iOS 8 wants: + 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 We're driven to outdated filesystems like Dropbox because Apple hasn't yet provided a next generation alternative.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

We're now going on 8 years post-iPhone and 3 years post-iCloud and when it comes to document handling on iOS, we've made precious little progress.

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... and DocumentPicker. Again. Again. (Again.)

It bears repeating and repeating — the same way 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 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 and ImagePicker I could create that plain text file in any app. I could then go to 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 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 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.

Rene Ritchie

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.

  • Finder for iOS with iCloud sync!
  • In fairness, I think you're actually asking for too much; and you have for going on four years now. Apple has no intention of opening up the file system. If they were going to, it would have happened by now.
    Apple has dictated how the files are handled and it works if you're willing to use it the way in which designed. It's not Windows and it's not supposed to act like Windows.
    I use an app called FileHub which gives me that functionality and it's quite serviceable. I agree that it would be really nice to have this as part of the OS, but it's not that kind of device and I don't think it was ever intended to work that way.
  • I'm not asking for a filesystem, which I state repeatedly now, and have stated repeatedly in the past. Read the article :)
  • Rene, why don't you do us all a favor and update the article with your definition of a file system and why this would be different. Obviously many do not understand the difference. BTW, I'm totally with you on the necessity of a file picker— heck, I wouldn't even mind some basic file system-like attributes (such as the ability to organize things with folders or tags).
  • Rene specifies it isn't a full blown file manager like Windows Explorer or Finder that he's after. He's saying something like the current photo picker, but for other file types too would be the ideal solution. Just make it a gateway to the files stored in iCloud, but smart enough to know that if you have a text editor open you don't want to see Powerpoint/Keynote files in that view.
  • windows phone will have it ;)
  • "It is frustrating tha we can't currently access those OS X files at all on iOS" Missing "t"
  • I've never owned an iPhone. For me to consider, it would need a file explorer ( like you say. I also would need better sharing. I want to share a link or picture from any app to the other. Like, I want to share a link from Chrome directly into an IRC app. Most importantly, I would need the ability to set default applications, such as Chrome as browser. Oh and Apple needs to open ALL browsers to its javascript engine, not just Safari. Oh and I want to uninstall newsstand.
  • Enjoy your Android device. :) In all seriousness, sometimes I feel like I'd like to be able to clone a github repository down to my iPad. Although that's usually because I'm too lazy to pull the MacBook Air out of my backpack. It would be nice to be able to do some of these things with a good programmers editor and a shell...but I don't honestly expect to ever be able to do that.
  • wouldn't be a file explorer. That's a terrible idea for mobile and the future of computing. :)
  • NO idea is terrible Rene, I thought Canadians were supposed to be nice? :{ <--(That's my new hipster emoticon :)
  • The only thing that's terrible is your idea based on a pretty Apple-centric use case. iCloud is terrible on Windows PCs iCloud is literally inaccessible from other mobile platforms. Not everyone buys every device they own from one vendor. This is a terrible idea and the reason why services like DropBox are so popular is because they proliferate across all mobile and desktop platforms and allow the user to access their data regardless of which device was used to create/modify it. iCloud pretty much denies you access to your own data unless you use an iDevice or Mac for it, for the most part. I used an iPhone 5S. It had much bigger isseus than this. Android has very little need for a File Manager because Apps actually share well with each other and it "just works."
  • Sure being able to utilize system directories would likely cause lots of issues for your average Joe, but why is an iCloud drive out of the question? It'd be completely in sync with OSX and would make photostream much more streamlined. Cloud storage is not a thing of the past. It's barely even kicked off
  • "File systems are antiquated" is just a drum beat by bloggers who like to think they are above everything. There is nothing wrong with a file system, it's extremely simple, based on concepts that have worked for 100 years or more with paper files before we even had desktop computers, and despite attempts to rethink it, no one has come up with anything better. It's simply the most logical, ordered way to store things. What folks miss is that a traditional file system isn't the problem, it's the lack of innovation in how we view and interact with it that is. Apple could change that, I am sure, but they are stuck in the "we wanna be the cool kid" syndrome and just eschew file systems entirely, which is what keeps iOS devices largely "consumption" and "minor task" devices, because in order to really make serious use of any created content it needs to be sent somewhere else for safekeeping/future use.
  • It's inhuman.
  • Just a repository of random files doesn't help people with a lot of documents. With Dropbox, I can access all files from my business and edit what I want. I should be able to send it right back to dropbox, but iCloud's organization free setup is awful unless you are dealing with very few files
  • This. And iCloud is not very accessible from other platforms.
