iOS Needs a “Universal Save”

The new features of the iPhone 5 remain shrouded in mystery, waiting to be revealed at next week’s Apple Media Event. On the other hand, Apple has been completely open about what’s coming in iOS 5. That’s why I can safely say that one feature that will be absent from iOS 5 is a significantly improved interface for saving documents.

Is this important? For me it is. The troubles with saving files, already an issue in iOS 4, will only grow with the new iOS version. That’s because iOS 5’s move towards “PC Free” will likely lead more people to attempt using an iPad as their primary or only computer. As such, the importance for having a convenient way to save and store documents becomes more critical. Apple has some work to do here.

Admittedly, Apple and I part ways on this point. While I view the interface as needing an overhaul, Apple remains content with how it now works, even contending that the current design is an asset for maintaining security and simplicity.

Allow me to differ…

Apple’s iOS requires that documents created by apps be “sandboxed” within the app package. While this offers the advantage of preventing apps from potentially interfering with one another and makes finding the documents for a specific app as easy as launching the app, it also prevents documents from being locally shared among apps. A file saved by one app cannot be easily accessed by any other app on the same device — even if the file is in a common multi-app-compatible format (such as .txt, .pdf, .jpg or .docx).

Let’s look at Apple’s own Pages for iOS as a starting point. Documents saved by Pages on an iPad remain inaccessible to any other app on the same iPad — with one partial exception. You can use Page’s Share and Print command to export a document, indirectly allowing another app to access it. Notably, if you are a MobileMe subscriber, you can export a document to your iDisk. At this point, Pages offers the option to first convert the document to a PDF or Word format.

Pages for iOS: Share and Print

Let’s suppose you select to export the Pages file as a Word document. What next? Well, you can go to the iDisk app on your iPad, locate the document and select the “Open In…” option. From here, a list of apps that can open Word documents (such as DocsTo Go and Quickoffice) appears, assuming they’re installed on your iPad. Tap the desired choice (e.g., Quickoffice) and the document opens in that app.

Pages for iOS: iDisk Sharing

All well and good. Except for a few things. The main problem is that you wind up with three separate and independent copies of the document: The original version in Pages, the version on your iDisk and the version in Quickoffice. Changes you make in any one location have no effect on any other version in any other location. So, for example, if you modify the document in Quickoffice and later want to open the revision in Pages, you will have to reverse the just-described multi-step procedure. Pages cannot directly access Quickoffice files on your iPad any more than Quickoffice can access Pages files.

This assumes you can even go in the reverse direction. Because iOS offers no universal Apple-supported method for doing these transfers, the import and export options of an app depend entirely on what the app developer builds in to the app. It’s quite possible, for example, that you could import a document to an app and then have no way to export it later. Or you could find that an app, even one that can theoretically view the document type in question, will not show up in the Open In… list. In another wrinkle, some apps allow a document to be imported only as readable, not writable. So, even if you get the document to import, you can’t modify it (which, if you’re starting from iDisk, is a waste of time anyway, as you can usually view the document right from iDisk). 

Of course, the entire iDisk-dependent method of transfer requires an active Internet connection. If you want to do this where there is no Wi-Fi or 3G access, you’re out of luck.

Open In… menu, in iOS apps such as iDisk and Dropbox

Yes, there are other possible solutions. For one thing, Apple will soon be replacing MobileMe’s iDisk with iCloud. While this should make syncing a document among iOS devices easier, it has no bearing on the matter of sharing a document among different apps on the same device. For such transfers, the procedure will be quite similar to what I’ve just described.

Third-party apps offer other potential improvements over Apple’s methods. In particular (as I have written before), some apps can work with Dropbox so that, when you edit a document located in Dropbox, the changes are automatically saved to the Dropbox’s copy of the file. While this is close to a perfect setup, it only works with a limited number of apps — and even these apps often do not handle the task reliably.

In the end, what is needed is a dependable universal Apple-supported method of locally saving files so that they can be accessed by any compatible app.

Pages for iOS: Creating or importing a document

Such a method would likely offer advantages beyond the ability to transfer a document among apps. For one thing, it could allow you to create a folder containing documents of differing types. When I am working on a column on my Mac, for example, I typically start by creating a folder that will contain all the assorted files needed to put the column together. These will usually include my notes (typically saved as an .rtf file), webpages  (saved as Safari webarchive files), screenshots and PDFs. I double-click any document in the folder and it opens in the correct app. I can even use QuickLook to view a document without needing to open any app. Very nice.

Speaking of saving webpages, this opens up yet another can of worms for iOS: there is no way save a webpage from mobile Safari without resorting to third-party software. The most common solution is Instapaper. While I adore this app, it is insufficient for the matter at hand. Instapaper becomes yet another place where I need to remember to search when looking for documents related to a column I am writing — in addition to my text processing app, Dropbox, and possibly others (Notes, Evernote). 

Currently, iOS does not come close to matching the advantages of Mac OS X here. There is no way to have a unifying folder in iOS that contains related documents from different apps. There is no way to have a document easily opened in different apps, where any changes you make in one app are instantly accessible by all the compatible apps. You can come closer with Dropbox, but closer is not good enough here.

I could go on. Numerous third-party apps prohibit almost any form of importing or exporting their documents. And if you delete an app from your iOS device, all documents stored within that app’s sandbox are deleted as well. Yes, there is a simplicity to the sandbox approach: the app will always show you all the documents in its sandbox. But this convenience comes at a high cost.

Unfortunately, rather than extending the merits of the traditional Mac approach to iOS, Apple is moving in the opposite direction. With OS X Lion, Apple is making the Mac more like iOS devices — with its greater emphasis on sandboxing and its near-deprecation of the Finder.

To put it simply: iOS needs a “universal save.” At least for me, the iOS problems with saving and working with documents will continue to prevent me from using my iPad as a primary work device. But hey, there’s a silver-lining for Apple here. As long as the situation remains unchanged, I will continue to buy both an iPad and a MacBook. Both are great at what they do best. Neither one alone is ideal. Yet.