iOS Needs a “Universal Save”

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

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.

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” 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. ..”

And therein lies a big leap of faith, Ted.

‘PC Free’ means you don’t need a computer to activate, sync and operate the iPad.  I don’t see anything in Apple’s literature that implies the iPad can be your only computer. My perception of Apple’s direction leads me to believe the days of the iPad being the only computer you need are a long way off (I’m making no assumptions about how you use a computer).
As always, I could be wrong.


Hi Ted, I could not agree more. The lack of simple file system/repository accessible by all apps is very frustrating, to say the least. At this point, I am using the Goodreader/DropBox combo as my iOS “Finder”. Unfortunately it is not an elegant solution and requires more steps than necessary, even if it is mostly workable.

I have been hoping that an iOS update tied with a proper icloud implementtion will provide the proper solution, but I am not holding my breath.

I even went so far as to check out an Android tablet to see if they had a better solution, but after playing around with it, the part of my brain that values good interface design started weeping uncontrollably.


Steve Jobs said in the iOS 5 keynote, I believe, that they are explicitly trying to remove the file-system from the user experience. In the short-term this means that operations where you want to pass documents between apps are going to be crippled. But, we could see a complete re-think of what a file-system is, or can be, that will eventually give us more power and ease of use. What if rather than a heirarchical set of folders and files, your file-system was one big pile of files with attributes, and you were also given an elegant method of tagging and searching on these files? This would remove the need to think about ‘where’ you were saving a file, and allow you to focus on the ‘what’ of the file. Spotlight could auto-index, and you could also add explicit tags. Then, the open dialog becomes a search dialog, and rather than navigating around the file system, you simply pick the attributes of the thing you’re looking for. iOS could add this pretty easily by indexing the document directories of all the installed apps. One thing that goes by the wayside in this scheme is drag-and-drop. This could be replaced by adding an ‘import’ option to the iOS cut/copy/paste bubble that would bring up the file search popup.

Ted Landau

I don?t see anything in Apple?s literature that implies the iPad can be your only computer.

Actually, if you listen to Scott Forstall at the WWDC keynote, where he discusses “PC Free”—this is exactly what he says. He talks about people wanting to use their iPad and even iPhone as their “only computer.”


Of course, Ted, I’ve no doubt people “want to” use the iPad as their only computer. You valiantly lead the charge….; but being “able to” currently looks out of your reach.

I think Scott may have set customer expectations that can’t actually be met right now.  How quickly those expectations can be met depends both on Apple (as you say) and on how intensely (use and applications) customers use their iPad.

Sure iOS5 promises the ability to be PC-free in terms of set up and syncing. But PC-free in terms of operation is a good example of YMMV.

If you only want to check your email and surf the Internet then the iPad is the only computer you’ll ever need.


Numerous third-party apps prohibit almost any form of importing or exporting their documents.

Maybe I’m reading this the wrong way, but you seem to suggest that 3rd party apps are conspiring against you to prevent import and export. I would think the most likely reality is that developers can’t code in import and export for lots of formats, and even if they do some, it’s likely that they didn’t include whatever pet format a given geek wants.


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

Let’s be fair here. One of those “versions” is a different format—the Pages document. This would be true of any desktop setup where you exported the file to another format. You created that version yourself by choosing to export—the OS didn’t do that.

This leaves the real version problem: the exported (presumably) Word doc on iDisk and the copy puled into Quickoffice. I thought Quickoffice could save to iDisk, but I could be wrong in that. If I’m not, then once you’ve edited the Word doc and saved it back to iDisk, then there should be no problem.

Sure, there’s still the now different Pages doc, but that’s what you get with exporting. You will have to import the Word doc from iDisk into Pages, but that’s to be expected since Pages is not an app that natively edits Word documents. However, if you re-export it to a Word doc on iDisk, then that is your new version. Sure there is the intermediate Pages document, that doesn’t get deleted automatically, but it’s not your current version anyway.

Maybe I’m not getting your workflow here, but it seems that you are wishing some apps did things that they don’t do and are blaming the OS. I’m not saying that the file situation in iOS is without problems, but I think you are making more of it. I am interested in re-visiting this once iCloud is live and developers have had a chance to integrate the functionality in their apps.

Here’s what seems possible to me with iCloud: given two apps on your iPad that can edit and/or view the same document format and both support iCloud, a particular document is designated to be shared in iCloud, both apps can then access the document, and edits in one app are saved to the iCloud file rather than to a local copy, and these changes are seen by the other app. Yes, this does require the “cloud” and won’t work offline, but then neither will Dropbox.

I could be wrong in where I’m guessing about how iCloud works. It could be that when a document is designated to be shared with iCloud that you have to specify a particular app to share it with, which would be exactly like dropping it onto a particular app’s file list in iTunes. This would obviously mean that those changes would not be seen by other apps automatically.

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