  • Most people can't use the standard hierarchical file system. It is antiquated. It was developed for experts, not "normal" people who have no intention of becoming experts. To make a clichéd car analogy, cars have automatic transmissions, or heck, even standard transmissions now have synchromesh gears. The old way is for experts who shouldn't need that level of skill to operate a vehicle, or computer. Improvements and replacements are made to make operating the machine simpler and more accessible.
  • I think more important imo is the ability to select default apps and sharing between apps like it is on Android.
    Posted via the Android iMore App!
  • I would be happy if there was a way to delete app cache that didn't require jailbreaking the iPhone. Not sure why this is so hard to do, and also would help in the long run keeping the device running buttery smooth and not losing lots of storage from the build up cache.
  • Humans shouldn't have to worry about deleting app cache. If you ever have to do it, the OS failed.
  • If you don't need to do that, then why in the imore app you provide that option? And it wasn't necessary, just nice option to have. Sent from the iMore App
  • An interesting question I would like to see answered.
  • Yes please to a And also a file sync capability so files are always up to date on all my devices.
  • This may solve the problem of iCloud jail, but it doesn't help with my #1 problem of iCloud Documents in iOS: it's impossible to keep files from different apps organized in one "place." I still like to keep documents organized by project and/or topic regardless of app. Mavericks added tags, but that only helps with iCloud between OSX machines. A common synced documents repository that also supported tags on iOS would help immensely. Honestly I think they'd add tag support before though. Sent from the iMore App
  • What's wrong with file explorers out of curiosity? Seems handy.
  • "Normal" people are confused by them.
  • Great rant Rene. Totally agree. Sent from the iMore App
  • I can handle a file system and I can handle "Files.App." I don't care either way, but one of these days I need something that "just works."
  • Quoting - "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." Who said we were human lol!!
  • I'm on my last legs with the iPhone. it's not called iComputer, or iAppplayer, but iPhone. And still still still I can't type out a name on the dial pad to bring up names, like I can with Android phones...from 5 years ago. Dialing a number is such a jumbled mess that using the device as a an actual phone is frustrating. It's ridiculous that 20 year old dumb-phones are faster at recalling a stored phone number than the 8th generation iPhone. On top of that, TEXTING, the other main use of a mobile phone for the last two decades is also hands down subpar to Android devices. For the love of god! Just pay to use the damn patents already that allow for quick reply!
  • Apple could rectify the file handling problem while still maintaining the current locked system. They could do it by creating a file system with aliases. When you create a file, the file resides in the app or wherever. But an alias of that file would also be created, and you could file those aliases however you see fit. When you "open" an alias, it knows to go thru the appropriate app where the actual file resides, or (as you suggest) having an "Open in…" pop-up menu to choose between various apps in which the file is compatible.
  • My BlackBerry could do it. Heck, my Palm TX (circa 2005) could do it. Yet I can't use iOS's Mail app and add an attachment of anything more than a photo directly from it. Doesn't matter if the preferred file resides locally on my iOS device (say, in Pages) or if I have iCloud - I can't do the rudimentary task of adding an attachment of my choosing to email, unless I go (counter-intuitively) to a 3rd Party app to start an email. And don't get me started about Replying to an incoming email with an attachment. Apple neurosis about consumers having access to files (even those the user creates) is not about quality control, its just about control. Time to move on.
  • Agreed.
  • This is the biggest vulnerability that the iphone has for me when considering trying out Android. I'm happy with the screen size but the file system is constraining.
  • Thanks René to put it so greatly! The DocumentPicker is indeed a great idea that could revolutionize the way I use both my iPad and my iPhone! I'm less sure about the necessity of the, though. I can see the's utility in that the primary use of a photo is to be looked at, but I see less a utility for a in this context. I, for one, would happily live in a world where filesystem is nonexistant, even on a Mac... Folders should never be able to contain another folder. And a file should never be located solely in a folder, but should be grouped contextually with other files (hence, tags..) Just thoughts... Great post, thanks!
  • A file picker app would be outstanding. Add to that the ability to attach multiple files to an email from the email app using the file picker. Toss in a native "Print to PDF" option. And we can get some real work done!
  • Well said! I've been jonesing for this since iPhone OS 1.0. Apps like Dropbox and Box have helped, but it's only a bandaid for the issue. Looking forward to seeing what Apple has in store for us in iOS 8. Sent from the iMore App
  • I just opened my gmail app, created a new message, tapped the paperclip icon, and wait for it....... I drew a scribble! Welcome to 2014. Who needs to attach documents when you can just scribble your way to freedom ;) Sent from the iMore App
  • Agree 99.5%. Excellently laid out argument.
  • 1. Better management of photos.
    When you create folders to keep certain pics organized in categories -
    At the moment when you delete photos from the folder - they still remain in the camera roll. That's a huge hassle to go look for it in camera roll, when you have 1000 photos in your system.
