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Sharing Files on a Desktop Computer

The easiest way to share files on a desktop computer is for everyone to use the same login, and leave all the files on the desktop or in the "Documents" folder.

On the other hand, a desktop can be a personal thing. If I put a file somewhere, I like to know it'll still be in that spot when I get back. Computers are tricky enough. We don't have to add the work of other unpredictable humans to make them hard to use.

Once a household starts using multiple logins, you run into a completely different problem: how do you share things? I took all those pictures and my daughter wants to see them. We took turns typing in Xmas presents as we opened them, now where do we put the list so everyone knows what Thank You notes to write?

Modern computing systems usually implement Deny by Default: if you create a file, nobody else can look at it unless you explicitly give them permission. That's only part of the problem: we also need to know where to look for the shared files.

My new Dell laptop runs Windows Vista Home Premium edition (or something like that). I set it up as I usually do: one Administrator account, an account for my routine work (password protected), and an account for family and friends to use. Home Premium provides a set of "Public" folders for sharing.

I used the "Downloads" folder to retrieve the install packages for Firefox and Thunderbird. I was in my personal account at the time, and I switched to the admin account to do the actual install. I probably didn't need to do that on Vista, but it's a habit.

Vista has a "Sharing" option you can apply to folders: you select the folder, then select "Share" from the menu. Vista asks you to "Choose people to share with." You can add a person, or "Everyone," by choosing them on the list. You can also tailor access rights by choosing one of these:

  • Owner or Co-owner: can do anything in the shared folder
  • Contributor: can read any of the files, and can add files which they can change or delete themselves.
  • Reader: can read any of the files, but can't change any of them.
This allows a typical family sharing situation, and many workplace collaboration scenarios. It does not let you share full access to a file. By default, only the owner can modify or delete a file. You can't create one and pass it to another to change.

To do that, you have to go to the "Security" tab on a file's or folder's "Properties" window. This brings you to the access control lists (ACLs). These give you full control of access rights for a file. You can add or remove specific permissions for individual users. You can also control whether or not a folder's access rights are inherited by the files and folders it contains.

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