iOS 8 wants: Unified AirDrop

iOS 8 wants: Unified AirDrop

AirDrop, as it is currently implemented on iPhone and iPad in iOS 7 isn't compatible with the service of the same name as it's currently implemented on the Mac in OS X Mavericks. In other words, you can't AirDrop between iOS devices and Macs, and that's both frustrating and confusing. Apple certainly knows and appreciates that. So, with the upcoming iOS 8 and OS X 10.10, it would be great if Apple could unify their AirDrop services, to keep the power of the old Mac version, keep the simplicity and security of the iPhone and iPad version, but make them work together in harmony. The only question is — how?

AirDrop on the Mac

AirDrop debuted on the Mac in 2011 with OS X 10.7 Lion. Built into the Finder, Share menu, and Open/Save dialogs, AirDrop for OS X uses Wi-Fi and Bonjour — Apple's brand of zero-configuration networking — to discover other Macs within range that are also in AirDrop mode. Once another Mac is discovered, and a personal area network (PAN) connection is accepted and established between them, files can be transferred.

Since AirDrop on the Mac is built into the Finder as well as the Share menu, you can not only use it to transfer files but URLs, locations, contacts, and anything else those two systems support.

AirDrop on the iPhone and iPad

AirDrop for the iPhone and iPad came in 2013 with iOS 7. Built into the Share sheet, AirDrop for iOS uses Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy to discover other iOS devices within range that also have AirDrop enabled. Once that happens, however, things get a little more interesting, thanks to the iOS security-first approach:

When a user enables AirDrop, a 2048-bit RSA identity is stored on the device. Additionally, an AirDrop identity hash is created based on the email addresses and phone numbers associated with the user's Apple ID.

When a user chooses AirDrop as the method for sharing an item, the device emits an AirDrop signal over BTLE. Other devices that are awake, in close proximity, and have AirDrop turned on detect the signal and respond with a shortened version of their owner's identity hash.

AirDrop is set to share with Contacts Only by default. Users can also choose if they want to be able to use AirDrop to share with Everyone or turn off the feature entirely. In Contacts Only mode, the received identity hashes are compared with hashes of people in the initiator's Contacts. If a match is found, the sending device creates a peer-to-peer Wi-Fi network and advertises an AirDrop connection using Bonjour. Using this connection, the receiving devices send their full identity hashes to the initiator. If the full hash still matches Contacts, the recipient's first name and photo (if present in Contacts) are displayed in the AirDrop sharing sheet.

When using AirDrop, the sending user selects who they want to share with. The send- ing device initiates an encrypted (TLS) connection with the receiving device, which exchanges their iCloud identity certificates. The identity in the certificates is verified against each user's Contacts. Then the receiving user is asked to accept the incoming transfer from the identified person or device. If multiple recipients have been selected, this process is repeated for each destination.

In the Everyone mode, the same process is used but if a match in Contacts is not found, the receiving devices are shown in the AirDrop sending sheet with a silhouette and with the device's name, as defined in Settings > General > About > Name.

The Wi-Fi radio is used to communicate directly between devices without using any Internet connection or Wi-Fi Access Point.

Since iOS has no Finder or surfaced filesystem — nor my long-pined-for DocumentPicker — AirDrop on the iPhone and iPad is built only into the Share sheet, and you can only use it to transfer URLs, contacts, locations, photos, voice memos, and other items that system supports.

A tale of two AirDrops

It's my understanding that AirDrop had a long, hard road going from OS X to iOS. The first couple of implementations were rejected by the late Steve Jobs and former head of iOS, Scott Forstall for not being simple and elegant enough experiences. Eventually the engineering team came up with something new and different that met the simplicity and elegance requirements, and suited the geekier disposition of Craig Federighi, and was approved for launch with iOS 7. Unfortunately, to get there, and to be rock-solid secure, it had to lose compatibility with the Mac.