    2. Better/ Quick app access/ management - try shifting an app from 4th screen to the first...
    We need a better layout to access or manage apps in folders - like a bucket to put the apps into when creating folders from apps on various pages.
    We need quick access to pages. Sent from the iMore App
  • I feel your pain Rene - have been annotating my student's coursework on my iPad Air and saving to Dropbox, while perhaps the best solution in the absence of a decent files app, is still clunky and not something my mum would understand. It makes me want to give and use my PC, which is not something Apple wants, I am guessing. Sent from the iMore App
  • I feel your pain Rene - have been annotating my student's coursework on my iPad Air and saving to Dropbox, while perhaps the best solution in the absence of a decent files app, is still clunky and not something my mum would understand. It makes me want to give and use my PC, which is not something Apple wants, I am guessing. Sent from the iMore App
  • Maybe we should start a petition.
    Targeting at iOS9 (I think that iOS 8's features are already locked).
  • I completly agree with this. The article could go further and propose how users would put documents inside I hope they won't rely on iTunes for this... I made wrote a few ideas on this in my own blog post here:
  • Would photos also appear in
    Music too? Would files be grouped only by type? Would folders be supported? I also wonder about the ability of a malicious/buggy app to wipe out all of my data if it has access to every file. The likelihood of such a scenario is debatable, but it is one of the scenarios that app sandboxing protects against. I agree with the general need for but the devil is in the details. In a future article, would you be willing to write up a more detailed design with mockups? Sent from the iMore App
  • Great article Rene....
    I'd be quite happy with a file-system. I've seen the *hope* of something better through search like Spotlight or Meta this or that. When it comes down to it, though, I keep going back to a file system. It's called organization, and yes, it is a bit of work. Is it something to learn? Sure, but it's better than the mess of pretending a computer is going to magically do it for us. Computers are good at find... they aren't good at organization, especially organization that fits the thinking and workflow of the user. IMO, it's just shifting the workload of being organized from one paradigm to another... so far, unsuccessfully.
  • Apple really needs this. I need it for work. Say I want to send a log file, or some kind of configuration file in an email. It should be as simple as throwing the file on the phone and emailing it. Apple needs to do it. And they need to get it right. They need a files app that will. Have a folder on the device that files could be dragged into. And then you can open the app and email those files or whatever. Open them in whatever app.
  • Actually, i think it's quite brilliant what Apple is trying to do. Be sure to note i said "trying". It's not perfect but I get it. I've been using computers for 30 years and i'm no tech nerd. I'd say i'm about as tech savvy as the *average* apple user except i read these kinds of websites and know how to monkey with stuff but find it's all too much for me to actually care about messing with. I'm much more for simplicity than complexity. So I say this with the perspective of a non-legacey-giving-a-darn POV. From the POV of the type of people who Apple now have to deal with (the types that just don't-get a file structure and store everything haphazardly on their desktop screen)... Yes, it might be annoying for the % of people that actually get how to use a computer, but frankly, you are the minority of total computer users. And the file system has not sunken in to the masses. Apple's trying to simplify that. Yes, it's not perfect and you sort-of having to work backwards in a legacy-kind-of-way, but what makes that any less annoying as the opposite? You just have to think different, right? We grew up using Apple II's and Gen 1 Mac's and IBM PC's and 3.1 and so on. We suffered through technical manuals and playing with computers for hours and talked to friends about hacks and learned by trial and error. We were the ginny pigs. And the file system we all grew up with, is pretty much the same as it currently is. Is this the best way to manage our personal data or is it just the way we are used to and (at this point) can't accept any other way of doing it? Is it the best way or just the way we are used to? For a good long while i've been reading and hearing about all the gripes about a lack of a structured, accessible file system in iOS and I just keep thinking, "doesn't iOS already do this?" Didn't the 3rd party dev's already addressed these concerns of the *power users* by now? Yes, i know it's not a native feature now and Apple hasn't made iOS a mobile OS for the legacy users, but really haven't they? they've given you the power to work with it in a sort-of dumbed down way...and it's not always as clear in a legacy way but it does do most of what you're griping about. I also have to ask...What is it you specifically need to do on an iOS device that you need such complexity to do? What specific tasks do you need to do that it can't do currently, and ask yourself, do you really need to do this on a phone/tablet over a traditional laptop or desktop? After having lunch with a tech friend, he gave me the example of text editing and inter-app communication. He wants to create text documents in a *vanilla* text editor, add photos and sync back to his home so he can import this into a more standard word processor or notes application at a later date for formatting or whatever. Well, that's a good point. you can't do that in the same way you can do this in OS X, but