March 5, 2022•546 words
Steve Jobs wanted the file system to be inaccessible to the user, and let the app handle the files. If you want to open a photo in an editor, you don’t open the editor first. You open the photo, then “share” or copy and paste it to the editor. For well written apps, that works perfectly. The black boxes that apps are in can share data between each other, without the user having to think twice about directories, file types and file names. It just works.
But not all apps are well written, especially when it’s hard to write a well written app, like on iOS. When every other computing platform is based on the file system, developers aren’t just going to do weird abstractions that don’t translate well to other platforms. Some apps allow certain degree of “sharing”, but in complicated ways, like using a file format that no other apps can read. Some requires the use of the cloud storage just to have a more familiar file system. Some just don’t have a way to get data in or out, requiring you to sync with a computer before you can do anything useful with the data (Looking at you, VLC).
The main exception being the Photos app which, for whatever reason, isn’t a black box. There is an API for accessing all photos when no other apps can communicate this way, which defeats the abstraction because it’s no different from displaying a file selection menu. This is why a lot of iOS apps that should’ve been able to handle any file types only supports photos and videos. Because they don’t want to deal with the iOS way of dealing with files. This is likely why they introduced the Files app in iOS 11. It’s basically the Photos app for any file types. If you want to open a photo in an editor, you open the photo editor, and pick the photo.
But that’s just the file system.
A lot of newer apps just use the file picker without making a share extension. For example, if I’m doing my homework in GoodNotes and want to submit it to Teams as an Assignment, I have to share it from GoodNotes app into the files app, and open it in Teams. So now I have two copies of the same thing, one in GoodNotes and one in the Files app. On an actual computer, the app that I’m doing my homework in would be saving the file in the user-accessible file system, so after I submit the assignment, I would only have a single copy. But the fact that iPadOS is mixing metaphors simply leads to more confusion.
In an attempt to make things simpler, the iOS and iPadOS file system is now more complex than ever. Maybe some day Apple can get it fixed, but that’s on the hands of the developers, who have a lot more to deal with than the data transfer process on a single platform. The idea of having apps that pushes data around rather than having a central place for all files is actually pretty nice. It means less leftover files and tech support, and more people who can compute. But as it stands, it’s somehow more complicated than a computer.