Why the iPad Needs a File System


Over at Monday Note, the always perceptive Jean-Louis Gassée writes about how the lack of a true user-accessible file system is holding back more intensive use of the iPad as a creation tool. Jean-Louis has been on this kick for a while, and I couldn’t agree with him more.

My creative process, and I expect many of your workflows too, consists of creating documents by writing original text combined with bits and pieces from a variety of sources, including web pages, image files, Word documents, PDF files, email messages, tweets, and who knows what else. On a Mac or a Windows PC, this is very easy to do, by openeing multiple windows and cutting and pasting between them. The lack of multiple windows can’t easily be overcome on a tablet; at best, you could manage two small windows on the limited display real estate.

But Apple makes this much harder than it has to be by imposing tight restrictions on communications between iOS apps and by denying users access to any sort of listing of files available on the system. There are lots of ways around this, using third-party apps such as SugarSync and Documents to Go, but like all workarounds, the are clumsy, halfway solutions. I love traveling without a laptop, but even writing a simple blog post on an iPad is a lot more challenging that it ought to be.

I like Gassée’s suggestion of a two-tier user interface for the iPad, with the advanced version exposing features such as the file system while the standard mode keeps them hidden. I don’t think Apple would ever offer this–it violates the canon of iOS simplicity–but it sure would be a big help to some of us.


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Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

22 thoughts on “Why the iPad Needs a File System”

  1. I agree! the hunt and peck way of finding docs on my iMac is a pain. I open Keynote and it shows icloud docs, go to open recent and it shows some more. make a Keynote on the mac and open it on an ipad and the text changes and the builds are different. How “in-elegant” If Im building on my iMac for the iPad… show me what works on the iPad, damit. I don’t want to remember what works and what doesn’t. Sorry for the rant.

    1. You’re arguing something totally different. What you are talking about is more the desktop versions have a device compatibility mode. Where things like fonts that aren’t in the mobile version are grayed out so you don’t use them and then have to adjust the product on your device to get it back to the way you created it.

      Which is a good idea even if not what this whole ‘file system’ notion is about.

      I would add to that the notion of more apps being able to be controllers for their desktop version. Like I could link up my iPhoto for iPad and Mac and use the brushes on my iPad to edit something on my computer

  2. The problem with opening up a file system like this would be that developers would start writing apps as if everybody knew how to use the system. This could result in making the iPad less user-friendly. That being said, Apple used to have an iDisk app where you could access your files stored on iDisk. Having a similar iCloud file manager type app could be quite helpful.

  3. A simple file system could be added that could still prevent having too much screen real estate used. Have a very small series of folders…Documents, Audio, Video, and possibly one for cloud services. So four folders. Two finger swipe from the left to bring it out with similar to Mail hyerichy where one level disappears when a folder is selected and a back button to go in the other direction. Any document when selected would show the apps installed that can open them.

    1. Why would I need to organize files by filetype. that is a filter on a file view. If I group files it is by project. I don’t want a project’s files scattered and mixed with unrelated files.

      What is needed is not an true file system but a way for apps to share files dynamically. I want to open a file in more than one application and have all of the changes available when I assemble that file into a final document. I don’t want to just have segregated copies of the file locked into each application’s data space.

  4. I have no doubt this is in large part due to Apple’s/Jobs’s/Cook’s philosophy that the iPad is not PC replacement. “Trucks” will still be needed. Right tool for the right job and all that rot.

    With all respect to you, Gassée, and Guy there is no such thing as a simple file system. And I have yet to find a file system, or how a file system was utilized, on anyone’s PC that was ultimately worth replicating, always the necessary evil of the personal computing paradigm based on how we use paper. I hope to never again be in the position that the appropriate application to open a document, or some portion of the document, does not exist on my hardware, never mind just finding the needed file. That has been the single cause of the most frustrating part of computing and needs to die an ignominious death.

