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Apple reinventing file access, wireless sharing for iPad

Prince McLean, AppleInsider

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.

Apple reinventing file access, wireless sharing for iPad

In a move foreshadowed by the Newton Message Pad fifteen years ago, Apple’s new iPad jettisons the conventional shared file system and introduces a new, streamlined convention for working with document files that ordinary users should find much more understandable.

Outside of savvy computer users, the idea of opening a file by searching through hierarchical paths in the file system is a bit of a mystery. Add in the concept of local and cloud file servers and things really get confusing.

Apple has already taken some steps to hide complexity in the file system in Mac OS X; Spotlight search was supposed to make a file’s location almost irrelevant, while apps such as iTunes, iPhoto, and Photo Booth now present their databases of content in media folders within the open file panel rather that forcing users to slog through the underlying file system.

The Finder, iTunes and iPhoto also allow users to wirelessly share content between different systems via Bonjour-discovered file shares that pop up automatically whenever another system sharing files is sensed on the network.

The iPhone similarly abstracts away the file system entirely; there is no concept of opening or saving files, just a media library of Photos and file attachments that stay connected to their mailbox items. But the iPhone currently isn’t designed to do much more than view files.

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.

And iPad app’s documents can be presented in any way that makes sense, depending on how many and what kind of documents the individual iPad app uses. Apple demonstrated its Work apps scrolling through a quick list of documents, while its iBooks app presents its various digital books as titles in a virtual bookshelf.

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.

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  • http://www.isights.org/ whmlco

    This just… sucks. And if you can’t tag them or name them, it sucks even further.

    It’s like saying that on the PC, every single Microsoft Word document you ever create, be it personal or for whatever project, is going to be stuffed into a one single humongous Microsoft Word folder with every other Microsoft Word file you’ve ever created. Same for Excel files. And same for… you get the idea.

    No organization at all. None.

    Really, it’s as bad as the lame “bookshelf” metaphor in the iBooks app. Steve says that even a 16GB baseline iPad will let you carry “thousands” of ebooks.

    Cool. But now picture this: You take him at his word, and you’ve now purchased thousands of ebooks and downloaded them to your iPad… only to find all of them stuffed at random onto dozens upon dozens upon dozens of seemingly identical virtual shelves.

    Check out photos of the interface. There’s no apparent way to sort by title or author. No way to group those thousands of books by author or subject or genre. No way to keep related books (or documents) together. You can probably quit the app and do a spotlight search… if you remember at least part of the title.

    Otherwise it’s page, page, page, swipe, swipe, swipe, bitch, bitch, bitch. “Where in the hell is that book on…”

    Heck, I have a mere fifty books in the Kindle app on my iPhone, and the lack of organizational tools is already driving me insane.

    Come on. This is progress? This the reinvention we’re looking for?

    Even the ancient floppy disk, thirty years old, had folders for grouping related files. Take away the ability to create user defined organizational schemas, and even something as storage poor as a 128K floppy disk rapidly becomes little more than a mess of intermingled files with cryptic file names.

    128K. And the biggest iPad is 64… gigabytes.

    Even the venerable iPhoto is starting to show just how unworkable it is to only have a single “library” of photos. It wasn’t too bad when it first appeared and it only had to manage a few photos, but people have been stuffing their libraries with photos for years now. Outings. Vacations. Birthdays. Anniversaries. Graduations. Day trips. Hiking photos, skiing photos, party photos…

    And iPhoto is bursting at the seams. Without multiple libraries, there’s no good way to keep work photos from personal photos. No good way to archive seconds and rejects. No way to separate photos by years or even decades. No way to manage things when the hard disk containing your one and only photo library begins to fill up to the brim.

    Paradoxically, by reducing “complexity”, by leaving behind the “jumbled” file system, they’ve made things that much harder for us all.

    Of course, in the demo, Apple showed Keynote for the iPad with three previously created documents, and now that I think about it, didn’t Pages have just three documents shown as full sized full screen “icons” that the use paged through.

    Maybe that’s the secret.

    Never make more that three of anything, and you’ll do just fine…

  • miloh

    Is there some reason that it must do the things you think are missing? Could it be there is another way of computing that you’re overlooking?

  • sprockkets

    @whmlco, Microsoft has been trying to do the same thing, except of course they failed at ever bringing it to DOA “Longhorn”. It’s called WinFS, and it ditches the whole folder/file scheme and replaces it with a database system.

    I couldn’t imagine how it could have possibly worked out, and I agree it would freak me out. But I see the advantages of it with my music player, and of course, all word files can be tagged, and most are automatically filled with the author, if said info was put in when the program was first installed.

    Technically the ipod still uses a folder file system, but it uses itunes to build the database and thus presents all the music via tag rather than location. My Cowon D2 can do it either way, but when tagged correctly, it works better in tag mode than in file mode.

