I Feel Claustrophobic

I have been using the iPad for a few months now1 and the best way to describe the feeling it evokes when I use it to do work is claustrophobic. Every app is its own tiny kingdom where access to data from other apps is sealed off by the operating system. And that’s very claustrophobic.

At this point it is important take a detour and define what I mean by work before moving on. We often hear that device A is good for content consumption and device B is good for content creation. I don’t like that particular dichotomy. It’s flawed. It implies one or the other. I’m not interested in either. I’m interested in getting work done. I’m interested in productivity. That’s it. Both consumption and creation can be used for productivity. Creation is not synonymous with productivity. This distinction often gets lost whilst talking about these issues2. I’m definitely not creating when I’m reading a textbook on a tablet, but I’m certainly being productive.

And this brings us back to the iPad, getting work done, and feeling claustrophobic.

The general consensus is that that a tablet is a great (greatest?) device for content consumption but not particularly great for content creation. This is where the distinction between creation and productivity comes to play. As I mentioned earlier, productivity requires both consumption and creation. The thing is you can do a lot of creation on the iPad. You can make charts. Edit pictures. Edit markup. Write documents. The problem arises when you try to be productive. When you try to get work done. You can’t. Because anything but the simplest of tasks requires a work flow. Most work is not one isolated task. It’s a set of interconnected tasks. It requires taking an output (“creation”) from one task and using it to start a different task. And the iPad is absolutely, unforgivably terrible at maintaining work flow. This is the point where folks declare, “a tablet isn’t for content creation”3, but what they really mean is you aren’t be as productive as you ought to be. Here’s the thing though: it’s not a tablet limitation. It’s an iPad limitation. Well, an iOS limitation. It’s the lack of a file system.

The iPad’s greatest failure is the lack of a file system4. Ever since its inception, numerous articles have been written about iOS’s approach to data storage compared to traditional paradigms. The topic was recently revived in the blogosphere when Ole Begemann quoted Jobs from 2005:

“Now, e-mail, there’s always been a better way to find stuff. You don’t keep your e-mail on your file system, right? The app manages it. And that was the breakthrough, as an example, in iTunes. You don’t keep your music in the file system, that would be crazy. You keep it in this app that knows about music and knows how to find things in lots of different ways. Same with photos: we’ve got an app that knows all about photos. And these apps manage their own file storage… And eventually, the file system management is just gonna be an app for pros and consumers aren’t gonna need to use it.”

The key thing is that this is pretty much how data storage is implemented in iOS: in a walled, per-app basis. Jobs liked his silos. But silos are disastrous for getting work done. Every piece of datum in its own app-shaped prison. Thus the claustrophobia. A lot of folks chimed in with their thoughts on the Jobs quote. There are couple that stand out to me. The first one is from Dave Winer:

“…there’s no reason the same browser shouldn’t be used for all types of data. It does not have to be a “wall.” All your stuff ends up inter-relating anyway. Do you use the emailer to send music files? Yes of course….”

The second one by Peter Kelley in a hacker news thread:

“With the current iOS model, content is organised by the app that created it, not by the project it’s related to. So if you’re doing work for multiple clients, or collaborating on different internal projects, all of your content is spread out between different apps, and there’s no easy way to gather it all together for the purposes of sharing, archiving, or backup…

…I agree that the way in which the filesystem is exposed to users on desktop OSs can be confusing, but I really think they need to find a way to allow people to organise their files better. Dropbox has essentially become the filesystem for iOS - it’s a way around the limitations, and a lot of apps use it.”

Even though I’m stating the problems in term of impediment to work flow and productivity, Dave Winer and Peter Kelly describe the same problem from different perspectives. And that’s the source of my claustrophobia: All my creations (data modified or made by an iPad app) are trapped in their walled apps unable to communicate with any other app. I can create just fine thank you very much. I just can’t get work done. There is no default way to share the same piece of datum between apps on the same device. If there is no easy way to share data, the work flow stops, and productivity stops. Creation doesn’t stop. Productivity stops. The beautiful presentation that wasn’t beautiful because I couldn’t access a video rendering made in another program. The PDF that I had copied to Documents To Go that needed to be annotated but wasn’t because I couldn’t open it in GoodReader. The list can go on. In its little isolated app, I can create (or modify) as Jobs designed. But I can’t have a work flow. Again, I can create. But I can’t be productive.

At this point, people will point out my fallacy. “My programs can communicate with each other. I can use Dropbox, GDrive, iCloud to get my work done just fine.” But that’s just the thing — when you have to go through a third party to just get two applications to talk to each other your system is broken. It just doesn’t work.

