The Final Step For Making the iPad a Real Computer Replacement

Spoiler: yes iOS needs a real file system

Apple is pitching the iPad as a powerful computing device. Many are asking if the iPad can be a computer replacement (try searching “ipad as a computer replacement” to get a better idea). Some people are actually dumping their computers in favour of the iPad, others are having trouble doing so. It depends of each computing needs.

Personally, I think there is one piece missing on iOS in order to make the iPad a real computer: documents management. has a great piece on the subject where in iOS 7, dealing with documents is really lacking.

Mac OS X Finder

The problem comes from the fact that Apple refuses to acknowledge something very important: people are more computer literate than they think. A vast majority of people in our society have access to computers. A vast majority of them are exposed to the computer metaphor: the desktop which in turn is based on document management. Windows desktop, Mac OS X, Linux distributions all use desktop with documents management. We take this for granted.

One thing that comes up often when computer literate people start using an iPad is: how do we manage documents on this thing? How can we import documents?

I agree with the following known fact: file system based desktop metaphors are complex and many people still are unable to fully understand files and folders, especially while working from within applications. Apple’s approach in iCloud is to flatten the file system (make it disappear in other words). Coupled with the fact that iOS based applications are all running in their own space (sandboxed), documents can only be contained within an application environment. One exception to this is multimedia documents like photos and videos. They are so important on the iPhone and the iPad that they have their own application and are programmatically accessible with the use of generalized APIs. Because of the secure nature of iOS right now, problems with document management are well known and documented.

To make the iPad a real computer replacement, Apple has to provide better ways to manage documents on this device. The idea would be to create a set of APIs, much like media management, to provide developers with a way to store and retrieve documents. By documents, I mean things like text files, PDF files, excel files and the like. These are very common data structures, so important that a vast majority of people understand them.

The problem is much more than simply providing a service like Dropbox or the like. iCloud is about synching content across devices. The missing piece is a central repository that look like Dropbox but is available at a very basic operating system level for applications to use. Every application that can open or save a documents would need access to this repository without much programming on the developer part.

How could Apple introduce Documents for iOS?

First, as stated earlier in this post, a new set of APIs are needed and could be available starting with iOS 8. Applications built for iOS 8 would be able to access this centralized document repository. Applications will keep their sandboxed environment but updated applications will be able to store newly created documents in the central repository by default. Upon starting the application the first time, it would be required to “move” sandboxed documents to the repository. Each application will have to “advertise” what kind of files it can handle. The latter is already available under iOS 7 with the use of URL schemes.

Documents by Readdle for iPhone

The Documents repository would need its own application (let call it: Documents), just like Photos. Opening up this application, the user would see a list of files that would be tagged just like it is done on Mac OS X Maverick. Each file would get a default tag that reflects its type. The user could add its own tag to help document searching. Spotlight could be used for indexing and searching. By using tags, Apple wouldn’t have to offer folders which introduce complexities. Tags which are also available on Gmail is a good enough solution in a small repository like this. The idea here is not to reproduce the complete file system experience.

Tags on OS X Mavericks would need this new Documents application too. On the Desktop, Apple could provide a new hook in the next release of OS X directly from the finder in order to allow document management there. On Windows, would be the way to go as Apple only offers basic iCloud services exposure there.

So here it is, a description of one of the most lacking piece in iOS: document management. In this blog post, I tried to expose a proposal for building the missing piece that would make the iPad, a real capable computer replacement.

What are your thoughts on this?