  • http://www.metrokids.ca Conrad MacIntyre

    It’s too early to declare my hatred for it, but this seems like the sort of thing that should have been in the Keynote!! Wireless printing and sharing!?! Are you kidding me!? That’s 1.5 things off my 2 item wishlist!

    I need to play with one of these. Now.

  • martinws

    Interesting article I was wondering hope Apple was going to share files with Apps.

    Following this concept further, if I want to include a spreadsheet in a Pages document, will we see the ‘media’ browser being extended for each App allowing an App to define what kind of media it can use and share?

    Better still, I wonder if Apple be eventually come up with a new ‘OpenDoc type’ solution to allow developers to embed different media together while keeping their respective files separate. It would also reduce the necessity of a user interface which supports up front App multitasking.

  • http://berendschotanus.com Berend Schotanus

    This kind of fast but in-depth news articles is really where your strength lies. You are giving us readers a head-start in understanding what the iPad is all about. Thanks for that.

    As to the file system, I agree with whmlco that it might not give the kind of organization I’m searching for while managing larger amounts of information.

    What I am dreaming of is a filesystem that is defined as a separate service. Imagine Google Docs, iDisk and Dropbox, mingle that together and look what they have in common. Basically you get a harddisk that is accessible from anywhere with just your own private documents.
    I want to fully own my private documents, so a free monopolist-style cloud hosted service like Google Docs is not a good idea. I want them to be fully interoperable, do tying them to a single application in iPhone style is not a good idea. I want to access them from anywhere, so a physical harddisk is not a good idea.
    What is a good idea is that, when you first time enter applications like iWorks, it gives you a window with “tell me where your files live?”, so you give the name of the service, user name, password and voilà all your files are there ready for the application to download, open, sync or whatever.

  • amosconi

    whmlco, with due respect, I think that you (and a number of other people) is still missing the point of this first iteration of the iPad.

    The idea of the iPad is not to replace (not yet, at least) your computer. Is not a notebook. Or a Netbook. Is a new concept and as such is growing on new metaphors and paradigms.

    A file-system-less tabled is perfect to work on that (small bunch) of documents while you are not at your computer, or to make that presentation, or to take that series of notes without having to carry a full laptop, but still having a nice and fully functional interface.

    In the future, if or when the iPad new metaphors will need to evolve, those new paradigms will change and new functionality will be added, like happened to the original 3.5″ floppy 30 years ago, whose file system, initially, was flat and not hierarchical (even if allowed for folders, you could not have 2 files with the same name on the whole floppy). HFS arrived in 1985.

    I think Apple is doing this in the right way: You create something basic, but functional and then you see what is needed to make it better and you add the best of the newly proposed features in a way they integrate together… This way in the end you have a fully functional product that just works and you do not have to rethink the same functionality twice because the original method was not working, confusing and angering the people used to the first method that have to re-learn how to do it.

    In the specific, for the iPad, this mean that once mature, it will be capable to replace a laptop, with a totally different interface, more functional that what we have now, but completely different and engineered for a more human-like interaction.

    Like in everything, before you can run, you need to learn to walk.

  • Randy A

    Prince, you’ve just convinced me not to buy one. I absolutely HATE the fact that I have PDF, DOC, and XLS files on my iPod Touch in their own little “installation directory” storage system. The problem for me is that Spotlight can’t find anything in any one of them. Can’t find by name, can’t find content. Nothing. I can’t do a search for a contact that brings up more than just their card and emails.

    I personally do NOT find this to be more understandable, easier, convenient or logical. Sure, it wasn’t really that big of a deal when I had a grand total of about 20 files on my Touch. Now that I have HUNDREDS it is a major PIA and is just not useful.

    If it works for you that is great. I hope Apple sells millions and every buyer loves them. I just won’t be one of them.

    [Of course Spotlight can find them. They’re in a known location to boot! – Dan]

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  • http://www.isights.org/ whmlco

    @7amosconi – As I said above, I already have fifty books in the Kindle app on my iPhone — my iPhone — and the lack of organizational tools there is already driving me insane.

    And Steve said you could have “thousands”, remember?

    Same for iWork. Once you get above a dozen or so documents, paging through that many full-screen thumbnails trying to find the document you want or need is going to be nothing but frustrating.

    And it you can’t do a reasonable amount of work on a 64GB device, why create an iWork suite for it at all?

    IMHO, Steve is schizophrenic on this issue.

    Apparently we’re smart enough in iTunes to manage nested folders and playlists, drag-and-drop playlists, Smart playlists with logic, grouping by type and genre and artist, Genius lists, an integrated store, column sorting, searching, and more.

    In iPhoto we’re supposed to understand Albums (folders), events, faces, geolocation, Smart Albums (logic again), flagging, tagging, and searching.

