The Finder is the first program a user interacts with after booting a Mac (and potentially logging in), and as such it is responsible for the general look and feel of the machine. One should be careful to distinguish this from the actual GUI of the machine, which is really provided by particular services within the operating system (eg, WindowServer). The Finder is just another application, albeit the default one. It can even be closed if the user knows how, although it is difficult to replace completely. One could compare it to Windows Explorer in Microsoft Windows, the Tracker in BeOS, Nautilus in GNOME, and Dolphin or the file management aspect of Konqueror in KDE.
The Finder maintains a view of the file system that is rendered using the desktop metaphor - that is, the files and folders are represented as appropriate icons, volumes are displayed on the desktop, and there is a trash can (on the Dock in OS X, on the desktop in previous versions) to which files can be dragged to mark them for deletion.
The original Finder, used with the MFS (Macintosh File System) always included a blank folder at the root level of every disk. A new blank folder would be created whenever that folder was renamed and used. Folders could not be placed inside of folders in Finder 1.0-4.1. The folders were maintained only by Finder, and were not stored by the file system. As such, no two files could have the same name on a drive; folders were absent in application "open" dialogs (instead there would be simply a list of all files); and all folder information would be lost after rebuilding the desktop, dumping all files into the root level of the drive.
Finder also provided a "trash folder": the only way to delete a file was to first drag it to the trash folder, then empty the folder. However, the trash folder was also an illusion, and was not reflected on disk. The list of files in the trash was held only in memory. Finder therefore emptied the trash before it terminated, including before running any other application. If a crash intervened in the process, items that had been in the trash went back in their original home.
The original Finder was also the cause of much early user frustration due to slow speed of file copying, which would lead to dozens of disk-swaps on the single-drive original Macintosh, which was caused by a bug in the original Finder where if you drag the floppy disk icon somewhere else on the desktop, then pick it up and drag it to another floppy to copy it, it would result in more disk swaps than needed because the Finder forgot to free memory before copying. Though much of this problem could be attributed to the small amount of memory available on the Macintosh 128K, Apple attempted to address the issue with Finder 1.1g in May 1984.
Apple replaced the MFS with the HFS (Hierarchical File System) in September 1985, as part of Finder 5.0 which was introduced along with the Mac's first hard drive, the Hard Disk 20. Nested folders were no longer an illusion, but rather a reflection of the data organization on the disk. Finder 5.0 also added several cosmetic changes to the look of the system's icons. More importantly, Finder 5.1 officially introduced the 800K double sided disk, doubling the previously supported disk capacity. Finder 5.4 added support for file system permissions in January 1987, as part of the AppleShare release.
Early versions of the Finder would shut down whenever another program was launched, due to the single-tasking nature of the original Mac OS. The first official Macintosh unified System Software 5.x version came with Finder 6.0 and the new MultiFinder, which allowed cooperative multitasking. MultiFinder was activated with a control panel whose setting took effect with the next restart. System Software 6.0.x came with Finder 6.1.x and introduced a much-improved version of MultiFinder, among other enhancements. From System 6 forward, the Finder would always match the macro System version number, thus alleviating much of the confusion caused by often significantly different System and Finder versions.
The original Mac OS Finder featured a "universal Desktop," which showed the union of the contents of the invisible "Desktop Folder" on the root level of every mounted disk. This meant that files dragged from a disk to the Desktop did not always copy to the Mac's hard drive, and would disappear when the disk in question was later ejected.
A "Put Away" command premiered in System 6 which allowed users to drag icons from anywhere on their computer to the Desktop, use the file from the Desktop, and then scoot the file back to its original location with a single command.
Finder 6 also provided support for the industry standard 1.44MB floppy disk, almost doubling the previous 800K disk capacity. More importantly this new SuperDrive continued to provide support for the earlier single-sided MFS and 800K disks as well as supporting ProDOS and popular MS-DOS formats.
In 1991 Apple released System 7, a significant rewrite of their operating system. Like every other component of the OS, the Finder received a major overhaul and it was completely rewritten using the C++ programming language. MultiFinder was now always active. Finder windows were colorized, and the list view was expanded to include "disclosure triangles" which allowed the user to drill down further into the file system without opening more windows. The Finder's trash icon took on a more refined appearance, and the Color feature in System 6 (on color Macintoshes only), which allowed the user to assign a color shade to files, was extended to let users assign a label. These labels had a user-definable name and color. The Finder's new search function could also locate files based on their labels. The trash folder was at last a real folder, meaning it wasn't emptied after each restart.
Finder 7.0 unveiled an "alias" functionality which allowed files to be represented in multiple locations by simple pointer files. Starting in System 7, the Put Away command could also be used as an alternate means to unmount floppy disks and CD-ROMs. It differed from the Eject command in that it didn't leave a 'ghost icon' on the desktop. This icon was intended to facilitate copying disks on single-drive machines but the capability was seldom used with the advent of hard drives and was later removed.Though the Macintosh System itself would undergo major changes in the intervening years, the Finder remained relatively unchanged until the release of Mac OS 8 in 1997.
