File Sharing with an iPad: Ugh!

The iWork apps are a weathervane for predicting the future direction of the iPad. Many analysts are predicting that the iPad is destined to replace traditional laptop computers over time. If so, the iPad will almost certainly need better content creation capabilities than it now has. The iWork apps are currently the premiere content creation software for the iPad. So it pays to take a close look at how they work.

In that regard, I want to focus on only one aspect of these apps today: file sharing. For now, file sharing is a nearly essential feature of these apps. It is how you transfer iWork documents from your Mac to your iPad — and vice versa. It is also necessary for printing any documents created or modified on your iPad. The day may come when such transfers are of trivial importance, as you will be doing all your work (even printing) directly from an iPad. You may not even own a Mac anymore. But that day is not yet here.

Unfortunately, file sharing via iWork apps on the iPad is a major kludge. The feature works, but not with the sort of user interface that we have come to expect from Apple.

Duplicate documents from iWork apps on your iPad

The first thing you should know is that the iWork apps have no Save command. Documents are “auto-saved” about every 30 seconds automatically. This means you need to be careful when working with an existing iWork document: although there is an Undo command, you may be unable to revert back to an earlier state of a document if you have made too many changes. To preserve the ability to revert to an earlier version of a document, you should duplicate the document before you begin working on it. To do so:

1. In Pages, go to the My Documents view. (To keep things simple, I am going to use Pages in the examples here. Keynote and Numbers work similarly, except for minor name changes. For example, My Documents in Pages becomes My Presentations in Keynote.)

2. You will see a graphic “list” of all of the documents that Pages knows about and can open. Swipe the screen to rotate through the list until the document you want occupies the center highlighted position.

3. Tap the + icon at the bottom of the display (Figure 1).

4. Tap the Duplicate Document button from the menu that pops up.

Figure 1

                      Figure 1

Export a document from iWork apps on your iPad (Part 1)

Now let’s get down to the business of file sharing. Suppose you want to transfer a Pages document from your iPad to your Mac. To do so:

1. From Pages’ My Documents, center the document you want to transfer.

2. Tap the Sharing (arrow) icon at the bottom of the display (Figure 2). A menu with three options pops up: Send via Mail, Share via, and Export.

You can email a document to yourself or copy a document to — and later access the document from your Mac. However, these options are primarily useful for sharing a document with other users. Especially if you expect to be sharing a document back and forth between your Mac and your iPad, these are not convenient methods. In fact, the iWork apps on the iPad cannot import documents from at all; is useful only for exporting from the iPad. For these reasons, the best choice for file sharing between your iPad and your Mac is the Export command. The one potential advantage of the other two options is that they allow wireless transfers; the Export command requires a USB connection.

3. Tap the Export command. In Pages, you have the option to export the document as a Pages, PDF or Word file (Figure 3). If you attempt to Export a document with the same name as one already on this list, you are asked whether you want to replace the existing document with the one you are exporting.

A pleasant surprise here is that the iPad does not have to be connected to a Mac to use the Export command. The app stores the exported document in a folder location that is contained within the app package itself. It will be accessible to your Mac the next time your iPad and Mac link up.

Figure 2 Figure 3

                      Figure 2                                                          Figure 3

The Import Document list

Tap the folder icon in the upper right of Pages’ My Documents display (Figure 4 to right). This brings up a popover called Import Document (Figure 5). It contains a list of all the documents you have selected to Export from the iPad as well as (as you will soon see) all the documents you have selected to Import from the Mac.Figure 4

The files in My Documents and in Import Document are completely independent. That is, when a document is exported to Import Document (as confusing as this nomenclature may sound), a copy of the file is placed there. The original document remains in the My Documents list. If you delete the original from My Documents, the copy in Import Document remains. Conversely, if you delete the file listed in Import Document (as you can do by tapping the Edit button in the upper right of the popover), the version in My Documents remains intact. Modifications made to the content of one copy have no effect on the other.

Figure 5

                         Figure 5

Export a document from iWork apps on your iPad (Part 2)

Once you have completed the Export step, you are ready to access the document from your Mac. To do so:

1. Connect your iPad to your Mac, via the Dock Connector USB cable.

2. Launch iTunes and go to the Apps tab for your iPad. Scroll down to the File Sharing section at the bottom of the window (Figure 6).

3. From the left column of the File Sharing section, select the app from which you exported the desired document (Pages, in the example here).

4. From the right column, select the document you want to transfer. Click the Save to… button. Alternatively, you can drag the desired document to any Finder location.

Conveniently, you can select multiple documents at once. This means if you have a number of documents to transfer, you can do it all in one step. This contrasts to the limitation of the Pages app on the iPad: Each document must be individually exported from My Documents; there is no way to export more than one at a time.

5. The last step is to wait. There will be a several second lag, as iTunes prepares to do the transfer. Finally, iTunes initiates a sync and the selected documents are copied to your Mac.

