Every year, for the last three years, I've asked Apple to consider what amounts to a Files.app and FilePicker control in iOS. It would be analogous to the Photos.app and ImagePicker control, but allow us to easily find, and easily open, all the documents we use on all our iPhones and iPads, every day. Now, on the eve of iOS 7, the need for better file handling -- not filesystem! -- remains, and if anything has become even more urgent. In a post-iCloud, post Steve Jobs and Scott Forstall world, how can Apple address it?
No filesystem but no real alternative
At the risk of making it obnoxiously clear, I don't think iOS needs a filesystem. Dropbox is a filesystem and while it's fantastic at what it does, it's the past, not the future. Apple doesn't seem to think iOS needs a filesystem either, but they haven't yet provided what's needed to make filesystems obsolete. Hence, Dropbox. From Stuck between the Dropbox that was and the iCloud that isn't yet:
The [current iOS] architecture is unnecessarily dependent on apps. If I create a document in Text Editor 1, not only do I have to remember the document I created but, if I want to access it again, I also have to remember the app I created it in. If I later switch to a much better Text Editor 2, my document doesn't switch with me. I have to either copy and paste every document from Text Editor 1 into Text Editor 2, or keep a list of which documents are where. That's a non-trivial amount of cognitive overhead. If at some point I move on to Text Editor 3, or delete (or switch devices and don't re-install) Text Editor 1, it gets even worse. I have to track my documents over multiple access points, and perhaps even re-install old apps just to get back to the documents locked inside. It's a mess.
Decoupled, documents that present themselves to any app that supports editing their type, and apps that simply pull any document whose type they support, would be much simpler and better. A smart version of a document picker would remove the cognitive burden from users and let the system do all the heavy lifting.
Apple doesn't seem to think iOS needs a filesystem either, but they haven't yet provided what's needed to make filesystems obsolete.
In a world with a Files.app, you'd just tap its icon on the Home screen, tap the type of document you want (the way you tap an album in Photos.app), and go to your document. Then you tap the document and choose where you want to open it. Conversely, you could open any document app -- text editor, presenter, spreadsheet, etc. -- tap the open button, and FilePicker would present you with every file (including iCloud files) that can be opened by that app. Again, with the ability to quickly filter to help with longer lists.
Faster still, you'd just type something in a search box and Spotlight would filter right to whatever you want.
Mapping Files to Photos
Back before iOS 6 launched, I did a series of mockups on how Files.app could map to Photos.app, FilePicker could map to ImagePicker, and File Stream could map to Photo Stream. From How Apple could provide direct document access in iOS 6:
We didn't get better file handling in iOS 6, however. We got Passbook, a repository for tickets, cards, coupons, boarding passes, and more. And not without reason. From iOS 6 and why we got Passbook instead of Files.app:
It's easy to see why Apple gave Passbook that attention as well -- mobile ecommerce is going to be huge. Billions of dollars huge.
It's already in use everywhere from Starbucks to Delta airlines, and it's built in such a way that when/if Apple embraces radio transactions (be it via NFC or something else), Passbook should handle it as gracefully as CoreLocation handles GPS vs. Wi-Fi mapping. It's good now and could be terrific in the future.
But file handling on iOS isn't even good now, and needs to be terrific. It's far more personal, and will drive far less revenue, but great file handling is the difference between an operating system being truly useful and truly frustrating. Android has intents and sharing, Windows Phone has contracts. There's whole levels of app interoperability that iOS lacks at the moment.
Finding the future
I've evolved my thinking on Files.app and FilePicker somewhat since the pre-iOS 6 days. A flat repository with search, for example, is more future-proof than any single layer of folders or albums. A much better, more robust, and more useful version of Spotlight that has "just type" functionality similar to what webOS had, and BlackBerry 10 is rolling out, with the ability to see into iCloud and Files.app, would go a long way to making things easier and faster.
Apple could no doubt figure inter-app communication and file handling and do just enough to provide that functionality without compromising security.
The same way Apple knew "I want multitasking" was really "I want Pandora, Skype, and TomTom to work while I'm on the phone or browsing the web", and did just enough to provide that functionality without compromising battery life, Apple could no doubt figure out "I want inter-app communication" is really "I want to open and send my files where and when I want to open and send them", and do just enough to provide that functionality without compromising security.
Multitasking had a small group of different API, and inter-app communication would certainly require similar to truly address current pain points. Files.app and FilePicker would just be part of that, but an important, highly user-facing part. BackBoard, XPC, there are a lot of ways Apple could choose to handle these problems. I just hope screaming fast, ubiquitous file access is front and center come keynote time.
Six years into the mobile revolution iOS started and we're still stuck at the gates when it comes to file handling on iPhone and iPad. With iCloud, the need only grew greater. With fresh blood in control of the product, perhaps this year we'll see some movement. Perhaps rolled into more robust inter-app communications, perhaps on its own. Either way, I've been asking for it for a long time, other technologists have been asking for it for a long time, and other apps have tried to fill the gap that only system software can really fill.
What say you? Will iOS 7 finally be the time and version when great file handling comes to iOS? And if it does, will it be in the form of Files.app and FilePicker, something more, or something else?
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