For years and years and years and years and years and years now I've begged and pleaded for two things — a Files.app repository for the iPhone and iPad, and a DocumentPicker API for developers to make iOS file management easier. Last year, with iOS 8, Apple provided the DocumentPicker as part of iCloud Drive. This year, with iOS 9, I hope they finally provide Files.app as well.
To be absolutely crystal clear — neither then, nor now, am I asking for a user-accessibile files system on iOS. Traditional file systems are overly complicated and Apple has rightly hidden them away on the iPhone and iPad so normal human beings don't have to deal with them.
What I am asking for is a repository, just like Photos.app for the ImagePicker. Something that collects files all in one place so they're easy to find. Just like Passbook for passes and Health for medical and fitness data.
It's something that Apple already makes and something we already know how to use.
Last year I called the lack of Files.app and DocumentPicker "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."
A lot of that had to do with "app jails", or files locked within specific apps, inaccessible any other way. DocumentPicker solved that, making files available to any app that called up the iCloud Drive interface.
The problem that remains is that we still need to remember what app can access our files, or we need to find an App Store app that can access a wide range of files. And that's kludgy.
What we have now is analogous to Photos.app and ImagePicker, sans Photos.app. Instead of being able to open a single app and browser all our pictures, we have to go find an App Store app that'll let us browse them.
It's fine if your brain only ever works in an app-centric way: "I wrote my article in TextApp, I am going to go to TextApp and open my article".
It's less fine if your brain works in a file-centric way: "I wrote my article, I'm going to go to my article and open it in whatever app will let me open it... Hey, TextApp!"
Both are valid mental models, but supporting only one of them makes iOS less accessible to people who naturally gravitate towards the other.
In a world with Files.app, I could go to TextApp, open DocumentPicker, and choose my article. I could also go to Files.app, search for my article, and then use "Open in..." to pick TextApp or any other text editing app.
Or, you know, just search in an updated Spotlight that can see into DocumentPicker as well...
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 in iCloud Drive in a way that empowers people.
Apple, rightly, prides itself on privacy and security. Every app on iOS exists in a sandbox and every file exists in the sandbox of the app that created it. In order for iCloud Drive and DocumentPicker, with the permission of express user action, moves data between those sandboxes.
Files.app would be an Apple app, however, which could ensure a high level of privacy and security for files. A "Do you want to grant NewApp permission to access your files?" could further ensure both and make any openings in the sandbox was still the result of express user action.
When you factor in Extensibility, which lets apps surface remote views to the system and to other apps, it makes the idea of a Files.app even more compelling.
If you want to share a file, you no longer have to remember anything about the app that created it or the type of app that can open it. All you have to do is go to Files.app and tap the Share button, and then send it using any app or service that offers an extension.
All you have to know is that you want to get file A to destination B, and then you're only ever one Files.app launch and couple of taps away.
When less is more
In an attempt to avoid the complexities of a file system, iOS has spent years lost in complexities of not having a file system. Yet, at the same time, iOS has developed easy-to-understand, easy-to-use repositories for virtually everything but files.
It remains, almost 9 years later, one of the single most glaring omissions in iOS.
Files and documents are incredibly important to a great many people, personally and professionally, who use iPhones and iPads, and they need and deserve a saner, simpler way to get to their files.
We've gotten our redesign. We've gotten our functionality increase. The iPhone and the iPad are light and powerful beyond our dreams. They are becoming our primary computer platforms. They are the glass through which we are viewing the connected world.
iOS 8 got us part of the way there. It gave us DocumentPicker and iCloud Drive. It made it so that our iPhones and our iPads are no longer terrible at something as important as file handling.
Now we just need iOS 9 to get us the rest of the way home. We just need iCloud Drive surfaced in a consistent place so we can get to it, and our documents, whenever we want or need to.
I don't know if Files.app best solves this problem. Maybe Apple has an even better solution waiting in the wings. Either way, it's a problem that's now halfway solved, and one that really needs to be taken all the way.
This feature request has been submitted as a feature request to Apple as rdar://19933856.
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Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.