iOS 8 wants: Files.app + DocumentPicker, because file handling on iPhone and iPad has hit a brick wall
I deeply, truly, desperately want Apple to add a Files app and DocumentPicker controller to the iPhone and iPad in iOS 8. I've wanted it going on 4 years, and every year more than the last. It is, in my very humble opinion, one of the biggest, most frustrating holes remaining on Apple's mobile operating system, and all the more so because it seems like a model for fixing it has been in successful use for years already. Right now we're saddled with the complexity and frustration of iOS documents locked in app and iCloud jails. We're driven to outdated filesystems like Dropbox because Apple hasn't yet provided a next generation alternative. It needs to happen and so I'm once again asking for it this year and for iOS 8.
Locked in app jail with no chance of parole
Just like 2008 when the iPhone SDK was first announced, apps can only open and save files to their own container. Just like 2011 when iOS 5 launched, apps with Documents in the Cloud can only access files in their own container. We can "Open in...", which moves certain types of files from certain types of places to others, but it's a very specific push-type action with no equal and opposite pull-action available.
The problem, and it bears repeating, is this:
If I create a plain text file in App One there's no way to access it outside of App One. If I later switch to App Two, unless I'm lucky enough to find "Open in..." implemented in the Share Sheet, I have no way of getting to that file. I have to copy and paste the text from the old file in the old app over to a new one in the new app.
For a couple files that's annoying. For dozens or hundreds, it's crippling.
Worse, if one day I'm using App Five for my text file editing and suddenly realize I need a document from a few months or years ago, I have to try and remember which app I created it in — App One? Two? Three? Four? — re-download it, and hope my file is still there. And then deal with moving it over.
In an attempt to avoid the complexity of a filesystem Apple has created the complexity of an app-system that can be just as impenetrable to people, if not more so. (At least filesystems can be searched, app contents not so much, especially previously deleted app contents, even if it's still stored on Documents in the Cloud.)
Keeping files in Dropbox or similar cloud storage apps is a workaround, thanks to "Open in...". But it's a clunky one that defaults, at the primary level, back to a filesystem. It also forces us to use multiple cloud storage systems and create additional dependencies.
A human shouldn't have to remember which app created their document any more than they should have to remember which folder it's in. A human shouldn't have to worry about finding their documents at all. A human should be able to go to one, consistent place, tap a few times, and get what they need.
And that's something only Apple can truly solve in an elegant, next-generation manner.
Those TextEdit and Preview for iOS rumors
Rumor has it Apple might be porting TextEdit and Preview from OS X to iOS. That would let all those documents stuck in the iCloud app jail on the Mac be opened on iPhone and iPad. "Open in..." might be used to send text files to Pages for editing or PDFs to iBooks for organizing.
It is frustrating tha we can't currently access those OS X files at all on iOS, even though there's a bevy of apps that could theoretically handle them. But adding additional apps, unless they offer significant additional functionality, seems like a less than stellar solution.
Nothing is confirmed unless and until Apple announces it, but it would be a shame if, to avoid file complexity, Apple once again compounds app complexity.
Which brings us neatly back to...
Files.app and DocumentPicker. Again. Again. (Again.)
It bears repeating and repeating — the same way Photos.app and ImagePicker let us browse and access all our photos and video from one central app and from any app that supports their types would seem to be an ideal map for how a Files.app and DocumentPicker could let us browser and access all our files and documents from one central app and from any app that supports their types.
Right now if I make a plain text file it's locked into the app and iCloud jail I create it in.
In a world with Photos.app and ImagePicker I could create that plain text file in any app. I could then go to Files.app and see it in the Text Files section, tap on it, and open it in app other app that supports plain text files. I could also go to any text editing app, tap open, have DocumentPicker slide up, see any text files supported by the app, choose the one I want, and start editing.
Or just search in an updated Spotlight that can see into the documents repository.
It's not a filesystem any more than Photos.app is a filesystem. It's a repository, a view, a way to sanely and safely present all documents on a device and Documents in the Cloud in a way that empowers people.
"Do you want to grant Text Editor permission to access your files?" would ensure privacy and make any openings in the sandbox the result of direct user interactions, the same way Camera Roll access is handled today.
It would be far more convenient, far simpler, and result in far less duplication and frustration than the current system. It would make both iOS and iCloud far more useful.
It would also trump the Dropboxes of the world where the filesystems of old are the last resort for those of us trying to access documents in the new, mobile world.
Passbook and Healthbook
Apple certainly doesn't seem to be adverse to repositories. Though implemented very differently, both Passbook, implemented in iOS 6, and Healthbook, rumored for iOS 8, solve the problem of finding your stuff by collecting it all together, all in one place.
Passbook might one day evolve into an important part of Apple's mobile payments strategy and Healthbook, if and when it launches, could be key to Apple's future in wearables, and so the time and effort poured into them certainly makes sense.
Files aren't sexy. Documents aren't going to revolutionize the world.
But they're important to a great many people, personally and professionally, and they need and deserve time and attention on iOS.
The bottom line
iOS has been redesigned. The iPhone and the iPad are light and powerful beyond our recent dreams. They are becoming our primary computer platforms. They are the glass through which we are viewing the connected world.
And they simply can't continue to suck, and suck so badly, for something as important, intrinsic, and essential as file handling. It's holding the iPhone and iPad back. It's preventing iOS from being useful in critical ways.
Don't introduce a filesystem. Of course don't. But introduce something like Files.app and DocumentPicker that revolutionizes file handling for the mainstream as much as iOS has revolutionized mobile computing.
It's time. Hell, it's long passed it.