In a recent blog post, kepano writes about the power of files for enabling users to have access to and use of their data in the long-term:
File over app is a philosophy: if you want to create digital artifacts that last, they must be files you can control, in formats that are easy to retrieve and read. Use tools that give you this freedom.
File over app is an appeal to tool makers: accept that all software is ephemeral, and give people ownership over their data.
This reminded me of a related insight I had about files over apps a few years ago: the friction-free power of permissionless integration.
User data should be like a piece of wood on a workbench: you can pick up hammers, drills, screwdrivers, nails, paint, saws, and all kinds of other tools and materials and make that wood into what you want. No special access or permission is required to cut or sand or shape that block of wood. You just pick the right tool for the job and do what you want. It’s your wood, your workbench, and your tools.
Digital tools should be built so that users can work with their data in the same fashion. Apps should be able to interact with one another to help users shape and learn from their data — their notes, models, drawings, spreadsheets, or whatever — without needing special interfaces to do so.
This is possible with files. Using files (especially files with open, standard file formats) removes the need to develop special ways of working with user data.
On the other hand, app-specific data structures create friction and lock-in. To read and change your data in one of these apps, you need to deal with exporting and importing, or only use tools that have been custom-designed to work nicely together (i.e., via an API). Use one of these tools to create and save your data and suddenly that data can only be shaped by a limited selection of other tools.
This creates some ferocious friction. Imagine picking up a piece of paper with your latest grocery list on it. You go to add “Bananas” to that list … only you don’t have the pen you first wrote the list with, and none of your other pens will work with that sheet of paper. Then, when you find the original pen, your monthly subscription to it is expired, and so anything you wrote with that pen is now read-only.
That’s a scary thing. Remember, we shape our tools, and our tools shape us.
Being shaped by tools you haven’t shaped is not something anyone should want.