Apple has given you a way to do this now. it's called Pages. Sure, it's not a vanilla text editor and does have some compatibility issues but Apple is not concerned about that. They gave you a free app to do what you desire (90% of the time). And it syncs through iCloud to your mac and to iWork for iCloud on the web. So...what my friend desires is currently available...but that wasn't good enough for him because he'd rather use Textedit. OK fine but do you really think Apple cares as much about that than they do other features that could benefit the majority of users like Pages does? Probably not as much. Just an example. I really like how Apple has taken the "Favorites" from the Finder App and made than separate apps in iOS. I think that's exactly the place I would think about looking for my photos. Not iPhoto, not Finder or Photos, plain and simple. And the Share button. Perfect. I want to email a photo to a friend? Go to photos, find picture, tap Share and send in various ways. yes, that's backwards from how you might do it in OS X but it makes sense if you've never understood or used a traditional computer interface. And now, Apple has designed apps now able to access photos in more places than just in the Photos App. They are iterating on the idea and adding more functionality in every next release. Yes, I'd love to see a "Documents" App in iOS next too but I really haven't missed it that much. The documents I need on a regular basis are in iCloud and they are easily accessible from the Apps that are more pertinent to them. I learned OS X the opposite of how most of you on this comment section have. I owned an iOS device before I purchased a Mac. And you know what? Using an iOS device and then going to Mac OS X (and still using Windows reluctantly for work), I have come to the realization that iOS is really the future of computing for the better. I'd much rather have the simplicity of iOS over the ever-so customizable and power-user-friendly OS X and Windows. As long as the system is easy to use and intuitive, I'm fine with it. Since the average user can't figure out Finder or Windows Explorer? Get rid of it...Great! Now what? Now what is right...what do you do? I think Apple is trying to figure that out. and the first attempt is not great but it works for the most part. Yes traditional computing will still exist for a good long while, but what I think Apple has taught us with iOS is that the average user doesn't need a traditional computing experience. They do need file management, but Apple obviously hasn't quite figured that out yet. However, they are trying to make attempts at solving it. Baby steps...Iterate...Right Rene? Something as technically complex as creating a simple to use and mange (and secure) file system is not an easy task. Ask John Siracusa about that one, but I think it's coming but in small doses. Be patient, Tim C. thinks you'll be rewarded for it.
  • Tim C. made me return the iPhone 5S after 10 days to get an Android device, and I'm not going to look back - ever. But I am looking at the Lumia Icon, because Windows Phone 8.1 fixed this issue and added a Notification Center - my two biggest gripes with the OS. Windows Phone didn't even release until the even of 2011 and they've already leapfrogged Apple in being a more productive device. All it needs is more apps. That's practically all that platform needs right now.
  • He didn't make you do anything. iOS is missing certain things you deem necessary in a phone, and you didn't want to wait anymore. You made the decision for yourself.
    If you watch the Keynotes, you would already know that iOS 7 was missing certain things you wanted. And you could've asked an Apple Store employee about these things before you purchased a 5s. So there were many channels you could have gone through to make a smart and informed purchase.
  • Been thinking about this a lot. Great post. My biggest gripe with the "iOS power users" is that they want a $500 device (or more if it's a top of the line iPad) to work like their $2500 MacBook Pro. I'm not critiquing what they want to do. Cool ideas really but I'm not sure Apple sees it this way. If they did the 11" MBA would be gone by now.
  • I'd like to see a multi-item clipboard that can be accessed from the keyboard. Would make life much simpler for gathering data for a project, be it images, text etc, and it would lesson the need for a split-screen view.
  • Wow rene what do you think you would if 4 years ago when you published that article on iPhone OS 4 wants and that you would still be asking up to the release of IOS 8!
  • I couldn't agree more with the need for a file explorer (at least an opt-in one) and frankly I cannot understand why Apple doesn't make it possible. The filesystem is there anyway, it's part of every OS, it's just a matter of letting the user manipulate it. It wouldn't be hard to have a plain 'data' partition and make that available to the end-user so that it would be impossible to accidentally interfere with system files.
    This kind of concept would a) easily be implementable b) could co-exist with the current scheme of sharing between apps.
    I have long accepted the fact that Apple probably won't ever introduce such a feature but it that fact alone doesn't make me understand WHY they won't implement it.
    It's the reason why I sold my Ipad V1 because the filehandling didn't allow for a productive way of using the Ipad and kept me from using the device professionally. I've ultimately resorted to an Android device where - without jailbraking - I can simply install a file explorer, copy files, upload entire directory trees via ftp and so forth.
    I'm not complaining per se, I just simply don't understand the business decision of Apple not to have an Explorer/Finder as I can see no possible downside to it, nor high costs of implementing one.