If you've used a computer anytime in the last 30 years, chances are good you've misplaced a file once or twice. If GNOME developers have their way, however, such frustrations will become a thing of the past, thanks to the Zeitgeist project. Here's a look at this radically new approach to file management and where it might end up in the future.

If you're a Linux/open-source geek, you may well have heard of Zeitgeist already. Along with its better half, GNOME Activity Journal, Zeitgeist has been around for a couple of years, steadily gaining new features and edging closer to a stable release. Faithful readers may recall that we've covered it in the past on this blog.

While Zeitgeist is slowly becoming better known among Linux users, however, the technology and the concept behind it remain relatively novel to the broader IT world, where hierarchical file systems remain predominant. And even within the Linux ecosystem, Zeitgeist isn't exactly ubiquitous. No major distribution has yet adopted it as a major tool for file management, and even the GNOME developers themselves have been in disagreement over whether to use the software as the indexing engine for gnome-shell.

Goodbye, file system?

So what is Zeitgeist? In the project's own words:
Zeitgeist logs activities and events on you computer like a Journal. It then allows applications to ask for application, docs, etc. … that were active within any time period, sorted by time or popularity.
What that means in practice is that rather than having to recall the folder in which a particular file (or application) is stored, you can locate it by remembering when you last used it, or which other files you had open at the same time. In a sense, Zeitgeist represents a beefed-up version of the "Recent Documents" list that exists in most modern operating systems, but one with a thousand times more power.

Because Zeitgeist itself is merely a back end for indexing data, it can't be "seen." But GNOME Activity Journal, which provides a graphical interface for accessing files sorted by Zeitgeist, offers an idea of what the software can do.  Here are some screenshots:

Zeitgeist screenshot

Zeitgeist screenshot

Zeitgeist screenshot

GNOME Activity Journal, which remains in development, is still kind of buggy and doesn't have the greatest user interface ever conceived. But it's sufficient for providing some examples of what Zeitgeist can do, and for giving application developers food for thought on how they might take advantage of a technology like this.

And there's a lot for them to think about. In many ways, Zeitgeist represents a hugely momentous change in the desktop user experience. The concept behind hierarchical file systems, which have been the default method of organizing data on virtually all operating systems since as long as most of us can remember, suffers from major inadequacies, including but not limited to the fact that no one is good at keeping track of the long and complicated paths under which his files are stored.

Zeitgeist promises to make all that trouble a thing of the past, potentially revolutionizing the way users manage their data. If Zeitgeist takes off, there may well come a day when folders on your desktop go the way of the cassette player and Internet privacy.

What's next?

At the moment, Zeitgeist is far from being the Zeitgeist its developers might want it to be, since almost no one uses it in a production environment. But that might change in a big way if Canonical stays true to promises to build the new technology into the new Unity-based desktop that it envisions.

In addition, it's worth noting the important role that Zeiteist might come to play within the GNOME project as a whole. While controversy continues to storm surrounding gnome-shell, with some parties wondering whether GNOME developers might have completely lost touch with reality and their users by pursuing a new kind of desktop that only makes sense to geeks, Zeitgeist represents a highly innovative and promising endeavor that could become a new source of relevance for GNOME developers in the event that GNOME 3 goes south.

Finally, although no one is talking about it yet, the Zeitgeist idea could take on a major role in cloud environments. If keeping track of files on a local computer is hard, the problems posed by hierarchical file systems become magnitudes greater in the cloud, where users often have to deal with multiple hosts, network protocols and so on. Zeitgeist offers a very promising, if untapped, means of addressing this issue by abstracting complex data paths so that users can locate files stored on distant servers just as easily as those on their desktop.

For now, of course, all of these developments remain theoretical. But our advice: keep your eyes on Zeitgeist -- and the idea behind it -- as they may turn out to be the next Big Thing, and not only for Linux geeks.

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