Making the Case for Better Document Management on iOS

by Steven Aquino   |   November 6th, 2013

For my birthday two years ago, I treated myself to an 11-inch MacBook Air. I bought it with the intention of using it mainly as a writing machine away from home, for my blog and for school. It was (and still is) a terrific little dynamo of a computer, but I eventually grew tired of the burden of managing multiple Macs. Thus, I decided to bequeath the Air to my sister, and committed myself to using my iPad 3 as my "laptop".

I adore working from my iPad, but there is one constant point of friction that at times makes me yearn for my old Air: managing files — in my case, text files — is a pain. It's a problem that certainly isn't insurmountable, but one that throws a wrench into my otherwise seamless workflow.

Like most nerds I know, I use Dropbox to store and sync my data across my devices. All of my important documents are spread across folders inside of folders. Dropbox's hierarchical file system works well for the most part, but it's not perfect. I still have to navigate folders and then use iOS's 'Open In' command to get to the file I want. On an operating system where Apple's purposely abstracted the file system from users (nerds included) in an effort to eliminate complexity, using one effectively bolted on (the Dropbox app) feels weird and, as Rene Ritchie writes, downright archaic.

By contrast, I don't know anyone who uses Dropbox outside of my fellow nerd friends on the Internet. That is to say, none of my "regular" user family and friends have a Dropbox account. In fact, I would go so far as to say that most of them have no clue what Dropbox is or does. Moreover, I'm positive that these same family and friends have no clue (or care, really) about the complexities of iCloud — more to the point, they don't understand iCloud's many idiosyncrasies involving sync.

iCloud For Everything

Given this context, and given how much Apple pushes iCloud as the "everything" solution, I think it would make sense for them to give users a central location on their iOS devices from which to access and browse their documents. Apple's servers will always be the canonical place, of course, but an iCloud Documents app would, in my view, be a more straightforward and easier to understand concept than having to remember which app one used to create a document, and bear in mind that said document can only be opened in the same app. While I feel completely comfortable navigating my myriad of files in Dropbox, I would like a simpler, more forward-thinking way to manage my documents. Ideally, such a solution would use iCloud because, when it works, it works like magic. To that end, an iCloud Documents app for iOS is highly desirable to me. All your documents, all in one convenient place. If Apple sells iCloud as being "the easiest way to manage your content", then it surely should include a one-stop shop for one's important documents.

Here's how I envision such a hypothetical iCloud Documents app working. First, as I stated before, it would house all the user's documents within the app. Apple could design the user interface in such a way that it would automatically separate document types. You could have a toolbar at the top with tabs allowing you to switch to and from text files and Keynote decks, for example. Most of all, though, it would be searchable, as well as offer optional folder creation, a la Photos today. Programmatically, Apple would create a Photos app-type app where, instead of the ImagePicker API, it used a FilePicker API to find and display documents.

In addition to the iCloud Documents app, Apple could also incorporate a dedicated iCloud Documents Web app into iCloud.com. The idea would be the same as on iOS: one central place that keeps all your documents, all up to date. Furthermore, it could be built could so that a user could choose to open, say, a text file in Byword or iA Writer on their Mac, or Notepad if on Windows.

While using iCloud to sync documents would seem to be the perfect solution — I use it for a few things, and it generally performs well for me —, it does have its share of hiccups. For one thing, iCloud can be notoriously unreliable. Another issue is that documents in iCloud are confined to their own silos. iOS itself is similar in this regard, which is great in terms of security, but not so much when it comes to accessing documents.

Yet another stumbling block is iOS's Open In command. It works, but it only works so well. The big problem with Open In, as Federico Viticci writes, is that users end up with multiple copies of files spread across a multitude of apps, which in turn causes headaches when deciding which copy is the canonical version. Again, Open In does work to an extent, but it's messy and far from the ideal solution. I try my best to avoid Open In, because I know its limitations, and, frankly, Dropbox is much easier to use.

You might ask, "What makes a hypothetical iCloud Documents app better than just directly going to the app in which you created the file?" That works, to be sure, but the my point is I believe documents needn't be strewn across a bunch of apps. If you're like me and use your iPad for productivity, there should be one place, one app, where you can see all your documents — and it should be different from Dropbox or Google Drive or whatever. You shouldn't have to remember that you created that parent newsletter in Pages. Rather, you should just be able to open iCloud Documents, tap on the file, and have it automatically open in Pages on your iPhone or iPad. Again, the current methodologies work, but they're far from ideal.

To be clear, The ideas I posit in this piece are not meant to imply that Dropbox is bad, or that I don't appreciate it for what it does. On the contrary, I love Dropbox. My argument is simply that I agree with Rene Ritchie insofar that Dropbox is a system built on the past, whereas iCloud, with all its mystic magic, feels like the future. Steve Jobs himself said as much when he said "the truth is in the cloud". More to the point, Apple gets a lot of flak, and rightly so, for not doing Internet services well. I feel iCloud has a lot of good points, but right now it isn't living up to its full potential. And, frankly, I feel, with all the talk of past and future, that a solution built on iCloud is better suited than Dropbox for the long-term, indispensable as Dropbox may be at this point.

I so enjoy working from my iPad not only because the tablet, hardware-wise, is so thin and light and power-sipping, but because iOS is so powerful. Thanks in no small part to third-party developers, the app ecosystem is rife with desktop-class apps that are so good that I don't require a Mac to get the majority of my serious work done. Add in iOS's one-app-at-a-time approach, which I find refreshing and which helps keep me focused, and the iPad truly is one terrific productivity device. As a writer, I couldn't be happier that my iPad's become my laptop. On the whole, the experience of getting real work done on my iPad has been awesome. That I (and others) are able to do so is a testament to just how powerful Apple's made the iPad and iOS. The reality is that, as a nerd, I get by fine with Dropbox. However, just because one solution works for me doesn't mean Dropbox is the answer, or that iOS and iCloud are above improvement. On the contrary, this piece (hopefully) illustrates that iOS and iCloud can be much better at certain things, like document management.

