Location: United States

A New Yorker relocated to Florida. I have fifteen years in the IT industry, with stints in product management, database management, application programming... I've been a CIO, a consultant, a software evangelist... one of these days I'll write up a proper profile.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Keywords and Other File Attributes in Windows Vista Part 1

Windows XP contains the ability to display extended file properties (such as keywords and categories) in the details pane in Windows Explorer. Users are probably most familiar with displaying extended attributes such as "shooting date" for photo files. Extended attributes such as these have been a "why didn't they finish this?" question in my mind for some years. In Windows XP Explorer you can't effectively search or filter on extended attributes.

It's not difficult to imagine how much easier it would be to manage a folder hierarchy of thousands of documents for which you can filter views by keywords such as "contract," "family," "New Jersey," and so forth.

In Windows XP Explorer, both the attributes dialogs and the Explorer views have limitations; even entering the information is difficult. To enter keywords for multiple selections of files, the keyword entry box is disabled for "simple" view, but enabled for "advanced" view. There is no keywords box in the advanced properties for JPG files, certainly a file type crying for additional organization (see below). Finally, once you've entered your keywords, even when the keywords column is checked for the Explorer detail view, Explorer doesn't display them!

Windows Vista provides additional functionality to make keywords and other extended attributes more useful. Others have speculated that this functionality will only take off when WinFS, the native database/file system, is implemented. For now, in beta two, build 5270, we see the following functionality.

  • You can now single click in the keywords column in Windows Explorer and add a keyword for that file.
  • If when doing so, you type in a keyword never previously added as a keyword, that keyword is added to the keyword list in your Documents Library hierarchy (see illustration). When you open the "Library" in Explorer, each will be listed as a "generic stack."
Windows Vista Explorer - the Keywords column populated with keywords from the file properties dialogs
  • By clicking on the Library icon in "Common Places" in the Explorer navigation pane, then right clicking on a keyword in that hierarchy and choosing "open" you may open a new Explorer window containing all documents associated with that keyword. Note that you cannot simply click on the keyword and view it in the current Explorer window. Microsoft would do well to review this behavior and seek to make it more consistent with other Explorer behavior. In the "Top Rules for the Windows Vista User Experience," rule number 7, Microsoft states "Navigation-based user interface—characterized by staying in a single window and having a Back button in the upper-left corner—allows users to navigate easily, efficiently, and confidently; they can always ‘go back’. Even traditional applications that don’t inherently ‘navigate’ can often benefit from providing in-frame navigation."
  • Explorer provides for saving searches as virtual folders. This feature is not unlike Apple's "Smart" folders feature. This could lead a user to attempt to copy a virtual folder to removable media in an attempt to copy all documents related to a keyword. Currently, an attempt to copy a virtual folder to a real folder creates an error (see below). It might be a useful utility suggestion to create a method of copying all the documents in a "stack" to a real location.
File error on attempt to copy a virtual folder to a normal folder -- the file name you specified is not valid or too long
  • The search function, as related to keywords and extended attributes, is a topic unto itself. Suffice it to say for now that the filtering functions are much more powerful than current, but also that it's going to confuse a lot of users.
  • Filtering the Explorer view also merits further description. For example, it's now possible to add an attribute to the Explorer detail pane and filter it through the dropdown for that column. For example, one can easily filter a folder of photos to display all photos that are 1024 pixels wide.

This is the first installment of a blog whose key interest will be Windows Vista and its user interface. We're by no means done with keywords and extended attributes. Some further suggestions for exploration:

  • What can be done (through methods such as scripting) to automatically add new documents that contain current keywords or specified attributes to a virtual folder? Currently, opening a virtual folder that originated as a saved search updates the search. Rather than wait for the search to take place again, would it not save the users' time by updating each virtual folder in the middle of the night or at a time when the system is idle?
  • If attributes are to take on added importance, it would be a good suggestion for Microsoft to add standard attributes such as keywords, title and subject to the standard Save As file dialog.
  • Microsoft provides good documentation regarding implementation of properties and attributes in custom file types. The goal is apparent in the title of the following article: "Be Discoverable." .

Discovering the user interface of Windows Vista and making positive suggestions to users and Microsoft is the goal of future entries.

The following are some additional blog postings that include this subject:

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