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The author of Waffle, some guy in Sweden, also occasionally writes stmts.net.

Ownership and Access Control

As part of a long-term ongoing discussion, Michael Tsai linked to another article on the lack of an iOS documents filing system.

I’ve long mulled over Apple’s specific behavior in this field.

First, Steve Jobs didn’t like file systems. Reading the biography (which was the first book I read about Apple or Steve Jobs ever if you exclude the Folklore stories that became Revolution in the Valley) has been illuminating on many levels, not the least that Steve was more critical than I knew about customer control over the things they owned. He was relentless against distractions and if something could be tied to tradition, it would have to make its case twice as hard to make the cut. He didn’t see Mac Spotlight and iOS as potential improvements or as new tools in the toolbox, but as replacements. I am told that Scott Forstall hold most of Steve’s ideas dear, so I think this may still be a factor.

I am more out of my depth here, but just applying the output to what we know of the process, I think the iOS group sees files as something you are under pressure to manage. In particular, it sees files for everything as a generic solution, and by applying Apple philosophy, it thinks that most of the problems that can be solved using files and applications are instead better solved in a task-specific way for each task. They want for there to be an app for that instead.

The problem is that the theory doesn’t hold perfectly. Even if it works partially, it can’t possibly scale up to every scenario. But in particular, it doesn’t hold for the things that people really miss having a file system-like documents and folders system for.

  • Having a file system as its own cross-environmental entity let you mix a bunch of related materials for the same subject, but that are completely different type of media. You can’t have one app for all of that; “app-thought” forbids it and even if it didn’t, it’s horribly impractical. There’s no good solution for this right now except Dropbox integration. iCloud doesn’t change anything in this regard; it just eliminates having to copy things around in some apps.

  • Having real folders means being able to nest them. Deep hierarchies that you are forced to use are complex, but hierarchies that you maintain yourself can be a secret to efficiency and productivity, and may make being really productive with many documents possible in the first place. Look at the opening screens of the iWork apps, or of GarageBand or iMovie. There’s no list view and you are discouraged from keeping many things around. When you cross a certain number of items, it’s harder to scan for something there than in a folder you control on a traditional file system, from a traditional file manager (like the Finder). You are still under pressure to manage these files in some ways to avoid drowning in them (and with everything of that kind in one place, even more so), you just aren’t given adequate tools for doing so efficiently.

    Or for that matter, look at your home screens. I have condensed mine down to three screens by tossing everything into folders, but I am limited to so few items and they won’t nest that it’s not surprising that I use Spotlight to find some of the seldom-used apps anyway. Search is a good complement to deliberate arrangement, but when it’s a cop-out for the rest of the experience, you’re doing something wrong. Springboard is the new Program Manager.

  • The current system of having everyone implement the fundamentals isn’t holding up very well. Everyone has to solve the same set of problems and not everyone are equipped to do that or will make odd workarounds. Even the good workarounds will need to be learned on an app-by-app basis and the assumed inherited complexity of file systems has been replaced by other complexity, both for the developers and the users of the app.

  • Having folders might not be the end-all solution for everything, but it is a sound foundation. Add tags to reduce the reliance on nesting as the sole organizational method, add colored labels as in Mac OS X and HFS+, fix the problems with filename restrictions (as long as they don’t have to escape from iOS), require participating document formats to generate previews and provide the right kind of metadata and you’re miles better than before, even if you don’t even count being shielded from the files and folders that constitute the system’s inner workings as a feature.

I am less and less so as time passes, but I remain hopeful that Apple will finally receive enough feedback that they change their minds and turn one of their biggest liabilities into one of their biggest strengths. If iOS 3 was Copy and Paste, maybe iOS 6 is New Folder.

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