Finder 8.1, released in early 1998, introduced support for the more efficient HFS+ file system.
Mac OS X 10.0 ("Cheetah") lacked many features found in its Classic predecessor. The universal Desktop was gone, replaced by a Desktop that presented only the contents of the user's own Desktop folder. Support for Labels, and almost any form of metadata, was gone, as were pop up windows, desktop printers, the "Put Away" command and spring-loaded folders. In Finder 10.0 the Trash was also removed from the Desktop and was no longer part of the Finder, having instead been integrated into the system's Dock.
Finder 10.0 also eschewed the classic Finder's "spatial" orientation, in which each location on the hard drive opened in its own window, and only one window, in favor of a NeXTSTEP-style browser system.
Finder 10.0 introduced a highly-customizable toolbar which could be displayed at the top of every Finder window, and the NeXT-derived Column View, which displayed the hierarchy of the file system in a series of left-to-right panes. Users were also able to specify which, if any, of the mounted disks on their system appeared on the Desktop.
Mac OS X 10.1 ("Puma"), a free update, brought CD burning capability to Finder 10.1. This feature had been added to the classic Mac OS with version 9.1.
Just as with Finder 1.0, the Mac OS X Finder continues to show a view of the user's filesystem that is partly illusion. For example, when running a Unix shell, the file names are displayed as POSIX-style paths, even if the underlying file system is actually HFS. Unix files cannot contain the "/" character in a file name; because Macintosh users had historically been able to use "/" (but not ":") in a file name on an HFS file system, the Finder swaps over these two characters — a user types a name Input/Output which is converted to a POSIX name of Input:Output. The only characters not permitted in a filename at the Finder level are colons. In addition, the Finder will not let the user enter certain control characters (like the line break) even if the file system supports them. The Finder and shells both provide full Unicode filename support.
Mac OS X v10.3 ("Panther") introduced a somewhat upgraded version of the Finder which restored several classic features while also introducing an updated, but not radically different, GUI.
Finder 10.3 took on a Brushed Metal appearance similar to that of Apple's iTunes jukebox application (before version 5, which took on a Polished Metal look). As with previous Finders introduced since Mac OS X 10.0, users could customize a toolbar at the top of the Finder window. This included a search pane, allowing for live searching of any selected folder or volume. A new panel to the left of the Finder window, called the Sidebar, allowed almost any item to be dropped in for quick access. Importantly, this customisation would appear in open and save dialogs within other applications. The Sidebar also listed and allowed the ejection of mounted removable storage. Labels and the ability to search by Type and Creator metadata, features in Mac OS 9 that were lost and much missed by Mac users, were restored in Finder 10.3.
By clicking the "show/hide toolbar" button in the upper right of a window, not only could a window's toolbar be hidden, but the window also removed its sidebar and switched into an Aqua-themed look and "spatial" behavior.
Mac OS X v10.4 ("Tiger") introduces further changes to the Finder, including a slideshow feature (similar to that of Windows Explorer). This allows pictures to be viewed in series fullscreen directly from the Finder. Spotlight, a concept introduced in 10.4, features prominently throughout the revamped OS: The classic command-F Finder keyboard shortcut now shows a criterion-based search. These criteria searches can be saved as smart folders which display the live-updating results of the search. Two other methods of search exist: the Spotlight menu item and the Spotlight windows. These can be accessed system-wide and some have speculated that data organization and the "desktop metaphor" are going to be phased out by the high-speed search functions in Mac OS X, thus rendering Finder redundant. However, others have commented on the delays experienced when using Spotlight, even on newer Macs.
Updated in Leopard, the Finder features a UI similar to iTunes 7, which includes Cover Flow and a navigation sidebar. Other features include better integration with Spotlight, a new feature called Quick Look which allows one to see what's inside a file without opening it, and a Path Bar that can be turned on. Like most applications in Leopard, it uses the new unified theme, doing away with the brushed metal look from previous versions of Mac OS X.
Several functions have also been phased out. The ability to set arbitrary search locations via an "Others…" button in the Finder has been removed.
Ars Technica columnist John Siracusa has been a vocal critic of the versions of the Finder found in Mac OS X. One of his strongest complaints is that some of the options and default behaviours of Finder violate the concept of "spatial interface" that existed in previous versions. Daring Fireball author John Gruber has voiced similar criticisms, saying in a 2005 interview that he felt the Finder had become worse since version 10.0 and that "the fundamental problem with the Mac OS X Finder is that it's trying to support two opposing paradigms at once - the browser metaphor... and the spatial metaphor from the original Mac Finder... and it ends up doing neither one very well. Various reviewers note that starting with OS X v10.3 the Finder can be switched by user preference into a completely spatial mode. However, Siracusa is still critical, saying that it "provides exactly the same self-destructive combination of spatial and browser-style features as all of its Mac OS X predecessors". Siracusa, a web developer, has been called on to submit a prototype of what he thinks would be a better Finder, to supplement his article on the topic, but has declined to do so, saying "I'm a programmer, but not a Mac OS X programmer.
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