Forget the File System

Jean-Louis Gassée recently wrote a Monday Note column on iOS and its lack of an exposed file system. While he provided convincing examples that demonstrate iOS’s current shortcomings, he mistook the lack of an exposed file system on iOS to be the fundamental cause of these shortcomings. I disagree. The lack of an exposed file system is only a symptom. Once we get to the fundamental problem, the focus on file system will turn out to be rather misdirected.

Let’s start at the beginning. Gassee’s best example concerns the limitations of Keynote, Apple’s own presentation maker:

There was a very basic demonstration of Keynote, iPad’s presentation app, plus the testimony of a happy customer who described the usefulness of the iPad in sales situations. All quite pleasant, but the Q&A session that followed was brutal and embarrassing: How do you compose real-world, mixed-document presentation? No real answer. Why can’t the iPad access all the documents — not just iWork files — that I dropped into iCloud from my Mac? No answer there, either.

In this case, the lack of an exposed file system is certainly a problem. But it’s not the problem. The problem is that the user cannot do what she wants to do. She can’t undertake her familiar workflow for putting together a presentation on iOS. The problem is that she cannot accomplish her task of putting together her presentation project.

Unfortunately, Gassee misdiagnosed the underlying conflict that the Keynote example reveals as ordinary users vs. power users:

[...] Apple could transform the iPad so that power users can see and combine data in ways that are impossible today. This could attract business customers who are hesitant about making the plunge into the world of tablets, or who may be considering alternatives such as Microsoft’s PC/tablet combo or Android devices with Google services.

The easiest decision is no decision. Let’s have two user interfaces, two modes: The Easy mode for my Mother-In-Law, and the Pro Mode for engineers, McKinsey consultants, and investment bankers.

That’s not right. Look at the Keynote example again. People who use Keynote don’t exactly fit under the standard definition of power users. If it helps, think of the lovely administrative assistants who put together flyers and posters using Keynote or other presentation tools. Even they want to insert their own illustrations on the flyers and posters. The Keynote example highlights a problem for them too. The frustration that the Keynote example points to is shared by ordinary users too.

The real conflict, as I’ve argued before, is between two workflows — environmentally-oriented vs. project-oriented — both of which are undertaken by nearly all users regularly. The real problem with iOS, as it currently stands, is that it simply prohibits the project-oriented workflow: it forces users to always think in terms of the tool to be used, not the task to be done. In this respect, the real problem is in a sense much less techie: sometimes we need lots of tools to get a task done. The lack of an exposed file system is only a symptom for the fact that we can’t wield multiple tools at once on iOS.

Once we recognize the real problem, it is also clear that Gassee’s proposed solution won’t work. You can’t just layer an interface for power users on top of the interface for ordinary users. You need to accommodate two distinct workflows that are undertaken by both ordinary and power users on a regular basis. iOS needs a revolution, not a mere evolution.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

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One thought on “Forget the File System

  1. I agree with your assessment of the problem. But the answer is to use a laptop or desktop not to change the iPad. That’s because iPad’s are mostly for consumption not creation. iPads make basic computing accessible to a mass market.

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