iPad to Allow for Easier File Sharing, but Still Very Limited File System Access

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iWork on iPad

Apple is dramatically rethinking how applications organize their documents on iPad, leaving behind the jumbled file system and making file access between the iPad and desktop computers seamless.

That’s an excerpt from a report at Apple Insider on how Apple is ‘re-inventing’ file access and wireless sharing on the iPad. The article talks about how conventional hierarchical file systems are seen as ‘a bit of a mystery’ to non-savvy computer users, and how Apple is looking to reduce the complexity of working with files and file systems.

This is put forward as the reason behind the way many things are done on the iPhone – which is said to ‘abstract away the file system entirely’ and offers no concept of opening or saving files – which in this case is meant to be a good thing.

Most of us who are anywhere above novice user level would likely debate how much of a good thing, if at all, that abstracting away of the file system is.  I’d far rather see more allowance for user choices in saving and opening files, and at least a little bit greater access to the file system, for those who want it and who accept any greater risks associated with opening it up.

Heck, my 6 year old daughter can understand the idea of saving some files to a folder with her name on it, and others to different locations. 

Anyway – here are some of the details Apple Insider’s report provides on how iPad will handle things in this area.  I’ve highlighted a few blocks of text which I think are amongst the most interesting bits:

iPad’s new document sharing model

With the iPad, Apple demonstrated new multitouch versions of desktop-class iWorks apps with user interfaces that need to open and save documents. There’s still no file system browser with open and save panels. Instead, each app displays the files it knows about at launch for the user to navigate through directly.

An iPad developer has revealed to AppleInsider how this new mechanism works, without also requiring that users learn about the complexity of the underlying file system. Rather than iPad apps saving their documents into a wide open file system, apps on iPad save all their documents within their own installation directory. Delete the app and you’ll clean out all of its related files. This is how the iPhone OS already works.

Additionally, iPad apps can now specify that their documents be shared wirelessly. With that configuration, the iPad will make available each apps’ documents, allowing the user to wirelessly mount their iPad via WiFi and simply drag and drop files back and forth between it and their desktop computer.

On the desktop system, the iPad will show up as a share containing a documents folder for each app that enables sharing. For example, a user with iWork apps will be able to wirelessly connect to their iPad as if it were a directly connected drive, and simply drag spreadsheet, presentation, or word processing files between their local system and the mobile device as desired.

Documents copied to the app’s shared folder will be graphically presented by the app when it launches, sparing users from having to figure out where to look for their document files and avoiding any need to sort through different kinds of documents. The document listing also presents each file as a large preview akin to Quick View on the Mac OS X desktop.

Just like the iPhone, the iPad will sync some apps’ documents via either iTunes or MobileMe, including photos, music, movies, TV shows, contacts, calendars, and bookmarks.

I’ll be very interested to learn more about how this all works and to work with it myself as soon as I’ve got an iPad. 

The continued lack of ability to make your own choices in terms of where to open files from and save them to is disappointing for power users I’m sure.  It sounds like we’ll still have zero ability to organize documents within sub-folders unless it’s provided by the individual app, and I have seen very few apps doing that on the iPhone.

Simple wireless sharing and an ability to move documents back and forth from iPad to desktop sounds quite nice though.  I hope, and assume, some of this wireless sharing goodness will come to the iPhone soon.

I also hope there are more powerful MobileMe apps coming along to help out with file sharing and documents access.

The mention of documents backed up within each application’s directories is another good reminder that we really need a good backup app for the iPhone and the iPad.  iTunes does what it does well enough, but it has some major holes and flaws.  For starters, it is quite common to find that a persistent iPhone problem can only be resolved when a restore is done AND the choice is made to setup as a new iPhone, not making use of a backup.  Also, we have no ability control which apps’ data are backed up or not in any given backup routine run by iTunes.

I really want to see a backup app – preferably from a good third party – that lets me say ‘Today I just want to backup the data (documents) for three specific apps’ and lets me make choices to not backup my music or photo libraries, or my contacts and so forth, and not to backup all the data for my 150+ installed apps – just to go backup the three I want to backup right now.  Of course that’s just a quick example of one scenario – to illustrate the need for more control of what is backed up, so we don’t always have to sit through a painfully slow full backup.

What do you all think?  Does the described level of file system access and sharing ability sound good enough to you, or do you want more?


Patrick Jordan

Founder and Editor in Chief of iPad Insight. Husband, father to a lovely daughter, Commander of the Armies of the North, dog lover (especially Labs), Austinite, former Londoner, IT consultant, huge sports nut, iPad and mobile tech blogger, mobile apps junkie.