Since everyone at Apple was racing to get iOS 7 done, there was no time to go back and make OS X Mavericks compatible. Delaying a completed AirDrop from iOS 7 to some future version to give the Mac time to catch up also wasn't an option.

So, AirDrop for iOS 7 was announced at WWDC 2013 and as soon as the beta was released word began to spread that it couldn't talk to the Mac.

Ultimately Apple made the right choice on the iOS protocol. It is both very secure and easy to use. Whether they made the right choice on using the same name as the different OS X protocol is another matter.

Apple could have chosen to call iOS wireless sharing something else. That would have avoided the short term confusion of the segment of their customers who already used AirDrop on OS X. Calling the iOS version something different, however, and then renaming it AirDrop once OS X became compatible, would likely have caused some level of confusion for all iOS users in the future.

Whether some past and present confusion is worth it for future harmony is arguable, but it is what it is.

Grand unification

So, you, me, and everyone else — including no doubt Apple —would prefer a world with a unified OS X and iOS AirDrop in it. I'd guess any unified AirDrop would have to respect iOS' security model. Would that mean a similar switch to Bluetooth 4.0 LE discovery? Would it mean simply hiding Finder/file transfer if the detected AirDrop client was iOS rather than OS X?

Those are the kinds of problems Apple is typically really good at solving. Hopefully they have and we'll see it as soon as WWDC 2014, iOS 8, and OS X 10.10.

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, The TV Show, Vector, ZEN & TECH, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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There are 31 comments. Add yours.

Lt_Solorna says:

Hopefully, they will find an implementation fix. I can wait for it to come to IOS 8 if it does come. The compatibility issue is because of the file-system differences and since Bonjour is used maybe it could be used for Mac and iDevice Airdrop?

Rene Ritchie says:

My guess is OS X will switch to BT LE and security will be handled similar to iOS. Mac will just get file sharing on top of it.

Wall Breaker says:

This is one of the handful of features that is missing from ios I prefer android but I happen to like ios for what it does have to offer. But it's sharing capabilities as well as a lack of default apps and no real file system are turn offs as my Nexus 5 doubles as an external hard drive.

akdj says:

"... it's sharing capabilities as well as a lack of default apps and no real file system are turn offs as my Nexus 5 doubles as an external hard drive." As an owner of the Note 3 (after owning the Nexus 5, too boring, awful camera and terrible battery life) as well as the iPhone 5s, I can honestly say I've never had ANY challenges 'sharing'. Dropbox, iCloud, email, SMS MMS or iMessage, Instapaper, Evernote, read it later, reading list or syncing between OSx & iOS is incredibly simple, wireless and 'in the background'. AirDrop, I'm with Rene. I thought it was 'me' for the longest time...and I wasn't setting it up correctly. iOS to iOS or OSx to OSx, it's amazing, significantly more so than using your N5 as 'an external HDD' (I'm jealous, I've got to use Kies which is pitiful in comparison to the iOS so your mileage I'm sure differs significantly from mine). Sorry. Too long...the issue I had was your claim of 'lack of default apps'?? I almost laughed out loud, honestly. Especially in comparison to the bare bones G5! iWork, iLife and the 'phone app' and it's visual voicemail, an efficient and incredibly intuitive 'texting app'...Safari is still, even with today's latest hardware on Android's 2014 releases, significantly quicker than Android's stock browser, Chrome, Dolphin, Opera...I've tried them all on my Note 3 and there's NO comparison. While I prefer Mercury...it's laughable to not consider Pages, Numbers, Keynote, iTunes, GarageBand and iPhoto are somehow lacking. They're all top of class, to take nothing away from Microsoft. I'm enjoying the Office 365 suite. It's amazing. Google's Drive--> native apps for editing was a joke, and a poor one at that. Piss. Poor. They should've left Drive as is, as it WAS the cloud service with editing 'features' included. Hard to choose it over Dropbox now for anything other than a bit more storage. File system? Seriously? That is STILL a 'problem?' I pay my mortgage and have with the use of technology for twenty five years. It's mind blowing to me someone needs a 'file system' on their phone. Other than inter app communication with the ability to save a document in one place...which is very easy to so in most apps worth their weight with the 'open in' feature. Dropbox upload (automatic for photos, sharing folders, etc). That said, it's the ONE area I'd like to see Apple improve. Their services arena and integration with OSx ...specifically AirDrop. A repository on the phone for the essentials. Photos, docs, audio, video...and the interaction between my laptop and iPhone or iPad to be a seamless experience. I'm with Rene. I'd rather it be 'right' than first. It's a helluva lot harder to create 'simple' and easy/efficient sharing and security than it is to just throw a half dozen ways together and hope one sticks (& the others don't leak your Sh¡@!). Wallet. NFC. Beam. I can't count the built in and worthless TouchWiz apps my Note is loaded with. NOTHING on your phone or my Note 3 came preloaded with ANYTHING comparable to the afore mentioned and currently 'free' stock apps. Enough of the worshipping. I love my Note 3 and as a 43 year old have a hard time understanding how anyone can 'dislike', 'hate', or dismiss outright one versus the other. Flagship hardware from all OEMs (including the new Win 8.1 handsets) of current silicon bloodline are incredible. Together over two million 'apps', more software than anytime in our history and SIGNIFICANTLY less expensive. It's a good time to be a consumer. Really. Really. GREAT! Enjoy what you like. Don't beat down the other. Especially for bogus reasons. Plenty of options my Note provides I prefer to my iPhone. But none you mentioned. I've never looked into my 'files'. I use the apps. Sharing and beaming and crappy voicemail systems are a bummer. The display, stylus, memory card for movies and music as well as the battery life and expandable options ROCK!
Sorry. Carry on.