This sync is restricted to copying the selected documents; a full sync (which includes a backup, copying new apps, etc.) does not occur. This helps save time when using file sharing. In fact, if you instead selected the Sync button, no transfer of shared documents occurs. File Sharing transfers only happen via the steps just listed.

Figure 6

                                          Figure 6

Import a document from your Mac to iWork apps on your iPad

To go in the reverse direction, importing a document from your Mac to the iPad, do the following:

1. Connect the iPad to your Mac and go to the File Sharing section in iTunes, as previously described.

2. Click the Add… button, locate the document you want to transfer and click Choose. Alternatively, you can drag the document(s) you want to transfer to the File Sharing list for the desired app. If you select to place a document with the same name as one already in the list, it will ask if you want to replace the existing copy.

To delete documents from iTunes’ File Sharing list, select the name of the document and hit the Delete key on your Mac’s keyboard.

As far as I can tell, you can place any type of document in the File Sharing list for a given app. However, only documents compatible with the app will later show up in the Import Document display on your iPad. Although apparently not implemented in the iWork apps, an Apple developer document claims that a user accessible “document interaction controller (on the iPad) provides options for previewing the contents of such files in place or opening it in another application.”

When done, you can disconnect the iPad from the Mac.

3. Launch the relevant app (Pages in the example here) on your iPad and go to the Import Document list (as described above).

4. Tap the name of the document in Import Document; this imports it into the My Documents list. It is now available to open and modify. If there is already a document with the same name in My Documents, a copy of the document (with a number appended to its name) is imported. Importing does not replace an existing document. If you only want one copy of the document, you can delete the older copy before or after importing the newer one.

[Update: If you instead decide to email a Pages document to yourself and open it as an attachment in Mail on the iPad, an “Open in Pages” button appears. This allows you to import the document into the Pages app.]

What’s wrong with this picture?

Let’s review how to export a document (such as a Pages file) from a MacBook to an iMac:

1. Assuming both Macs are on the same local wireless network, locate and select the MacBook in the Shared section of the left-hand column of a Finder window on your Mac. If you have previously done this successfully (having entered the needed account name and password), the connection should be automatic.

2. From the mounted MacBook, navigate to where the document you want to export is located and drag it to the desired location on your iMac. Done!

Compared to the simplicity of this Mac-to-Mac transfer, the iPad-to-Mac transfer is a labyrinth of restrictions and complications. If you expect to transfer the same document between an iPad and a Mac multiple times, I can guarantee you will be grumbling before too long.

It gets worse. There is no way to share the same document with more than one iPad app. For example, a Word document imported to Pages cannot be accessed by any other iPad app, even other apps that can open Word documents. The only work-around is to import the document twice, once for each app. Further, if you ever delete an app from your iPad, any documents stored with that app are deleted as well. Thus, to make sure your documents are preserved, copy them to your Mac before deleting the relevant iPad app. Shared files are included in a Sync backup of your iPad (at least that what this Apple support article claims), but they are not accessible for a restore of specific files.

What can be done to fix all this?

Assuming I’ve convinced you that file sharing via iWork apps need fixing, what should the fix be?

For starters, Apple could permit iPad apps to both export documents to and import documents from a MobileMe iDisk. This would make it much easier to shuttle files back and forth between a Mac and an iPad.

Even if Apple insists on maintaining the current USB-based Export command, Apple could improve how it works. In fact, Apple did implement a better method in earlier beta versions of iPhone OS 3.2. As I reported previously, Apple planned for file sharing to work via a Shared directory which would “mount on the desktop when the device is connected to a computer.” Users would be able to “modify the contents of this directory freely by copying files out, deleting files, or dragging new files in.” This would work completely independently of iTunes. As seen in the figure posted here, Apple intended to enable this feature via a File Sharing option in Settings > General of the iPad. All of this was dropped from the release version.

I doubt that this Shared directory would have allowed multiple apps to access the same document, but it would still be a huge improvement over the current interface design.

Not all of the clunkiness of file sharing in iWork apps are absolutely required for iPad apps. For example, GoodReader for the iPad, a third-party app that offers file sharing support, doesn’t use a separate Export command or a separate Import Document listing. All documents in GoodReader’s My Documents list automatically show up in iTunes’ File Sharing — and all documents added to the GoodReader item in iTunes’ File Sharing are automatically added to GoodReader’s My Documents on the iPad. GoodReader also uses a Save command for documents modified from the app itself — as opposed to iWork’s auto-save.

Why, oh why?

At this point, you may be asking: Why did Apple ever allow this file sharing implementation to see the light of day? Only Apple can say for sure. But I’d be willing to bet that it all stems from Apple’s obsessive desire to keep the iPhone OS as closed as possible (a topic I have written about extensively before; check out this article for one recent example). One way Apple does this is by, as much as possible, forcing all iPad-Mac interactions to go through iTunes. Eventually, if the iPad is to truly become an laptop replacement, I believe this will have to change. The iPad will increasingly need to be able to bypass iTunes. Hopefully, Apple agrees.