    In Mail we again have nested, multiple mailboxes (folders), Smart Folders (again), multiple services and inboxes, sortable columns, rules, and searching.

    In short, more ways to slice and dice our files than you can shake a stick at.

    And almost all of those modes and views seem to be supported in the music and photo “apps” on the pad.

    But here we’re so stupid we can’t even manage nested folders or sortable lists?


  • donarb

    whmlco, who said you cannot name files on the iPad? If you watched some of the demos online from people who played with it the other day, you saw different ways of accessing files, from document previews to what Apple calls “popover” menus. It’s up to the developer to provide you with a meaningful way of naming and finding your documents. Internally, the developer may decide to use a cryptic name in the OS, but when presented to you, it has the name “Bob’s Recipes”. The document may not even be a traditional monolithic file, it could be a folder full of files that make up the document, like the applications you have now on the Mac. As for tagging, if I have a file that contains a chicken recipe, why should I tag it with the word “chicken” if the document already contains that word and I can use a global (or even application specific) search to find it?

    This new paradigm will be a boon to users. Right now, on Mac and Windows machines all over the world, people store files (or shortcuts to those files) on their desktops because they don’t want to hunt through the filesystem for files they use every day. What better way to solve that problem than have the application be smart enough to know what files the user created with that application?

  • ChuckO

    How do you email files from iPhone (and I’m assuming iPad will work the same)? Use spotlight to find and attach?

  • ChuckO

    whmlco, I suspect as you buy iBooks the newest book is in the upper left corner of the top shelf and everything shifts right and then down a shelf as necessary. You end up with potentially 1000’s of shelves and you can flick to scroll quickly through them to find the book. The idea being that the most recent are the most interesting. I would also suppose some sorting should be supported: alpha by title, alpha by author, order of purchase. Don’t know how much of that is true but that would make it pretty managable.

  • ChuckO

    Sorry the sorting I described above would be displayed sorted on the bookshelves if that wasn’t clear.

  • adamk359

    It’s been very interesting reading throughout the news about this new device. I think there is a lot of stuff here that people are missing the point on while I also think there are quite a few people who do “get it”.

    Right now, I think the reason that we’re not going to be exposed to the filesystem in the more common sense, is that on a small device like an iPhone/iPod Touch, we want to see results without having to slog through director trees to get there. The less we have to do to access our files/settings, the better. Sure, there are many of us who love that level of control and organization, but when you think about it, it’s not something we really need on a device like this. Even the iPad, with its much larger screen real estate is marketed as a very simple to understand and easy to use device like the iPhone/iPod Touch.

    What exactly will it hurt if your files are all sorted into an app’s directory (one place) rather than wherever you decide to put them (many places)? I think the benefits to this will mean that when you want to open a file, you will only see that app’s formatted files rather than all your files and folders and this and that. If everything is organized and saved in a certain way, that should make it even easier to access all your files.

    Lets look at it this way:

    Standard Mac/PC Filesystem
    1)Open app
    2)Select “Open” from file menu
    3)Go through 20 directories cause you buried your files in a controlled chaos organization system where you know where everything is and you like it like that

    App-centric Filesystem
    1)Open app
    2)Select “Open” from file menu (or equivalent?)
    3)Scroll through or use Spotlight (which will likely be integrated into the app’s “Open” dialogue) to find your files which I assume will be in alphabetical order (or can be displayed by date or kind or what-have-you)

    It may seem like just as much work but it keeps everything neat and tidy and in one spot which should theoretically mean less work.

    I think what we have to understand is that this is the evolution of a revolutionary new way to do input. Apple is slowly trickling multi-touch into everything it does, from MacBooks to iPhoneOS to mice. We all kind of expected this new device to run full-bore OS X and of course we’re all crying a little on the inside cause it doesn’t, but I think if this is the future of the company right here, much like the Mac 512k was the future of the company in 1984, then I think we should definitely give this thing a chance and see where Apple takes it.

    Think of the possibilities. My vision of the future of the Mac platform completely rides on the shoulders of this new device. Think of a MacBook Touch whereby there is a clamshell configuration with dual touchscreens: The main screen and the keyboard/input screen. There will be no trackpad because we can just simply select what we want on the main screen with our fingers (there will be USB for an external input device should you need one) and then when we come to a text-field, we simply place the cursor where we want it (like on the iPhone OS) and then utilize the full-size software keyboard on the input screen. Yes, a lot of you are going to hate that, but I know a lot of people with iPhones/iPod Touches (myself included) that can type just as well on the software keyboard on a tiny device with my thumbs as I can with my MacBook’s physical keyboard. It will be something that will take some getting used to obviously, but as you can see by the large software keyboard the iPad utilizes, that could easily be where this is all going. Eventually, we’ll all just get used to not having to look at the input screen as we type.

