Virtual Folders in Vista—A Short History Lesson

Posted: August 18, 2009 in Vista
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Let’s step back a bit before diving too deeply into potentially confusing territory. In

order to understand Vista’s virtual folders, it’s important to first understand the thinking

that went into this feature. And since this is the ever-delayed Windows Vista we’re

talking about, 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.

You see, 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, and not ever think

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 of this technology

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 its predecessors, 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 will be integrated into future

Windows versions 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 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. So the file system you see in

Windows Vista is actually quite similar to that in Windows XP and previous Windows

versions. That is, the file system still uses drive letters, normal folders, and special shell

folders like Documents and Pictures. If you’re familiar with any prior Windows version,

you should feel right at home in the Vista shell.

There’s just one major difference, although it’s not particularly obvious. Even though

Microsoft has decided not to replace special shell folders with virtual folders in this

release, the company is still shipping virtual folder technology in Windows Vista. The

idea is that users will get used to virtual folders now, and then perhaps a future

Windows version will simply move to that system, and eventually we’ll reach some

nerdvana where all the silly file system constructs we use today are suddenly passé.

So virtual folders are somewhat hidden in Windows Vista. That makes them a power

user feature and, for readers of this book, inherently interesting. Most people won’t

even discover virtual folders and their contained shared searches. In fact, if you want

to harness some of the most awesome technology in Windows Vista, this is the place

to start. And heck, the skills you learn now will give you a leg up when Microsoft

finally gets around to retiring the current file system. It’s only a matter of time.

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