File lessons the iPad needs to learn from the Mac

So we can see files now. Great! Time for smarter AirDrop and default apps.

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As someone who travels with an iPad Pro rather than a MacBook, I complained for years about iOS’s inability to perform basic file management, including mounting networked file servers and accessing the contents of attached USB drives and unzipping archives. With the arrival of iPadOS 13, those problems were finally addressed. Stop laughing, Mac users.

In the spirit of taking what’s given to you and then ungratefully asking for more: The job’s just not done. Yes, iPad file management finally exists. But it needs to be a lot better.

Your file is my type

It’s not surprising that in an operating system that was largely designed to be free of files, there are a bunch of missing pieces. Perhaps the biggest one is the sheer lack of a consistent approach to file types. Every file has a type—some files are video, some are audio, some are plain text, some are Microsoft Word. And different apps have the ability to deal with certain file types.

airdrop icon mac Apple

But on iPadOS 13, the situation’s a mess. When I AirDrop a file from my Mac to my iPad, my iPad’s screen fills up with an enormous list of apps that claim to be eligible to read that file. When I’m dropping an uncompressed audio files in WAV format, though, a very strange collection of apps claim to be able to handle it. I can’t tell if this is Apple’s fault or the fault of the apps or both, but it points to a larger issue: the iPad doesn’t seem to have a lot of confidence about what to do when it’s given a random file.

Instead of an unordered list of random apps, the iPad should prominently prompt the user to save the file to the Files app or select from a (properly filtered) list of apps that could possibly handle the format. Perhaps most importantly, the user should be able to save a default app (or, if you prefer, a few favorites) that would be applied to that particular file type.

Every time I AirDrop an audio file to my iPad, I want it to open in Ferrite Recording Studio. I’d love to save that as a default app for that file type—but iPadOS won’t let me. (Strangely, one app generally does appear bolded in my list of options, but it’s not Ferrite, not even if it’s the one I’ve picked every time that list appears.) But I’d also accept the concept that AirDropped files are saved to the On My iPad or Downloads or iCloud Drive folders.

iPadOS is also frustratingly unable to differentiate between different file types. When I attempt to AirDrop myself a clutch of different file types from my Mac, I’m simply rejected—the iPad’s not smart enough to accept all the files and save them somewhere, or even to ask me about them one type at a time. (What’s worse, I’m usually dropping files that are all opened by a single app—say, WAV and M4A files for Ferrite Recording Studio. It can accept them all—I just have to AirDrop them one type at a time.)

Default is in ourselves

I keep mentioning AirDrop, because it’s a wonderful system that I’ve come to use a lot. (I used to transfer large files to my iPad by attaching it to my Mac via USB, but I’ve given that up. AirDrop is fast and reliable enough.) But these kinds of file-related issues surface anywhere that the iPad interacts with files.

apple files app icon Apple

Consider the Files app, the iPadOS equivalent of the macOS Finder. Tapping on a file will generally open it in a Quick Look view. You can share the file from there—or just by tapping and holding in the main file view. What’s missing is the concept of a default owner of a file type.

On the Mac, you can set which app opens a file when you double click on it in Finder by selecting the file, choosing Get Info (Command-I), and choosing an app from a pop-up menu under Open With. Even better, you can click Change All and every file of that type will open by defalt in the app you choose. The Files app offers an Info pane that would be the perfect place for something like this. There’s even a big juicy Open button there. But what happens when you tap Open? In most cases... Quick Look opens. What a letdown.

Ideally, iPadOS would understand the concept of a default app for every file type and honor it everywhere—in AirDrop, for Mail attachments, and in Files. (You could still tap and hold and choose a different app or function, of course.) And Apple’s App Review guidelines ought to be tightened up to enforce that apps only register for the file types that they can actually handle.

(As a bonus request, imagine allowing any file type to be processed by a Shortcut by default! Some really interesting stuff could flow out of that.)

File handling has come a long way on the iPad. But it’s still got miles to go to even reach hailing distance of where the Mac has been for years. Now that Apple has given iPadOS its own name—and an implied commitment to updating the platform on an annual basis—it’s time to fix some of these frustrating inadequacies.

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