    What I personally hope and wish is that tablets will introduce a new workflow that will push our old inefficient workflows into oblivion. Habits are hard to break. Change is uncomfortable. I’m more of a pseudo Six Sigma guy who would generally prefer changes to improve current processes. But sometimes, it is more efficient to introduce a whole new process, learning curve and all, and admit the past has no future. That’s what I hope tablets will do.

    Not that I know what that future or new process is, I just know what we expect now is inefficient and needs to change. I do have faith in the next generations to out think us in how we work. I have to believe there is a better way, or all hope is lost!


  5. Current desktop operating systems are file-centric, and so they rely on filing systems. On the other hand, iOS accomplishes the same tasks but by being app-centric.

    The files are still there in iOS, but there is no longer a need to waste time and effort sorting files into a hierarchical folder system, and then later having to look through those folders (containing a mixture of different files) just to find and open the one you want.

    Many people have a hard time grasping the essence of this change, and so they call this new type of operating system a “toy” when in actuality it makes the user MORE productive than they have been using desktop operating systems.

    In iOS apps will only see and open files that the app can handle. Any other files that it can’t handle are not seen. Files that can be shared (for example photos) can be opened by multiple apps that can work on those files… but again any other files that can’t be worked on are not seen by the app. This makes perfect sense, and it eliminates the time wasted going through a filing system before you can start doing what you want to do.

    Sometimes a user may want to use a file system in iOS, and that is no problem at all to do. There are many excellent apps that allow you to create your own file hierarchy in iOS, but unless there is a special case where these are needed, these apps defeat the purpose of having and using an app-centric operating system.

    1. It would be fine if things actually worked the way you suggest in your second to last paragraph, but they don’t. For example, say I am writing a blog post in WordPress on my iPad and I want to add a picture. Now on a PC or Mac, the process of uploading a picture would normally open my default picture folder from which I could select an image by name. But on the iPad, images don;t have names, nor can you sort them in any reasonable way. If the picture I want is at the top of my Photo Stream, it’s easy. If it’s somewhere among the hundreds of pictures in my library, its hard. If it’s in the cloud, I’m out of luck unless I first go and download it.

    2. “In iOS apps will only see and open files that the app can handle. Any other files that it can’t handle are not seen. ”

      That is how a single bucket system could be made to function but that is not really how it is right now. Right now, files are in buckets by apps limited by what the app can handle (if it can’t handle that file type it won’t ‘fit’ in the bucket ). But once you out a file in a bucket it is invisible to all other buckets. You have to share it out to somewhere like email it to yourself to put it in another bucket. And that’s a tad messed up.

      There is little reason why my nephew couldn’t have written his song in GarageBand, saved a ‘rendered’ copy, accessed it in iMovie to add to his school project etc all off the iPad. Rather than having to save it to iTunes, copy it to the computer to then import it into his music library and sync back to his iPad.

    3. This is not a matter of grasping the essence of change but rather being block but this very limited concept of iOS.

      For example try to reply to an email and attach a document you have created earlier, let say a PDF. Well, you can can only send a PDF as a new email but you cannot continue the previous conversation … is that the essence of the future?

      Let say you have a video your player app is having problem to play, you cannot open this file in another player without copying it to another app. It takes time especially if the file is large and it makes another copy of the same file. Something that takes few seconds on a computer is becoming slow and a cluttering process. Is that also the essence of the better future?

      I am not saying that iOS is bad because as long as you consume the content it is ok, but if you try to move outside that box it becomes a real pain in the back. As long as there is no file system the TOY label will be in power.

  6. The answer may be less in exposing the file system than in maling cloud integration much smoother and enabling interprocess communication, iCloud is slick but too limited for serious work. SugarSync and DropBox are much heftier, but lack seamless integration into too many apps. The other big issue is interprocess communication which the iOS sandbox generally does not permit. Sometime having cut-and-paste as the only workflow between apps just won’t do.