It's only one piece of a very complex puzzle, but it's my opinion that an iCloud Documents app would be a big step in solving the problem of how to directly access files on a system where, at least on the surface, the classic file system doesn't exist. My hope is that sooner or later, Apple will give users direct access to documents much in the same way Photos gives direct access to photos, and Passbook gives direct access to movie tickets, boarding passes, and so on. Such access would make working from my iPad orders of magnitude better, and make me quit longing for my old MacBook Air.

Steven Aquino

Steven is a budding freelance technology writer, born and raised in the East Bay Area. He's a contributor to [*The Magazine*], [*Macworld*], [*TidBITS*], [*Tech.pinions*], and [Enhanced Vision]. Steven also writes regularly for his personal site, Steven’s Blog. Prior to venturing into the world of (paid) writing, Steven spent 11 years working for his local school district as a classroom aide to preschoolers with special needs. Steven's a cat person who loves sushi, and is fluent in American Sign Language.
  • steve_wildstrom

    Apple is approach a decision point here. It clearly wants the iPad to be used more for productivity and the blending of the iOS and OS X versions of iWork is a big step in that direction. But the current method–or really, non-method–of handling documents is increasingly untenable. I don’t really want to see a Mac or Windows style file system on iOS, but something like the enhanced iCloud approach you suggest would be a big step in the right direction.

    • Quixote Gigglesworth

      I agree with you and the author that document handling is woefully inadequate on iPads. But this is actually worsened by the capriciousness of iCloud itself. Its clunky interface, the reliance on Apple IDs and the current confusion between newer and older versions of iWorks. Add to this the ageing iTunes based backups and access to content, you have a bloated, incoherent and confusing hodge-podge of software components that make for a less than stellar user experience.

  • Tafelapfel

    Yes, a central, iCloud based Document Library is what iOS needs. Not necessarily with folders, but tags would help. This way one could organize documents (photos, videos, drawings, text files, notes etc.) into projects.

    As I understand Apple has introduced tags for OS X Mavericks – and somewhere I read that they work with iCloud on the Mac. Cant’t say for sure because i can’t update at the moment. Sadly we didn’t get it on iOS. Apple calls for a lot of patience on the side of their users …

    • nosrac

      I agree – tags is the way to go. Apple obviously doesn’t want to use a folder structure, but tagging could achieve the same purpose.

      • Tafelapfel

        Tags are even better: I can give different tags to the same item and put it in multiple projects/topics. Far supperior to folders in my oppinion.

        But I worry about getting this all out of iCloud afterwards …

        • nosrac

          Are you worried about getting the documents out or about getting the tags out?

          If the former, there are already some third party apps for the Mac for accessing the stuff in iCloud (after all, it is all just in a folder on your Mac, albeit buried).

          If the latter … don’t know

          • Tafelapfel

            I’m worried about both. There are tools on the Mac, but what with other platforms? How complicated will it be? What if we are talking about thousands or even tens of thousands of documents (files of any sort)? What if the meticulously crafted assignments (through tags) is lost on export?

            I guess that these are some of the problems that Apple faces with their idea of dumping the “good old” file system and replacing it with something else. Dropbox does not have these particular problems (but is indeed a backward facing solution) …

  • Peter Smyth

    IDisk already did this. They took it away!

  • robbieP

    iCloud is a new thingie to us. But for Apple, it is a pivot to leaving the legacy files/docs etc in the legacy department. Just think how unimaginably difficult Apple’s job would be if it had to service all of your legacy docs? and put them in THEIR cloud? Apple is for nothing less is always looking forward and always trying to limit their legacy domain. They are for the BEST NOW, not for the OK yesterday.
    And most people don’t have tens of thousands of docs to deal with on a iPhone. They have a few to a couple of hundred. Archives are for just that, putting the past in the folder of choice.
    iOS silos are a pain, but, this focuses us on choosing the RIGHT app to use to limit confusion. the iPad does have its limits.

  • Marc Librescu

    You lost me on this. I have an iCloud account. All my iWork documents are in iCloud, other than what I have stored locally on my iMac’s HD. When I want to open a Pages document, I open Pages on my iPad or iPhone and the document is right there. So I don’t see where there’s a problem.

  • Robert Thomson

    Check out Cloud Mate

  • David Fabian

    A Documents app, in the vein of the Photos app, is definitely needed so that you don’t have to chase down the app a document was created in to open a file (with so many apps handling cloud storage, I have often forgotten which app has the document I’m looking for). A Documents app and associated “picker” would also benefit iOS in that it would finally enable native inline attachment ability to emails–replying to an email with an attached document (other than a photo), is basically impossible on iOS currently.

  • DTW

    I’ve been using my new iPad Air as a work ‘computer.’ As a consultant my normal days includes not only iWork docs, but also the entire Omni suite plus a few others. I’m convinced the iPad can go even further, except for a few things. As mentioned, some type of file / tagging structure (an app is fine) is most critical, but I’d rather it work for any type of (wirelessly) connected drive with iCloud one of the options. Also, I’d like to see a simplified mouse, one that need only replicate a touch. This would increase efficiency when coupled with a keyboard and stand. Couple these with an iPad Maxi and I could ditch my Macbook Air.