What’s the point of drag and drop on the iPad?

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Even the Magic Mouse combines touch, drag and drop better than the iPad.
Even the Magic Mouse combines touch, drag and drop better than the iPad.
Photo: Harpal Singh/Unsplash

The iPad added drag and drop in iOS 11. We’re now on the third version of iOS to support this potentially super-useful feature, and yet it still doesn’t work. Third-party app support remains spotty and inconsistent. And, worse, drag and drop doesn’t work properly even in some of Apple’s own apps.

What’s going on?

Perfect on the Mac

Drag and drop is a fundamental function on the Mac (and any other mouse-based desktop computer OS). Once you learn it, it’s easy — click and hold on an icon, a snippet of text, a window, anything, and then drag it to a new destination. Simple. And yet, on the iPad, it’s far from simple. In fact, most of the time it doesn’t work. Or — even more annoying — it doesn’t work like you’d expect.

In-app drag and drop on iPad

In-app drag and drop is the most basic version of drag and drop. It even works in some iPhone apps. In-app drag and drop depends almost entirely on what the app-maker implemented. That means it obeys the devs’ own rules, which must be learned to use the feature properly.

In Cultured Code’s otherwise excellent Things app, for instance, you will encounter some crazy inconsistencies. You can drag and drop pretty much anything, but you cannot scroll a view while dragging. For example, say you want to drag a task from your inbox to a project in the sidebar. You start dragging the task, but then you see that the project is farther down the sidebar list, and is off the screen. While still dragging, you swipe the list to bring the project into view, but nothing happens. You have to drop the task and start over.

Worse than this is Apple’s own Files app. In recent months, drag and drop has been very glitchy for me. I’d say that around 80% of the time, I can’t drag a file. I’ve narrowed it down to the File Providers. You know the section in the Files sidebar where Dropbox and other apps add their own storage spaces? Nothing in any of those silos can be dragged and dropped on my iPad. Only items in iCloud Drive or on my iPad can be dragged.

Inter-app drags

Adobe just updated Lightroom to work in split-screen mode, so you can now have it sharing the screen with other apps. But why? I put Lightroom side-by-side with the Photos app, and tried to drag in some photos. It doesn’t work. What about dragging images from Lightroom to the Photos app? Nope. Or to the Files app? Still no. And so, what’s the point of split screen? Dragging photos into Lightroom from a connected SD card, or from the Photos app, seems like a natural, even essential feature, and yet it doesn’t work.

I also try out a lot of music apps. These, too, would benefit from drag and drop. On the Mac, you open up Ableton Live or GarageBand, and just drag in music clips and loops from the Finder or other apps. It just works, and it always works.

On iOS, it all depends on the app. And — surprise — even GarageBand doesn’t do it properly. I swear I’ve dragged clips from the Files app, and into GarageBand’s timeline before, but I can no longer make it work1. It could be that I’m missing something, some trick or setting, but that’s not how good user interfaces work. They need to be obvious, consistent and to do what a user has learned to expect.

Inconsistency in iOS

It’s the inconsistency that makes drag and drop useless on iOS and iPadOS. Instead of being a fundamental, consistent way to move files and folders between apps, it’s a novelty. If it works, that’s nice. But, just like Siri, many people will try it once or twice, and then give up. I’m a heavy iPad user, and even I have given up on drag and drop in most cases. The alternative is to use copy and paste, but even that doesn’t work a lot of the time: Some apps that accept dropped files have no way to trigger a paste action.

It’s such a shame, because when it does work, drag and drop is as great on iOS as it is on the Mac. Put the Notes app next to Safari, and drag in links, photos and snippets of text. It’s fast and easy. And yet it makes me wonder why it can’t work everywhere. And then I remember, it does work everywhere. If you’re on a Mac.

  1. I know that you have to set the length of a section to “Automatic” to enable drag and drop of clips, but even that doesn’t work for me now.