PART 5: GROUP THERAPY
Why didn't Microsoft do it this well?
NeoDesk 4 differs radically from the TOS desktop by incorporating Groups. These are files and folders that can be displayed in special Group windows on the NeoDesk desktop.
What's this all about? What's wrong with file and folder icons? Why use Groups?
In one way, NeoDesk's Groups resemble Program Manager groups in Microsoft Windows. Windows 3.1 and 3.11 (the current consumer versions of Windows as of the first half of 1995) split file-copying operations from program-launching functions through two main applications -- File Manager and Program Manager. Despite the size of Microsoft's software engineering staff and the hundreds of millions of dollars the company spent developing Windows, Microsoft's dual-function treatment of files and programs in Windows is confusing and ineffectual. (A large software industry specializing in replacements for those two Windows applications has made a lot of PC software writers wealthy.)
But what makes the Windows Program Manager attractive to untutored PC users is its grouping function. If you drag a program out of a File Manager window into a Program Manager window, the program file itself stays in its original location while Windows creates an alias for that program -- a launcher icon -- within the Program Manager window. If you have two word processors, you could create a Program Manager group called "Word Processors" and place an icon for each one in that group. This way, no matter where those applications are on disk, you can launch either of them from one location.
That's what NeoDesk 4's Groups allow you to do, too. But NeoDesk's Groups are much more powerful. NeoDesk's Groups contain active aliases, not just program launchers, and, also unlike the groups in Windows, they can contain folders in addition to files. And NeoDesk 4 Groups can be nested hierarchically; Groups can be placed within other Groups at any time.
Getting rid of FOOBAR3.PRG and THSBGFIL.DOC
NeoDesk 4 Groups also surmount one of the oldest problems of every DOS and DOS-like computer disk operating system -- the limitation on the length of filenames. PCs and Ataris both labor under that restriction (under MS-DOS for PCs and TOS for Ataris), which limits the main part of a filename to eight characters and the extension -- the part of the name that follows a period -- to three characters. This limitation is removed in all Group windows. Whether the items in the Group window are displayed by icons or by text, the names can be normal words. They can contain capital and lower-case letters, spaces, punctuation marks and even special characters such as trademark or copyright symbols. Furthermore, whenever Groups are listed in regular NeoDesk 4 desktop file-and-folder windows, their names are also displayed in normal language, not as such filenames as MYWORDP.GRP (as they are in Microsoft Windows).
Try it - you'll like it
NeoDesk 4 Groups are easy to create. Every desktop file window has a "New Group" option in its File menu. Groups can also be created automatically by NeoDesk when it performs a search. Groups must be given a name before they can be saved.
Because the notion of groups is new to Atarians (at least to those who have not used Microsoft Windows on a PC), I'll explain the uses of NeoDesk Groups in some detail. If you have not yet created and used NeoDesk Groups, you may discover a new dimension to everyday computing.
The primary function of a group in NeoDesk 4 is obvious: It puts programs, data files and folders where they can be easily located. Here's the most basic example: If you create a Group for all your graphics applications, all you need to do to run one of them is to open the Graphics group and double-click on the icon or name of the one you want to run. This Group can be made up of programs stored in different locations on your hard drive, and it can also contain folders for various kinds of graphics files (Spectrum 512 pictures, GIF photos and so on) no matter where they are located.
Here's another example, taken from my own setup. All my primary utility programs and configuration files have been placed in a Group called Quick Utils. By opening that Group window, I have easy access to all the utilities and data files. (The data files include the ASSIGN.SYS file that GDOS uses, the GEM.CNF file needed by Geneva and the NEOD1024.INF file used for my standard-display mode in NeoDesk 4, among many other files.) These files are located in scattered folders on various drives, but they are all accessible from one Group window.
The icons (or names, in a text display) in a Group window are active. That is, they do not simply launch a program. They are capable of all the drag-and-drop operations that can be performed by the files to which they refer. The only limitation in the functionality of Group members is that renaming, deleting, copying or moving them does not perform those operations on the original files. (This is intentional, of course; you would not want to endanger the original files in this way.) They are also linked immediately to their original files if you press the Control key and double-click on a Group member. This operation opens a new window on the desktop to the location of the original file or folder, making file functions very simple when you need to rename, delete, copy or move those items.
Groups that care for MIAs
Yet Groups are even more powerful than these examples show. While it is clear that Group members represent files and folders in another location, it may not be obvious that they can represent items that are NOT locally stored. In other words, you could create Groups for every floppy disk in your collection. You could then open those Group windows and use them either as a way of checking for files without needing to access the floppies or as a way of providing quick access to the contents of any disk you put in the floppy drive. In my setup, I have created Groups for every CD-ROM disk in my collection. When I put a particular disk in the CD-ROM drive, I merely open the Group window corresponding to that CD-ROM and get instant access to the entire contents -- without opening any file-and-folder windows on the CD-ROM itself.
I also use Group windows to catalog my secondary backup disks. (Secondary backups, in my system, are disks holding archived files created with a standard archiver instead of a backup program. These are held offline as insurance against problems with the primary backups, which are created with a backup program.) If one of my backups fails, I have to do nothing more than open a set of Group windows to determine which backup disk (a Floptical) contains the file I need.
Another Group I use was automatically created by NeoDesk 4's search function. I have a lot of GDOS, Degas (Warp 9), Speedo and TrueType fonts in dozens of locations on my main drives. Rather than trying to move them all to a single set of folders on one drive, I had NeoDesk 4 search for files matching the specifications for these fonts. I saved the search results as a Fonts Group. Now any font is just a click away, after opening just a single window.
And another Group holds entries for all my articles about Atari computers. Most are stored in Calligrapher's own file format, but some are ASCII texts and others are saved in the Atari Works format. Yet they are all in the same Group window, and all have descriptive names (not WHAT_DA.CAL or GENSECR.STW and that kind of thing). Because these Group members are aliases for files that NeoDesk already associates with their applications, all I have to do is double-click on any Group entry and it will appear in a second or two inside the application that created it originally.
This is an important function of Groups that many users may not understand. Groups do not have to be made up of programs; they can be put together from any items stored on disk. A common use I make of a Group I call New Docs is the temporary listing of documentation for new programs. Rather than digging out the doc file in a folder half-lost somewhere on one of my drives, I merely drag the document icon to the Group window and access it from there. It is always instantly available that way.
You may want to consider creating a Master Group that holds all your other groups. If you place the icon for the Master Group on the desktop, you will always be able to open any Group window quickly.