    Apple loves to use their new technologies to the fullest and introduce them into old products to refresh them (like the new MacBooks with multi-touch trackpads). Sure we’re never happy at first when Apple rolls out a new product and its missing 200 features, but this is just the first in a revolutionary evolution that will be the future of all things Apple.

    Oh, and its 2010, we should have a camera on this thing so we can we all look like morons pointing a giant camera at something. Perhaps a forward facing iSight cam but beyond that…no. Just no.

  • adamk359

    As an added side note, the MacBook Touch (I also envision the iMac to follow this “touch trend”) will likely utilize a “touch-enhanced” version of OS X that mimics a lot of the interface decisions used throughout the iPad’s version of iPhone OS…perhaps to the point of getting rid of the precious top 20 or so pixels of our beloved global menu utilizing it only for status/notifications. Gasp…I know.

  • miloh

    @adamk359 — You’ve touched on an interesting aspect of human behavior that I struggle with almost constantly in the R&D business. When a person gets accustomed to something and it becomes second-nature to them, they generally stop recognizing what it is they are actually doing (assuming they knew in the first place). They run around so much on auto-pilot that they’re unaware of the complexities to which they’re subjected. The result is typically a distorted sense of their own needs. Thus, when faced with something new like the iPad, they often have difficulty gauging its worth since they don’t really have a good understanding of that which they value to begin with.

    In the corporate world, we all get nervous when the efficiency consultants are brought in because it usually means there will be layoffs. While that’s often true, their actual job is to identify waste so that things can be streamlined. Being an outsider with a fresh perspective, it’s all new to them and so there’s little risk of floating along on cruise control. It’s easier for them to be objective.

    Apple is the efficiency expert in this case. They’ve looked at how a lot of people actually use computers, removed the unnecessary bits, and improved upon the rest. For a great number of users, a full-featured filesystem is unnecessary. A 500GB hard-drive is superfluous. The process of buying, unpacking, installing, and launching applications is too complicated. Many disagree with that assessment, but do they really understand their average computer use? Or do they only think they do?

  • ulicar

    Steps to reproduce:

    1 make a masterpiece photo using
    2 go to imageshack and try to upload the
    3 get frustrated because file upload is not working mostly due to this ingenuity of file system
    4 dump the image on pc and do it the old way
    5 listen to funbois saying it is somehow ageshack error
    6 film aliens landing video using iPhone
    7 try to upload it to the fb and hit the same problem
    8 listen to the fanbois claiming it is gb err

  • miloh

    @ulicar — What’s your point? That the iPad cannot do all that a computer can? Did Apple ever claim it was supposed to?

  • ulicar

    @miloh It can’t do everything a BROWSER can do, let alone a computer. And yes, Apple claims the iPad is the best way to browse web, hands down, and it quite obvious IS NOT. It cannot do dumbest things other browser do. They might wanted to “reinvent the file access”, but what they came up with is a load of c**p that my grandmother would think through better, who never used a comupter and is dead. If you think it is somehow my fault to expect THE MINIMUM of what Apple claims they will deliver, you are as thick as developers of iPad.

  • miloh

    @ulicar — You seem to be overlooking the fact that the term “best” is highly subjective. For some people in some situations, the iPad may very well be the best way to browse the web. For others it may not. If you think it’s unsuitable for your purposes, fine. You’re entitled to that view. But so are others entitled to theirs.

  • amorton

    The first thing that struck me about this way of organising documents is it’s the same way I did it on my Apple II back in the ’80s, in the days before PCs had hard drives. If I was doing word processing I’d boot up Appleworks from a floppy disk and load and save files on the same disk. Ditto if I was creating pictures or music or whatever. Even when hard drives came along, each application you installed commonly had its own ‘documents’ folder where you saved everything.

    In essence it’s a move from document-centred workflow back to application-centred workflow. Funny thing is I’m sure people decided some 10 to 20 years ago that the latter was illogical and confusing for users. So I can see why whmlco is concerned. But I guess we’ll just have to keep an open mind until we’ve used it for a while.

  • miloh

    amorton — I don’t think the app-centric workflow was necessarily confusing so long as one stayed within the app. I think the issue arose when people started sharing files between applications. I don’t foresee a whole lot of that occurring on the iPad, however. I think the intention is for such things to stay in the domain of the computer.

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  • gslusher

    I’m not sure that this is “re-inventing file access,” since this is precisely the way that Palm OS handled (and still does) file access. Files are stored in application-specific “folders” (some applications can search across folders–e.g., find any images) and accessed from within the application. The filenames are often very cryptic, given the severe limitations of Palm OS, but are represented in the applications with the names the user gives. (E.g., I use Documents to Go to putt AppleWorks files on my Palm TX. I don’t give a damn where the files are or what their filenames are–I just pick the one I need from a list within the Palm side of Documents to Go.)