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SW engineering, engineering management and the business of software

2013 08 06

Filesystems are for work and Dropbox is the de facto iOS Filesystem

Many people are getting work done with iOS.

One thing that most have in common is the reliance on Dropbox as part of their workflow. The big difference between work and casual computing use is that people pay humans to accomplish a task. More often than not, these tasks involve multiple tools. Any time multiple tools are required, you need some kind of staging area, where intermediate results can be persisted, organized and routed to the correct tool.

Traditional PCs have always used the desktop and its underlying filesystem for this task. The simplicity and flexibility of a hierarchical folders & files system has worked well enough for many people, even though it does assume a bit of computer literacy.

If it’s not yet obvious, iOS has no such built-in staging area. Users informally rely on an awkward replacement in email. It’s like trying to draw while wearing rubber gloves filled with Jello. People who get work done rely on Dropbox. The rapid adoption of the Dropbox API across many 3rd party apps is further testimony to its importance.

There are many reasons to abandon the File & Folders system as we know it. The reliance on computer literacy it requires places an artificial limit on your available market. Theoretically, you could reduce the conceptual burden with some kind of interface which is heavily reliant on metadata or a search & tag based approach akin to gmail.

However, Apple’s replacement for the filesystem in iOS is iCloud, which solves the persistance requirement, but not the organization or routing requirement. iCloud is a fundamentally inappropriate architecture for getting work done with multiple tools. Vertical data silos per app (or per vendor) are no where near flexible enough to solve the infinitely varied requirements of the job market.

Apple has some other data specific silos, like the contacts API and the photo library, but these don’t solve the organization problem. If I need documents organized by client which includes a mix of outlines, photos, text, contact vCards, code and layout files, then my only reasonable solutions are Dropbox or stabbing my eyes with a spork.

Steve Jobs famously called Dropbox “just a feature”. While hard drives in the sky aren’t the only way to solve the organization and routing issues, they are issues need to be solved or Apple will find itself beholden to a 3rd party for a fairly critical piece of the computing mindshare: “Getting Work Done”.

Apple should be thinking about the organization and routing of documents and data. For many people, Dropbox is already the de facto filesystem on iOS. If “many” becomes “majority”, then Apple has a big problem.

you may also be interested in some of the greatest hits of

〜 You Should Foster a Culture of Readability

〜 The Customer's Semi-Lucid Trance State

〜 ARC Best Practices

〜 Weighted Credit Pools for API Rate Limiting

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