Could iOS 5 Reinvent iDisk as iCloud, With New iFS File System? [Speculation]



WWDC next month is likely to provide our first sneak preview of the fifth major release of the iPhone and iPad operating system: iOS 5. But with so many enhancements and additions over the years since its launch in 2007, what could Apple possibly add next? This week’s iCloud revelations suggest it might be file management.

With all the incredible power and versatility of iOS, it seems strange that you can’t add an attachment to an e-mail once you’ve started writing it. You can’t receive files and save them to edit in whichever app you like. And you can’t open a file directly from the home screen without first launching an app. On a Mac, these tasks are easily performed using the trusty Finder (plus the Open and Save dialogue boxes,) while on a PC, it’s the role of Windows Explorer.

iOS, however, is heading in a different direction. Apple appears to have rejected the concept of a user accessible file system in favor of associating data with the apps that handle them. With this in mind, how will Apple solve the file management issues above? The following is just speculation, but it does address this question, while also exploring some other issues that have been echoing around the blogosphere of late: what is Apple’s new data center for? How will Apple make use of NFC? And what are Apple’s plans for their newly acquired iCloud trademark?

1. Opening, copying and moving files from the home screen
The iOS Home Screen already features folders, but these are currently limited to grouping apps. In the mockup above, an app icon has been “opened” as if it was a folder, to reveal the files that are associated with the app. This could be invoked by double-tapping on the app icon, and naturally it would only work with apps that support this feature, such as Notes, Voice Memos, Pages, Numbers and Keynote.

In order to open a file associated with a different app, the user can browse into that app’s directory, so for example, an image file created in one app could then be edited in another app. An edit button allows the user to move files between sub-folders or to delete a file. Tapping on a file launches it, (obviously!)

2. Integrated iCloud remote storage with new iFS file system
Next to each file, an icon appears to indicate whether it is stored on Apple’s cloud storage, “iCloud,” and/or locally on the device. The file system works to make this seamless – all files are presented together. When a new file is created, it is initially saved locally and then synced to iCloud automatically (the user can specify for this to only happen when Wi-Fi is available, to save bandwidth). When a file is only stored on iCloud (for example, because it was created on a different device) the user taps the cloud icon to select for it to be cached locally for offline access. Tapping on a file will open it, regardless of whether it is stored on the iPhone or on the cloud.

iCloud services would also be available to other apps. So for example, the Photos app could browse photos stored locally and on the iCloud, and the app would seamlessly manage caching (eliminating the need for a separate MobileMe Gallery app). The same approach would work for the iPod app, enabling users to access their entire iTunes Library, which has been synced to iCloud, even if only a subset of it is stored locally on their iPhone. This would be similar to apps like Spotify, but working only with your own library.

While basic iCloud services are likely to be free, because they will be so integral to iOS5, music services will probably be paid-for to appease record labels, and may well be bundled with extra photo and video storage capacity in an upgraded version of MobileMe. As part of the new MobileMe, the existing apps on will likely be joined by a web-based iPod app, and an enhanced photos app, enabling the user to browse their entire photo collection, not just selected galleries.

3. My Files extends media browser to support all file types
At present, when you want to insert an image into an iWork app on your iPad, the only option is to browse photos from your iPhoto library. But a real strength of iWork for Mac is the many different media formats that it supports. Not just photos, but other image formats such as PDF vector graphics, transparent PNGs and layered Photoshop PSDs. With a growing number of great image and audio apps for iPad, its more than a little frustrating that you can’t bring the media files into iWork, (or indeed any other apps that could make good use of them).

With the introduction of iFS, Apple and 3rd party app developers could invoke a “My Files” browser within their app, to browse files created by any app on their device. Files could be seamlessly accessed from iCloud or locally. Finally, you’ll be able to add that pesky attachment to an e-mail that you’re halfway through writing. And as with Mac and Windows, app developers can filter this view to only show file formats that their app can handle.

4. Saving files
A really nice feature of iOS is that the user does not need to think about saving files. It just happens. With Lion, Apple will be introducing a similar feature to the Mac. But as great as this approach is, eliminating the Save dialogue box creates some problems. What if you want to specify where your file is created (for example, if you have lots of documents, the flat file structure in Pages My Documents is rather limited. Worse – what if you want to save an attachment from Mail? At present, your options for doing anything interesting with an attachment, like editing it, are extremely limited.

My Files, (described above), could be used within an app to solve this. By default, new files would continue to be auto-saved into the app’s home directory, but a Save As option would enable the user to change the file’s location. And attachments from Mail could be saved into a Downloads folder within the Mail app home directory, or directly into other app directories that support that file type.

5. FileDrop enables seamless filesharing using NFC
Most discussion about Near Field Communication (NFC) in iPhone 5 has focused on payment handling. With Apple boasting one of the worlds largest collection of credit card registered accounts, this certainly has interesting possibilities in the future, but currently, there are few (if any) real world retailers geared up to handle NFC transactions. Apple tends to adopt this kind of technology when it’s ready to go mainstream, and the truth is, NFC payments are very far from mainstream adoption at this stage.

