Virtual Folders – A great Vista feature with a stupid name

I’ve decided that it’s been a little too long since I’ve nearly gotten myself fired, so here goes.

Like just about every other Microsoft employee on the planet right now, I’m interested in the success of Vista (for those of you who are living under rocks and don’t read anything but my site for your news and worldly updates (a terrifying idea), Vista is the next release of the Windows Operating system).

A lot of the features being added to Vista are user features. Things like Aero, the new search stuff, and…

…”Virtual Folders.”

This is one of those releases that ought to make computing easier and more pleasant for everybody. Not just geeks, but my parents, my friends, and the homeless people who get on the net down at my local library.


(Side note: This is what all software (free and proprietary – Linux, OS X, Windows, Solaris, etc.) should be doing – making life easier.)

Here’s my problem.

Chances are, you’re a geek. I know I have a few “liberal arts” readers, but most of you probably found me through Joel or Scoble or Chris, and you probably have some aptitude (or at least dedicated passion and patience) for this computer stuff.

Further chances are that, when you hear the phrase “Virtual Folder,” you can kind of “get it.” The word “virtual” is a very geek-oriented word.

It is not something that makes a lot of sense to people who don’t spend all day at their desks, clicking on things. It’s crazy, I know, but there are people out there who go to the park on sunny days, walk their dogs, and eat in public places while conversing with other human beings. To them, the word “virtual” is probably not all that meaningful.

That’s why, while reading this look at Vista over at O’Reilly [this page and this page have Virtual Folder info], I got a little scared.

Here’s a snippet of the article:

A new feature in Windows Vista Beta 1 is virtual folders. Before we look at examples, it helps to think of virtual folders as shortcuts in Windows XP. A shortcut is basically a file that points to the actual location of a file. Shortcuts allow you to quickly locate a file without needing to know where it is physically stored. Microsoft has brought this concept to Windows Vista in an attempt to make the organization of files easy to understand. Unfortunately, I think this is likely to confuse many new users, and it took me some time before I really understood how it works. And there are still times I think I am a little confused.

I wish I could blame this paragraph on the average stupidity of O’Reilly writers, but that would be a little tough to do since they’re all pretty bloody smart. And, if this is a feature that seems a little convoluted to O’Reilly writers, then what hope does my father, in spite of his IQ of about about 5,000, have of understanding it?

It might sound like I’m oversimplifying, but I think part of the problem is the name. Every time I hear something about “Virtual Folders,” it’s preceded by an explanation like the one above.

The truth is that Virtual Folders aren’t complicated. They’re just “saved” searches. Or search folders. Or whatever. It’s a cool feature, and it’s something I’m going to use regularly.

But putting the word “Virtual” in front pushes people to make explanations that usually relate back to shortcuts. That’s fine for us geeks, but not for the rest of the world. My mom doesn’t know what a shortcut is (unless you mean driving your car through the bushes to get to the store faster), so she’s not going to understand an explanation of a “virtual” folder based on an understanding of shortcuts. She doesn’t have the foundation. Most users don’t.

If the whole point is to shield users from the (relative) complexity of understanding the hierarchical file/folder abstraction, then why do we draw their attention to it by calling these things “virtual” folders? By calling them “virtual,” we’re already giving away more information than users need – we’re asking them to think about the implementation which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid in the first place.

Why don’t we call them “Search Folders?”

Or, how about getting some mileage out of the new Windows name. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines “vista” like this:

a distant view through or along an avenue or opening

That’s practically what a “Virtual Folder” is. Why not call these things “Vistas?”

Maybe that’s not the best name in the universe, but at least it’s consistent with the new release, and it has a little marketing flair to it. It will at least get people focused on how to use the feature rather than what the feature is really doing.

Really, though. At the very least, we ought to call these suckers “Search Folders.”

The word “virtual” just doesn’t make sense. It complicates things.

Here’s what I’m asking of you: If you agree, and if you give a damn, and if you’d like to help to try to remedy this, then comment or write about it. If I can send an email to the right person internally with a strong enough group of voices, then maybe something will happen.

Of course, I might not still have a job tomorrow morning, but that’s another issue.

I don’t work on the product, and it’s easy for me to complain, so I want to make it clear that I just want what’s best for the users, which will ultimately be what’s best for the company.

And, if you think I’m being a little anal here, consider that this is something that will affect millions of people all over the world. With so many people involved, I think we owe it to them to look at Vista under a microscope and do whatever we can to make life easier.