Dev from tipb says:

You like Apple's default apps. Good for you. For many of the rest of us, this preference toggle could have given us the elegance of Sparrow (better 2 years ago than Mail.app is today), or natural language calendaring (any number of apps superior to built in Calendar), or better camera controls (Camera+, others) - the list goes on. The issue is not with Andoid, nor even with those apps Apple does well, it is with those apps Apple allows to languish because they do not have to compete on an even playing field.

Jonas Slough III says:

I always felt that Bonjour is one the most underrated features of the Mac. I wonder if the solution is to put Bonjour into iOS and use it instead of Bluetooth. I'm sure the security end of the transfer can be added to Mac OS.

paulmeyers42 says:

I love the concept of AirDrop, but in practice I don't use it nearly as much as I thought I would, either on the Mac or on iOS. Emailing/messaging is still easier for me because I don't have to bug the other person to turn on their phone to receive the airdrop - just fire and forget. Every single time I've asked someone to receive an airdrop, their response is always "just email it to me" or "just text it to me." Maybe if there was a way to receive airdrops in the background?

Airdropping files works just fine for me on iOS. For example, I can airdrop Pages documents to other people. When they receive it, they're asked what app they want to use to open it. It's no different than the "Open in..." mechanic. I could see the same thing working between OSX and iOS.

MikhailT says:

Same here. My problem is that AirDrop is very disruptive to the other's person device. If they're doing something and I airdrop something important to them, it just disrupt them out of nowhere with this huge sheet. It should be like an iMessage notification.

crazygonzo says:

Still useless for me, my friends don't use Apple gear so it's only my iPad & Mac. Bummer, but I remember I was excited once at the thought of AirDrop in 2011.

Rene Ritchie says:

Your friends need to get iPhones! :)

GeniusUnleashed says:

iOS is a makeshift mess at this point. They keep trying to add things in and make adjustments. Time to start from the bottom up and rework the whole OS.

MikhailT says:

That's coming eventually, Apple tend to do a *Snow Leopard* type of release every 5-7 years.

Right now, iOS 7 was just mostly front-end changes that didn't have much time in the development process, which is why iOS 7.1 feels much better but it's just not there yet. If Apple could just focus on improving the core of iOS for another year or two, it'd get there.