However, there’s another application of NFC that potentially has far more interest to Apple: automated Bluetooth pairing. Apple is always swift to adopt technologies that make things less techie. Perhaps the reason why Apple has been reticent about implementing the full feature-set of Bluetooth in iPhone is because it is such a cumbersome platform, what with enabling discoverability, pairing, pin numbers, etc. NFC does for Bluetooth what DHCP did for the Internet. An invisible technology that makes it “just work”.

The FileDrop feature that Apple has already announced for Mac OS X Lion points the way to how this might work. From the home screen, select the file that you want to share. A list of devices and users in your proximity who can accept the file pops up. The file is then transferred. Simple as that. This solution could work with 3rd party mobile phones that support Bluetooth File Transfer (such as, gulp, Android smartphones), and with Macs running Lion.

….Anyway, that’s my take on this whole iCloud business. What do you guys reckon? As always, please post your thoughts in the comments below.

  • quietstorms

    With the new Downloads button in the latest build of Lion for Safari, it seems that is the best evidence I’ve seen so far of a user-accesible file system for iOS. It seems as if it’s made for the iPad.

    I think these would all be great features but I don’t know how realistic #5 is considering there is no NFC hardware in both the Mac & iOS hardware currently. For now the current features for Airdrop may be enough.

  • HammyHavoc

    Looks pretty awesome.

  • Roby145

    This all seems pretty realistic, but I also believe that they will be adding a full voice system for opening, using apps, etc….

    This is because they bought Siri, the company that made a “personal VOICE assistant” for the iPhone and it does work quite well.

  • madhatter61

    Thank you for the insights. The file system design and handling that all of us are so used to has many conceptual difficulties. Even Microsoft wanted to develop an entirely new scheme during the development of Windows XP (colde name Longhorn). Now with the huge impact that ipad has made the glaring difficulty is data file handling and sharing. My iPad2 and I are getting better acquainted. I am intrigued with Thunderbolt and its addition into all of Apples key computers. I wouldn’t be surprised if iPad2 didn’t have a controller function laying in wait within A5 … that magically appears with iOS5 when the 30 pin to Thunderbolt adapter comes on the scene. The old scheme of data transfer is to copy and paste or stream with read and write to some sort of storage drive. Rather it would be magical if high speed data transfer via Thunderbolt would be direct from computer to computer with backup and sync via (Castle) or iClound in some manner. I got the 64 GB storage for local security which I feel is a key element in preserving data security and recall.

    Looking forward to more insights as they come to light.

  • CharliK

    I think you could be right about this idea of auto backups to the cloud.

    But I think you are dead wrong about a user accessible file system. Apple does NOT want folks mucking around the internals of the phone. This is NOT a computer and Apple is unlikely to ever treat it that way. Or at least not for the foreseeable future (perhaps when things like the ipad actually have enough power to be a computer they might)

    If they change the file system then it will likely be to have a common system where all images, ebooks, PDFs, documents etc are in one spot rather than imbedded in each apps data so that it can only be seen by that app.

    And with luck they will allow for individual app data backing up rather than this all or nothing system. Then say if I have the Wired Mag app on my phone and I decide to remove it for a while I can back up the magazines (which would likely be in some kind of iphoto library like sealed file). ANd then when I go to put the app back on the system would ask “would you like to restore your previous data” and I’m back where I left off. Same with games etc.

  • MarkVT

    not sure i’ll gamble my files in the cloud. steroids

  • nizy

    I think your 2nd point is probably fairly close to the mark. However the others, probably not. I don’t think Apple wants files on the homescreen, it would be messy and horrible. They introduced stacks to OS X to try and get rid of files on the desktop, so I doubt they’ll put them on the iOS homescreen. More likely is a simple built-in app that works much like the finder, which as you suggest in the article would be a central repository for files.

    As for save as, I doubt this too. I think it’s more likely that they create ‘smart’ filters to automatically organise files. This is more in line with the way iOS works. So in pages you see pages docs, in keynote you see keynote docs etc. Apps display only the files they can open. Additionally when in pages and you want to insert media, then it only shows media you can import. I also think the docs app would be similar with filtering and spotlight search used to find files, with maybe some basic structure to it (such as separate tabs for media, downloads etc).

    File drop seems interesting and fairly likely given the way it could work. And your 2nd point sounds very Apple-like in it’s seamless integration. That’s pretty much exactly how I figured they’d do the whole cloud music thing, rather than a separate app. Just seamless integration with the app you already use.

  • madhatter61

    Since I first spotted your short speculation on file systems … your reference to NFC as an auto linking scheme is awesome. The idea of not having to manually deal with the technology is so-Apple like. Do you have any further insights re: Thunderbolt interfacing all the Apple computers offerings?

  • RodChristiansen

    My Files? That sound so Windows….. iFiles my friend.

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  • TylerHoj

    Whatever iOS 5 turns out to be, it better be an entire remaining. iOS is starting to look a bit old and the features released in each update are miniscule. I would be very pleased to see Apple spend an entire year focused on software only.

  • Patrick

    Actually, I think there are a lot of things Apple could update on iOS…

  • d_n

    I just don’t see Apple implementing a file system like that. Even from what you’ve written, it sounds too complicated for the average consumer because it wasn’t there from the start.
    Btw, you’ve got a zero instead of an O in “iOS” in the title

  • grahambower

    Hi d_n – thanks for picking up on the typo – no idea where that zero snuck in!