Top 3 Mobile Apps for Solving iPad's Filing Problem

One drawback with the iPad as a business tool is its idiosyncratic, sometimes cumbersome handling of user data. But as with most iPad shortcomings, third-party apps can go at least some way to mitigating them.

We look at three such products here that make it easier to view, organize and share files on the iPad and transfer them to and from the device: Dropbox for iPad, FileBrowser from Stratospherix and QuickOffice Connect Mobile Suite for iPad from QuickOffice.

Part of the problem with iPad is that, unlike conventional computers, it lacks a central repository for user data - the equivalent of Explorer in Windows or Finder on the Mac.

Data is stored instead inside each application. When you open an app, you may immediately see the files associated with it, or be able to display a list of files. But you cannot see all files on the iPad in one place.

The only overview of user data on the device and the only way to transfer files to and from it using native capabilities is in iTunes, the Apple tool originally designed for syncing music to an iPod and buying songs online.

For non-iPhone/iPod users, especially Windows users, iTunes feels awkward and slow, mainly because it is. Another serious drawback: you can only use it to transfer files over a USB connection -- iTunes can't use built-in Wi-Fi or 3G connectivity to link to a local computer.

There is no easy solution to the no-central-repository problem. All of the products here work around it by assuming you will in fact store user data elsewhere - either on a local or Web server -- and connect to it or sync with it over a local or wide area network.

This makes sense, though, given that no one is likely to use the iPad as his only computing device and most data will need to be stored somewhere else as well as on the iPad anyway.

Dropbox

Dropbox is one of a few cloud-based file synchronization services that neatly solves some of the iPad's file handling problems. Box.net and SugarSync offer similar services.

Dropbox is a subscription service ($10 to $20 a month) that provides online storage (up to 100GB) and also manages file synchronization among all your devices -- laptop, desktop, iPhone, iPad. It's also available for free with limited (2GB) capacity.

Using free downloadable client software (available for several platforms), you create a sync folder on each device to hold important files you want to be available locally on all.

The software periodically uploads files you put in the sync folder to a mirror folder at the Dropbox site. It also downloads any new or modified files that have been uploaded from other devices linked to the same Dropbox. So the set of files on each device should always be the same.

The iPad Dropbox app manages this process and also, crucially, provides a file viewer. You see an alphabetical list of all the files in your Dropbox folder. Tapping files in supported formats -- including PDF, Word .doc, JPEG image and some video formats -- opens them in the viewer window.

Dropbox also knows if there are apps on the iPad that can work with this file. You could preview a Word file in Dropbox to make sure it's the one you want, then choose Pages from the drop-down Open In… menu to open it in Apple's iWork word processor. Pages launches and automatically imports and displays the file.

It's a fair approximation of the process of selecting a file from Windows Explorer and having it open in the associated application.

One general problem with Dropbox is that if you designate an existing folder on your computer such as My Documents to be your Dropbox synch folder, Dropbox will sync everything in it, including stuff you don't want. If you create a special sync folder, you have to remember to transfer the important stuff to it to maintain a comprehensive, up-to-date repository on your iPad.

The solution I found: a very good free open source backup tool, Cobian Backup 9, which automatically, several times a day, copies .doc, .docx, .pdf and other specified files from my My Documents folder to the Dropbox sync folder on the same hard drive.

QuickOffice Connect

QuickOffice Connect ($9.99) takes this paradigm a couple of steps further by letting you access any of four different online file repositories from a single console, and by giving you rudimentary file editing, as well as viewing, capabilities.

QuickOffice supports MobileMe (Apple), Dropbox and Box.net online file storage and sharing service, and Google Docs. If you have files stored in multiple places online -- and more and more Web-centric users do -- you can access them all from QuickOffice Connect.

You add data repositories by tapping the + button at the bottom left of the home window, which pops up a list of supported services. Choose the one you want, enter your login information and an icon for it appears in the list in the left-hand panel of the home window.

When you click the icon for a repository, QuickOffice automatically logs you in over the Internet and displays a list of files and folders.

The viewer is compatible with Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint file formats. It can also display PDF, iWork and HTML files, image files in PNG, JPG, GIF, SVG and GIF format, and play MP3s.

QuickOffice on the iPad lets you edit Microsoft Word and Excel files -- albeit in limited fashion. You can cut, copy and paste text or fields, change fonts, font styles and sizes and select paragraph justification (left, right, centered) and indentation. A full-featured word processor this is not, but it may be sufficient for many purposes on an iPad.

FileBrowser

I've saved the best, arguably, for last. FileBrowser, just $2.99, overcomes all of the shortcomings of iTunes as a file transfer mechanism, including the big one that you can't use iTunes to transfer files over Wi-Fi.

FileBrowser lets you connect to a computer - either over a local Wi-Fi network or through a VPN over the public Internet -- and access and import files from any folder for which you have permissions.

iPad and Windows 7 come with everything you need to set up a VPN connection. I had little difficulty setting up a link from iPad to PC using the detailed instructions at the Stratsopherix site.

FileBrowser shares functionality with both QuickOffice Connect and Dropbox. You can preview a file in one of the several formats the program supports -- text, PDF, iWork, RTF, Word, Excel, Powerpoint, JPG, BMP, GIF, PNG, TIF, HTML, etc. - by tapping its name in the Explorer-like file list.

Tapping the right arrow beside a file name pops up a menu that offers options to preview, rename, delete, email as a file attachment, copy to the local folder (i.e. on the iPad.) or open in a compatible iPad application -- such as the iWork apps where you could edit compatible files. (FileBrowser itself doesn't have editing capabilities.)

One really cool feature: you can stream media files from a hard drive to the iPad over the network (local or wide area). This is a feature of more interest to consumers perhaps, but could come in handy if you were sitting in a boardroom and wanted to show a client a video that wasn't on your iPad.

Do third-party apps such as these transform the iPad into an ideal business tool? Not by a long shot But they can help overcome some of the inherent problems with the platform.

In this case, note, however, that overcoming the problems may also require a paradigm shift either to cloud computing (Dropbox, QuickOffice), or a kind of desktop (handtop?) virtualization in which files are stored centrally but viewed and edited locally.

TAGS:

iPad, iPad apps, Apple, mobile apps, mobile computing

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