    1. Over here, http://ragingthunderbolt.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/forget-the-file-system/, discusses the same article. I like the author’s distinctions and it gets close (IMHO) but I think he is still pitching around the problem.

      The problem really isn’t workflow or files, though, right? The problem is getting to the data the file “contains” to reuse or repurpose. The “file” is just an abstract way of representing the method particular data is coded and then presented. And the “file” is a carry over from how we do everything on paper, a sort of a skeuomorphic metaphor of its own. The paper is the final product. But the paper was just a method to convey the information, the data. If we can deconstruct our way of thinking and focus more on “data” than “file” that could affect the process enough to get away from “files”, though it is still centered on an “object” of sorts. We haven’t really changed things, just the players involved.

      Just spit ballin’ here. Wish I was smarter!


      1. I think you nailed it, Joe. The key here is the ability of applications to access each other’s data. Apple made a choice in the architecture of iOS to minimize security vulnerabilities by sandboxing applications and their data. Remember, for a considerable time even cut and paste was not permitted. But with productivity and creative apps becoming more important, this limitation is really starting to pinch.

  7. I disagree. To a point. Yes it would be very useful if certain types of files were in a common bucket to be used by various apps (like photos, PDFs etc)
    But users don’t need to be able to access said bucket directly

  8. I think the whole concept of a file is flawed.
    It may be a necessary evil as part of the implementation of a computing system, but exposing this concept to the user is a fundamentally bad idea.

    I want to do what I want to do.
    I do not want to concern myself with all the implementation details and minutia of how the system does my bidding.

  9. I’d pay extra for an “iPad Pro”. It only needs to be the same hardware with a slightly different OS that would be geared toward and purchased by the minority of us that need the capabilities provided by a more transparent file system. Not everyone needs or wants something different than what they currently get with iOS 6.

    The hardest part would probably be then providing a way to share files and apps across the two different file systems. For example, I may have the Pro for myself and not for my wife but still want to share files and apps (ala the current Apple Store rules).

  10. Apple is going it make what they want to make and that isn’t likely to ever include a user accessible file system in iOS. The best we might get is a system of bucket by file type rather than app so you can move from say PDF expert to GoodReader effortlessly. And perhaps storing files in ways where you don’t have to share to ‘iTunes’ to file share to the computer and you can take files from say GarageBand to iMovie or even to your music library with no fuss and no computer needed. But a Finder in iOS, don’t hold your breath

    If you want or need Finder in a lightweight device, get a MacBookAir

  11. Been thinking about that since this was posted, and I think the opposite. I think Mac OS should do away with Finder, but let app like PathFinder, Terminal or ForkLift or… be. Yesterday I got the MacUpdate bundle. Conveniently, I could download a 1pif file and then open 1password and import my new keys. But why can’t it just be dispatched on arrival? Why can’t the archiver know where to put stuff when downloading zips. Then the DMG that came with it should be stored with some sort of disk manager app. When I work in Logic, I l-o-v-e the media browser, it’s the best. All you really need is layout app that layout apps on the screen in an organized fashion, like Flexiglass. It’s been 3 years almost, that I started working with iPads, and now I think the file system is no longer needed with the shared library model. You need easier search/filter though, and of course, there should be a generic “bin”, to handle extension unknown to the OS. App like InDesign should be modified so they can work with graphic folders inside iPhoto (or else) easily on import. So that if you receive an ID project via DVD, it should be easy to relink all the graphics. And of course, all should be iCloud ready, able to talk to DropBox or else. I hope this is what Apple’s engineer have in mind, it makes for a better computing experience I think, better organized.

  12. Why, for the love of all that is good and decent, does apple always have to sandbox
    Their stuff so much!? Didn’t apple used to represent the hacker and maker? Didn’t
    It used to be for us tinkerers and hackers? Now it’s really just for people who say
    “Ooh, shiny!” At the store. For the idiot, basically…

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