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11 thoughts on “iPad to Allow for Easier File Sharing, but Still Very Limited File System Access”

  1. I can see Apple developing a version of Time Machine for the iPhone/Touch/iPad but the time the iPad is released. Even though one can "sync" using iSync and iDisk (I use this method as well as TM to access files from my iPhone), it would be a natural extension to have a separate app to "properly" handle backups.

    1. I like Time Machine on my MacBook Pro, but for a mobile device like the iPad I'd really rather have a bit more control over what is backed up and when. I know Time Machine is lovely for sort of 'one click' backup, but for those of us with scores of apps installed, something like Sprite Backup (on Windows Mobile) would be very nice.

  2. I think that for the target audience, their version of file access is going to work great. Anyone who has tried to explain the folders system to an uncle, aunt, parent or grandparent will appreciate them just hitting save, and when they go back there is a nice big thumbnail view of the first page awaiting them.

    This device isn't intended for power users. Those persons NEED a netbook or small laptop. Mine will sit on the arm of the couch, where we can pick it up and look up show times, buy movie tickets, look up if tumble weed is a plant when we see it on some PBS special and get curious. Maybe do some basic paying of bills and recording those in a Numbers Document. Check if your uncle wrote back about dinner on Sunday, and update the calendar when he does. Find teh fastest route to the restaurant he wants to go to. Not turn by turn, I just need to know if its faster going by the backroad or the freeway.

    1. I think you're probably right – a lot of non-power users will be more than happy with the level of file access and sharing abilities offered out of the box. But … I don't see that that should preclude having another level of access and choices for power users. Hell, they could just handle it like Restrictions (or within Restrictions) in the Settings app. Give us a checkbox that opens up higher levels of access and a few options settings, only for those who feel confident in using it, and with clear warnings for novice users not to dive in without assistance.

      There should be some way to offer the whole 'you can't hurt yourself or the device' experience for non power users while still throwing a bone or two to power users. There would be a lot less jailbreakers if this approach were taken I think.

  3. Even an non-power user is going to rapidly get swamped with the list of "open recent' documents. It's a great function when it keeps your last ten docs. But it is useless as a filing system.

    1. Probably so, though I imagine the degree to which this becomes an issue will vary not just by user, but also quite a lot by application. For example, photos already get chucked into albums / events etc if you use iPhoto, purchased books will hopefully some sort of categorization within iBooks. Where it will be more painful is places like those new iWork apps, if we're not able to create folders etc either on the desktop or the iPad itself.

  4. The iPad's file handling harkens back to DOS on a single floppy PC before DOS had a file system other than the root directory. Ancient, and limiting. People are going to to get tired of looking through documents to find what they want, and pretty quick. Wait for iPad 2.0, or even 2.1. Come to think of it, wasn't it DOS 2.0 that allowed sub-folders? By golly, I think it was…

  5. FileBrowser for the iPad works like Mac Finder or Windows Explorer, allowing you to browse all your network shares directly from your iPad. Files can be copied to your iPad for offline viewing, or launching into other apps such as Apple’s iWork suite. No third-party software is required on the target computer/NAS drive, so this is ideal for home and work use.

    Video and Audio files can be streamed directly from your network drives over WiFi, removing the need to sync.

    FileBrowser is also able to do this over the Internet via WiFi hotspots or the phone data network. It works with the iPad/iPhone’s built-in VPN client, or you can configure your home router to port-forward TCP Port 445 to your home computer. It uses the SMB protocol, which is supported by all versions of Windows and Mac OSX 10.5 or above.http://www.stratospherix.com.

  6. They say that the ipad is great for teachers. How do they expect teachers (I am one) to be able to use the ipad when we create so many documents and have no way of filing them to different folders? I am looking for an app that would possibly do this or I will need to give up on using an ipad. I really dont want to have to take a lot of extra steps to save it wirelessly, especially when I am busy teaching. What were they thinking, or did they just have to rush to market? College students must have the same problem also. I am new at this, so maybe there is something out there. I am not talking about creating folders for apps, I am talking about folders for documents.

  7. It really blows that apple does not have a native way to transfer files between the iPad3 and Macs. If I wanted a product that did not seamlessly integrate with other Apple products I would have bought an Android machine for a few hundred bucks less. The main reason I bought an iPad instead of another tablet was because of Apple’s reputation for ease of use. Now I buy and iPad3 and find it has the same level of integration as an Android tablet. What a joke I paid $300 extra for nothing.

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