iOS lacks a document transfer system, as well

This is a follow-up of sorts to iOS lacks a document filing system, though it stands very well on its own.

I’ve never bought into the Free Software movement premise that, if only for all software we used we had the freedom to get its source code, the freedom to modify it as much as wanted, and the freedom to redistribute the modified version, then all would be good as we would be safe from investing in some system, then getting stuck with the vendor not providing the updates or bug fixes we want, without any recourse. I mean, this premise may be true, but in practice, while not always taken to these extremes this encourages software which is user-hostile and governed by the worst kind of meritocracies, so I am deeply skeptical the tradeoff is worth it for user-facing software.

However, I care a lot about a related matter, which is the transferability of documents (rather than source code). I consider it a fundamental freedom of the computer user that he be able to take the data he created out of the application he created it with, so that he may be able to use it with another application. This involves a number of things, in particular it’s better if the format is as simple as possible for the purpose, it’s better if it is documented, it’s better if the format has a clear steward for future evolutions, better yet if that steward is a standards body or consortium1. But the most important capability the user needs to have is the ability to take the raw file out of the application that created it. It is necessary, none of the other capabilities make any sense without it, and even in the worst case (undocumented, overcomplicated format) it is often sufficient given enough developer effort, especially if the aim is to extract an important part of the data (e.g. text without the formatting). This is the freedom zero of user data. Plus, if the user has this last resort ability, the app will tend to make sure it is at least not too complicated to do so, so as to improve the experience.

But on iOS, the user may not have even that. An app is entirely free to never allow export of user data (and thanks to the sandbox, other apps are not even allowed to get at the internal storage as a last resort). Or it could only allow export of, say, the flattened image, while the working document with layers remains detained by the creating app. On the Mac, on the other hand, not only can the user get at the underlying storage, but if an app wants to allow its documents to be moved in space (to another machine), then it necessarily has to save them in files and therefore allow them to be moved to another universe (another app). Meanwhile, on iOS iCloud document storage actually makes the situation worse, because now an app can allow its documents to be moved in local space (another of the user’s devices) without exposing itself to having the documents moved to outer space (a device belonging to someone else) or to another universe.

The sandbox is bad enough already for document transferability; in order to compensate what Apple should have done from the moment the iPad was available is have a real system for an app to offer one of its documents for sharing, the system would then handle making an email out of it, offering it to another app, or putting it on iCloud, etc.; then Apple should have strongly recommended this system be used in place of any ad-hoc document sharing (e.g. the app manually creating an email with a document attached). You might say this is precisely the kind of generic cover-all solution Apple is trying to get rid of, but I never said it would have to be a user-visible system. Rather, there would be specific ways for the user to initiate the various transfers; then in order to get the document out of the app, the system would call a callback on the app for it to give the document file path, without indicating what the system would be about to do with the document. And the kicker: iCloud would exclusively rely on this callback for documents to be provided to it, without any other way for the app to take advantage of iCloud document storage. So to have the “iCloud” feature, the app would have to (truthfully) implement this callback, and therefore would have no choice but to also allow its documents to be shared or transferred in this case.

Ownership of your creations is one advantage native apps have and that Apple could play over web apps (where the situation is so appalling it’s not even funny), but Apple hasn’t made a good job in this area so far. I hope it will change, because it will only matter more and more going forward.

  1. The two (Free Software and Free Data) are not entirely unrelated, though they are not as related as open source advocates would like you to think: source code is often a poor documentation for the file format; conversely, some of the best formats by these criteria, such as the MPEG4 container format or PostScript, have come from the closed-source world.