Given the latest rumors about iOS 8, it is possible iOS 8 is the release we're looking for in terms of the whole OS optimization.

IMO, Apple's spending too much time working on the faster and newer next-gen hardware while hoping it'd will make up for the extra work iOS have to do. However they keep forgetting the new iOS have to run on the current and previous generations of iOS devices which will not run as fast.

GeniusUnleashed says:

Im' willing to give Jony the benefit of teh doubt since he took it over so recently. But functionality, compared to Android, it's awful. Granted Android doesn't always work, but when it does, it's such a fluid piece of software compared to iOS.

rickgregory17 says:

" Granted Android doesn't always work..."

I love how you just pass this off as some minor thing.

MikhailT says:

Because iOS works all the time? iOS 7 was the most unstable OS release I've ever had the pleasure of using, not iOS but OS entirely. Windows crashed less than iOS 7.

rickgregory17 says:

Didn't have any crashes to speak of on the iPhone 5. The retina mini crashed, but 7.1 fixed that.

Also... that whooshing sound? Was my point, going over your head. But then you were in such a rush to bitch....

GeniusUnleashed says:

Hmm...I didn't get your "point" either, so maybe try it again.

MikhailT says:

I don't either. What was your point?

[Edit] This was meant for Rick, not Genius.

GeniusUnleashed says:

Well it's totally dependent on the release. Gingerbread, Ice Cream Sandwich and the latest version of Kit Kat are/were great, but I heard horror stories about the first few releases of Kit Kat. And then it's also phone dependent. The botched early releases were bad on Nexus 5, but I didn't hear any qualms from S5 or HTC users.

And I don't think we, as Apple users, get a pass on bad software. Antenna Gate, Apple Maps and MobileMe are just a few of the /facepalms that come to mind.

MikhailT says:

Ive has nothing to do with how iOS works, only how it looks. Without the engineering, none of his design will work. Engineering and Design have to go hand in hand at Apple and if Ive pisses off Federighi like he did the previous successor, iOS will suffer badly.

Ive's a better hardware designer than he is with software. So far, I haven't been impressed with iOS 7. It's slow, too much whitespace, and so on. I still rather have an optimized iOS 6 that's faster and lighter.

I'm hoping iOS 8 is when Federighi and Ive finally shows off what they can do. If not, I have to start considering Android from there on.

GeniusUnleashed says:

Agreed. The keyboard is so laggy and bad on my 4S it's borderline unusable half the time.

rickgregory17 says:

Hrm. It's not bad on my 5. (not 5s). Maybe a clean install?

GeniusUnleashed says:

I just did a clean install last week because I had 13GB's of "other" on my phone. No one could figure it out, including Geniuses and that was their last idea. Hence the need for file management. The fact that we have zero control of other is kind of freaky, it could contain anything and we would never know.

sau124 says:

Personally, I don't see the point if I am using it between my devices. Here are some of my thoughts:
1. iPhoto serves to move pictures back and forth using Photostream
2. Safari shows me open pages on the other connected devices
3. Numbers, Pages and Keynotes have the option to store in the Cloud for access on any device
4. iMessages, Contacts, Notes, Reminders, Calendar, etc. are updated accordingly on both the devices

Sending to other people who use iOS it is as easy as emailing and/or messaging. I think AirDrop is a feature that is not being utilized a lot. There are lot of sharing options too if you prefer those choices.

ThatsAwesome says:

If there are two things that Apple needs to fix in iPhone is File sharing & Memory card. Please allow bluetooth and Memory card, by dear fruit company.

Leann Everett says:

I like the sound of this idea :-)

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koltonh2002 says:

I (using my iPhone 5c) don't very often use airdrop. It's a great tool but unused ;-) but still for all the people that use it with their idevices and macs it would be a great idea

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Aliah Jones says:

Can we three way FaceTime?

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