File system? What file system?!

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One of the major differences between iOS and pretty much any other OS (mobile or otherwise) is the way it handles the file system. While it does have one, it’s hidden from the user in order to make the device easier to use. Question is whether that’s a good thing.

The entire tech industry is based around the concept of a file system and access to it. The common consumer’s main interacting with these are in Windows or Mac, where you create folders within folders and get dozens of layers all the way down to the root directory of the storage device partition. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s spent quite a bit time browsing C:Documents and SettingsUsersMynameMy Documents just to find that bloody document file I just created, and while this is second nature to many people it is actually extremely confusing to a lot of people as well. Especially people with limited computer knowledge who can barely get documents saved, let alone find them afterwards by starting in the root directory. Different partitions, shortcuts, duplicate folders etc make it even more confusing and it makes the whole computer experience quite messy when you think of it.

This is why Apple simply skipped the user end of the file system when they made iOS. It still has a file system, we simply don’t see it. If you save a document in Pages, it is saved in a folder you have no idea where is and don’t really need to know either; when you go to find it later, it will still be accessible from the app. To transfer files to and from a computer, you connect to iTunes, click the app you want the file in, and drop it into its file window. You don’t need to know that you transferred the file to root/microSD/Documents/, you simply need to know you dropped the damned thing into the app you intend to use it with.

If that app isn’t the right on, or you need to use the same file with several apps, there is the “open in…” feature that lets you transfer files between apps without having to deal with saving and opening. If you want to get a PDF file from smartNote to iBooks, you simply open the file in smartNote and select “open with…” -> iBooks. Ironically this is a feature that you won’t find on a full desktop OS like Windows, and you’re left with having to save the file and then either find it using the “Open” option from the other app (which requires you to start up the app first) or find it using the file browser and open it from there.

Both approaches has advantages and disadvantages. The advantages of iOS’ system is that it’s easy, has a much smaller learning curve, and when it comes to moving documents between apps: so much faster that it’s not even funny. The disadvantages include less control over what’s really going on, no support for external memory (in the traditional sense), duplicate files (if the file is used with several apps) and less flexibility in organizing your files.

Personally I prefer an accessible file system on my computer, but a hidden one on my tablet and phone. My computer is like the mothership of my tech life, so I want to be able to control all aspects of it. That does mean I get annoyed at times when programs make their own folders all over the place and don’t clean up after themselves, as well as the random urge to throw my computer out the window when I’m working with several programs and find myself with 5 Windows Explorer windows open. However since these are the master copies of my files, I want to have full control over them and not associate them with specific apps. That also allows me to run software to back of everything in a folder (and its subfolders), backing up different file types (used in different programs) all at once. In my NBT folder I have things like article photos, PDF files of logos, backup of HTML code, article drafts etc-it’s all related to NBT, so I want to sort them the way I want and not have the photos with Photoshop etc.

On the iPad though I don’t need that sort of master archive of everything. I work with files one by one and then send them off wherever they’re going, I don’t archive them for good on the thing. Since that is the case, I can honestly say I don’t miss any aspect of a user accessible file system. I just need to work with files that are works in progress, and then they eventually end up in archives on my computer anyways so they just need a place to stay while I work on them. For that purpose, storing them in the apps where I use them is a perfect solution for me. On my computer I use the desktop for storing those sorts of files, and the result is a cluttered desktop with 15 folders called “New Folder (X)”. The “open in” feature also helps prevent this on the iPad, as files are moved directly from one app to the other without creating a mess in between. Create a file in Save2PDF, select “open in” and 2 seconds later it’s in iBooks. It then belongs to that app, instead of living out its remaining days in New Folder (189).

This “easy mode” for handling is fine for me, as long as I can go home to my computer at the end of the day and put the finished files where they belong in a proper file system. Any PDFs I create that I consider finished are archived in iBooks, then when I sync the ipad with my computer it’s copied automatically to the “books” folder within the iTunes folder and from there automatically backup up to the web. Photos and documents are also transferred to the computer when I’m finished with them on the tablet side, normally with Dropbox which is also automatically backed up. By using such a system I can enjoy the benefits of a cleaner file interface when working with files on the iPad, yet still have the flexibility of a messy old folder based system to organize files in their final resting place. If I only used one device it would be different, but for me personally I am perfectly happy with not seeing what goes on behind the surface of the iPad. I don’t need to see the pluming to pour myself a glass of water, as long as I can access it when it needs maintenance.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.

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