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July 24, 2012 / Randy Coppinger

Wrangling Files In iOS

I took some pictures on my iPad. Then I used iTunes to sync with the Mac. I even specified iPad back up. But when I went looking for them on my Mac, the iPad Camera Roll pics were no where to be found. I was sure I did something wrong because that’s how I got photos from Mac to iPad. It turned out that getting pics from the iPad required me to use iPhoto for the transfer to the Mac.

This illustrates the key difference between a traditional computer, and the way files are organized in iOS. On a Mac or PC there is common storage that all software can access. In iOS files are organized around apps. Each application and its files are grouped together like high school cliques. When an app gets built from the ground up, one way to guarantee that files can move to/from iOS devices is also create software for the computer it syncs with. Now back to my photos.

Suddenly iPhoto is valuable to me for two reasons: I can work on pics, and I can move pics off of the iPad. That’s not a huge deal, except Photoshop and Gimp do not move any iOS files. Apple “baked in” this iOS capability. Pictures and the iOS apps that use them benefit by having hooks in related software on desktop/laptop machines. It encourages a kind of microcosm based around a file type, in this case photos.

The iPad Camera isn’t the only app that creates or uses pics. For example, there are often prompts to take a screen shot of completed puzzles, rewards, etc. in game apps. Those pics are sent to the Camera Roll. Camera Roll to iPhoto becomes a file transfer path for these other apps. So instead of building a direct path between the device and computer on an app by app basis, developers can instead piggyback an existing, common path in a file type ecosystem. For example, audio files could leave via iTunes.

One of the most common transfer paths found in any app are email and social media. But these won’t help folks who work with large files because email and social media apps limit file size.

There is yet another way to wrangle data in iOS, bringing our total number of schemes to three:
(1) Direct file management with purpose built software for device and computer
(2) Pass files to another app that already has a transfer path
(3) Third party file management software such FileApp and DiskAid

It is worth noting that a device wide solution – one that approximates file management on a Mac/PC – requires that you connect to a traditional computer and run software on BOTH ends of the sync cable. I should also admit that I haven’t used this approach personally, so I don’t know how well it compares to the drag-and-drop file transfer with which most of us are already familiar.

Apple’s iCloud service is notable because it allows file storage in a second location without having a traditional computer present. But any remote storage – iCloud or a competitor – requires wireless data transfer, which can be pricey and can restrict where you are able to access it, especially for WiFi only devices. To work on an iOS device instead of a computer, wireless is your only option for backing up. Don’t be confused though: iCloud isn’t designed for you to move any file you want. No, it is designed for full device backup along with some data synchronization between devices and computers [Macworld iCloud article]. Regardless whether you use wireless remote storage or sync with a host computer, the decentralized iOS file structure forces you to take one of the three paths to/from devices.

It seems iOS inherits an awful lot from the iPod – a device designed for music playback, not music creation. The iPhone and iPad follow that perspective of consumption rather than production. If one primarily watches / listens / reads, the file management system makes it relatively simple to get data on the device. But to compose, shoot, record, edit, process, etc., iOS forces professionals to figure out how to move data off of the device. Which is the best path for backup in a given scenario? How should files be passed along to other collaborators? Which path works well for distributing finished work to clients and consumers? The answers will vary depending on the paths that have been built or co-opted by the app developer, access to a computer, and access to a wireless network.

See Also: The Right Tools for the Job, a series that compares Desktop, Laptop, Tablet, and Handheld.

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Leave a Comment
  1. Jordan Reynolds / Jul 24 2012 12:04 pm

    Great topic Randy!

    Before my post I must declare that I am a huge MAC, PC, iOS, and Android lover. All have their pro’s and cons.

    In a nutshell, file management in iOS is inherently stupid. Fortunately, I’ve only had to get files on and off my iPad a few times but, as portrayed in this article, it was a pain in the ass. Well, a pain for what is a much more simple and streamlined process on all other platforms.

    There should be some sort of “Storage” options in the iOS settings where you can set a default data storage location for apps to use. And, of course, within those apps you can also have the option to select a different location. The default should just be iCloud – if activated on the device. This will ensure quick and easy access to files across platforms. But, as you mentioned, for larger files this may be hindering. It’s a shame that you can’t just mount iOS devices as an external storage device like you can with Android. Maybe Apple fears that THAT process is too complicated, which it can be for non-technical users. But even then they could just have iTunes launch and allow you to browse your files in a pretty gui with category labels like “Photos, Videos, Garageband songs.”

    Ok I just better stop typing otherwise I’ll keep rambling. Those are just my thoughts. However, feel free to correct me on anything because I’m certainly no expert when it comes to iOS file management/synchronization. 🙂


    • Randy Coppinger / Jul 24 2012 12:39 pm

      I have hope that FileApp/DiskAid is the kind of device wide solution I desire, but I want to research it more. And I suspect if enough people get frustrated with iOS file management Apple might build that capacity into it natively.

      Conversely, I respect Apple for getting rid of the Desktop/Folder/Document metaphor and going for more of an object orientation. But leaving familier paradigms can be painful.

  2. Randy Coppinger / Jul 25 2012 10:29 am

    My friend Shane Walsh recommends PhoneView to manage iOS data.


  1. The Right Tools for Backup « Randy Coppinger

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