It’s hard to believe that it’s been nine years since Apple introduced AirDrop as a part of Mac OS X Lion and iOS 7. I consider AirDrop to be one of Apple’s best moves of the past decade. It’s a feature I have used hundreds of times and have come to rely on to quickly exchange files and other information with my own devices and with the devices used by my friends and family.
But just because AirDrop is useful doesn’t mean it couldn’t be better. In fact, I would argue that it’s been largely ignored the last few years, and could stand some major upgrades that would benefit users of iPhones, iPads, and Macs alike.
Improving the AirDrop interface
The more I use AirDrop, the more I see how many ways its interface could be improved. AirDrop is generally a tap away on iOS, but on the Mac it’s a bit more complicated to get there.
Most Mac users might still be transferring files via AirDrop by opening a new Finder window and choosing AirDrop from the Go menu, or typing Command-Shift-R. That was once the most prominent way of using AirDrop, but I prefer to select a file or files and quickly send them without opening a new Finder window.
There are currently two ways to do this. If you’re selecting files in a Finder window, you can click the Share icon at the top of the window and choose AirDrop, then select from a list of nearby devices. But most of the files I’m AirDropping are actually out on my Desktop, so instead I control-click on a file and choose AirDrop from the Share submenu.
The first thing Apple should do is float AirDrop to the top level of the interface—providing an AirDrop icon right on Finder windows, and an AirDrop command at the top level of every contextual menu. Even better, those items should take a cue from iOS and offer frequently AirDropped devices in a submenu, so you can select a target and bypass the AirDrop window entirely.
An alternative would be for Apple to adopt the iOS interface for smart sharing suggestions, combining Messages and AirDrop in a single list, right within the sharing interface. That would be fine. My point is, I so frequently want to AirDrop files to one or two nearby devices—and I’d like to make it as easy as possible to kick off that process.
Though it’s easier to select a target device on iPhone and iPad, those devices have their own limitations. iOS and iPadOS won’t accept AirDrop transfers of different file types. If they aren’t all the exact same file format, iOS (even iOS 14) will refuse the transfer, saying it “cannot receive all of these items at the same time.” Instead, you have to transfer like items in groups.
This makes no sense. Surely the iPad and iPhone are sophisticated enough to accept the files and then ask the user what to do with them, or just save them into the Files app for later! Nine times out of ten I’m trying to transfer a bunch of items to the same destination—AAC, MP3, and WAV audio files into Ferrite Recording Studio on my iPad, for example—and there’s no reason for iPadOS to refuse delivery. But it does, every time.
Currently AirDrop works as it was originally conceived: It’s a short-range, direct transfer protocol that allows nearby devices to send files to one another without needing to be on the same network. And it does work very well in that regard.
But what makes AirDrop great is that it’s easy. It doesn’t require a network or server access or any cloud-based middleman. And that’s why Apple should extend AirDrop’s reach by redefining it as an easy way to transfer data with nearby people you know, whether or not they’re standing right next to you.
Apple already supports technologies that let you see other devices that are on your local network. Why not extend AirDrop to see familiar devices on your local network and allow quick point-to-point file transfers with them?
Let me give you a real-world example. I am frequently transferring files to my daughter’s laptop from my iMac. Yes, I’ve got a file server in my office, so I could have her log into the server and get the file. But AirDrop is so much easier! So when I’ve got a file to send to her, I walk back to her bedroom and tell her to come out to my office so I can AirDrop her the file.
This is silly. We’re both on the same local network. I should be able to use that network to “AirDrop” the file to her.
Would this be a little out of bounds of the original premise of AirDrop? Yes, absolutely. But AirDrop is great. So great that it needs to expand. AirDrop is all about transferring data to nearby devices—and if Apple redefines “nearby devices” to include devices on my local network, it can make AirDrop that much more useful.
AirDrop has succeeded at taking a task that was previously messy and overcomplicated—getting a file transferred from one device to another—into something that’s incredibly easy. Congratulations, AirDrop, you’ve done it! Time for you to do more.
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