The reality is most apps do implement support for these syncing platforms. That doesn’t mean the iPad is magical and it just works. It means that software developers were able to find a fix for iOS’s broken storage system. But this is also the reason the iPad isn’t lauded as a great device for productivity (not creation). People have to go through a minimum of two third-parties (the ISP and the cloud storage provider) to access the identical piece of datum on two different apps in the same device. And that’s just too big a barrier for a fast work flow. Small files, usually text heavy files, are easy to sync via the cloud. At best each file is a few megabytes. But as soon as the files start getting large, it just slows down the work flow too much to get work done. You need to edit and include a large object (video, image, etc.) into a presentation? You’ll need a program to edit the file, and another to embed it. It will take too much time to go through the cloud and sync changes. Better switch to a computer and get stuff done.

That’s the whole problem. All my creations are locked away behind some app, unable to be opened or modified by another app. The easiest way to appease that claustrophobia is to switch to a computer. But that’s the thing. If the iPad didn’t have this particular storage paradigm, it would be much more useful for productivity that requires creation as part of the work flow5. I don’t believe it’s a tablet problem. I think it’s an iPad problem. Can it be fixed? I think so.

Obviously, the easiest way to fix this problem is to just expose the user to the traditional file system. But we know that Jobs (and presumably, post-Jobs Apple) was not a fan of the traditional file system. So we can assume this solution won’t be implemented. We also know the current paradigm is designed with the idea that an app should handle only the data it has context for: the Music app handles music, Photos handles images, and so on. Really, the best compromise at this stage would be to create a context based abstraction layer. Something like the following:

File System

Instead of a per-app based storage paradigm, there should be a per-context or per-data type storage pool. If two apps need access to the same data type, both of them should have permission to that particular storage pool. A different app that deals with a different data types will have access to a different storage pool. This is just one compromise that hides away most of the complexities of the file system but allows folks to be productive; an improvement over the current paradigm that hides away complexity at the cost of productivity.

Apple needs to fix this problem soon. Android tablets might be struggling but if Windows 8 catches on, consumers might realize that tablets can be used for “content-creation” driven productivity. All they needed was a bit more room to breathe. ♦️


  1. It’s my first tablet. I’m coming off the Android ecosystem. I use Windows 7 and Ubuntu 11.04. Windows/ Linux desktops and Apple devices don’t mesh well to begin with, but that’s another problem for another day (No, I’m not interested in switching to a Mac ecosystem). Also, as I have no particular plans to review the new iPad which has reviewed from every nook and cranny of the world, I’ll just say this: the screen is gorgeous (every mobile device needs that kind of resolution). I love the four-fingered navigation. The standby time is amazing. As for productivity, it’s great for reading. And reading related activities. But that’s it. 

  2. This is not something new. Khoi Vinh mentioned this distinction in a post last August: “The area that’s most interesting to me is how the iPad has seemed to force a distinction between consumption and creation. It’s true that it’s very difficult to be productive on the iPad in the same way that it’s possible to be productive on a desktop or a laptop, but I also think most people have misunderstood this to mean that creation is impossible on this platform. I don’t believe that’s true”. I will reiterate this theme throughout my post because we hear about consumption and creation a lot, but the distinction with productivity gets lost somewhere in the discussion. 

  3. I think this post by Shawn Blanc serves me well here: “Yes I got the memo that the iPad is for creating and not just consuming, but in real life I mostly consume.” I think his post succinctly summarizes the problem: folks know that the iPad can be used for content creation, but the entire work flow isn’t productive enough, so they default to what it excels at: consuming content (my apologies to Shawn Blanc for using that phrase). 

  4. I suppose the pedantic amongst you will say it does have a file system. It’s just hidden behind a per-app basis storage system. Fair enough. Let’s say, for the purpose of this post, by file system, I mean the traditional *nix or Windows file system, where any application can mostly access any data on the said file system. 

  5. Three spillover effects of this: Firstly, most folks use their iPads for “consumption-driven” productivity or activities (reading, watching TV, etc.). I might have made that word up. Secondly, there are a lot of applications that choose to sync with the cloud instead of the desktop, or upload the output (“creation”) straight to the cloud. Some would argue this is an intentional push to a post-PC era. I think it’s just a consequence of a walled storage system; the easiest way to share data is through the cloud as an intermediary. Thirdly, Dropbox should have been “a feature, not a product”. But the iPad’s success and the lack of an open standard for syncing different platforms through the cloud made it into a product.