awesome and unique technology in Windows 7, this is the place to start.

Source of Information : Wiley Windows 7 Secrets (2009)

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