You dont want to worry about the physical file system paths, and real folders. Instead, you just want to use the virtualized system. So that you wouldn’t need to worry about such arcane things as “the root of C:” and the Program Files folder. Instead, you would just access your documents and applications, without ever thinking about where they resided on the disk.
Most people won’t even realize that Libraries are virtual folders, let alone discover that you can create your own virtual folders with their contained shared searches. But if you do want to harness some of the most awesome and unique technology in Windows 7, this is the place to start. After all, that sort of electronic housekeeping is what a computer is good at, right?
In order to truly understand virtual folders, it’s important to first understand the thinking that went into this feature. And since this is a feature that was originally scheduled for the ever-delayed Windows Vista, it might also be helpful to know about Microsoft’s original plans for the Vista shell and virtual folders and compare the plans with what eventually happened.
This original vision required a healthy dose of technology. The core piece was a new storage engine called WinFS (short for Windows Future Storage), which would have combined the best features of the NTFS file system with the relational database functionality of Microsoft’s SQL Server products. Microsoft has been working on WinFS, and now its successors, for about a decade.
Microsoft began developing it separately from the OS. Then, it completely cancelled plans to ship WinFS as a separate product. Instead, WinFS technologies would be integrated into other Windows versions including Windows 7, and Windows 8 and other Microsoft products.
Instead of special shell folders like Documents, users would access virtual folders such as All Documents, which would aggregate all of the documents on the hard drive and present them in a single location.
Other special shell folders, like Pictures and Music, would also be replaced by virtual folders.
It is then felt that the transition from normal folders to virtual folders to be extremely confusing. In retrospect, this should have been obvious. After all, a virtual folder that displays all of your documents is kind of useful when you’re looking for something, but where do you save a new file? Is a virtual folder even a real place for applications that want to save data? And do users need to understand the differences between normal folders and virtual folders? Why are there both kinds of folders?
With the problems mounting, Microsoft stepped back from the virtual folder scheme, just as it had when it stripped out WinFS previously. Therefore, the file system that appeared in Windows Vista was actually quite similar to that in Windows XP and previous Windows versions.
That is, the file system still used drive letters, normal folders, and special shell folders like (My) Documents and (My) Pictures. If you were familiar with any prior Windows version, you would feel right at home in the Vista shell. Likewise, if you found the Windows file system to be a bit, well, lackluster, all the same complaints still applied in Vista as well.
When Windows 7 arrived, Microsoft hasn’t relegated drive letters and physical folders to the dustbin of history. But they have implemented one of the early Vista file system plans in Windows 7: now, traditional special shell folders (but not the entire file system) have been replaced by virtual folders. This time around they’re called Libraries.
Also the capability to create your own virtual folders is also available in Windows 7, just as it was in Vista. And as in Vista, this feature is really well hidden. That makes it a power-user feature and thus, for new learners, inherently interesting.
The thing to understand is that while your typical special shell folders, My Documents, My Music, My Pictures, and My Videos, still exist in Windows 7, inside of your user folder, you will rarely need or want to access them directly. Instead, you will work with the content types stored in these folders via Windows 7’s new Libraries.