Sometimes it seems that the more mobile I am, the less mobile my documents become! Let me explain.
When I work at home, I occasionally use my desktop computers but write most of my documents on a Netbook. When I commute to work via the train, I use my iPad. Once I get to work, I spend the rest of the day on a desktop computer. Consequently, the documents I create reside on a number of devices, few of which play nicely with the others. I quickly realized that I needed an easy way to transfer files between these computers.
The solution for me was "the cloud." Google Docs, iDisk, and other cloud-based services let you store any file you’re working on to an online storage area. You can keep a single version of the document in the cloud and download it to any computer—even the iPad. From there you can read it, edit it, and save it back to the cloud.
There are a number of iOS apps that take advantage of these services, but before we talk about them, let's take a quick look at a few of the more popular online cloud storage services.
The online file storage services
Google Docs (docs.google.com) is probably the oldest and most popular online storage options. It allows you to create, edit, and store word processing documents and spreadsheets. Unfortunately, its usefulness is hampered somewhat by its lack of versatility. Unlike some other options, Google Docs is really an online document creation system. While you can create and edit documents online, in Google Docs, you cannot conveniently download Google documents to your computer and work on them with other document apps.
Unlike Google Docs, Box.net (box.net), Dropbox (dropbox.com), SugarSync (sugarsync.com), Microsoft's Skydrive (explore.live.com/windows-live-skydrive), and iDisk (apple.com/mobileme) all allow you to upload files in any number of formats. You can view these files from a variety of programs on any computer, though many require you to download the file to your computer in order to edit. A few of these services also offer free iPad and iPhone apps, which allow you to view the files stored in your online account directly from the iPad. (For example, Box.net, app2.me/3107; Dropbox, app2.me/127; SugarSync, app2.me/3108)
With the exception of Apple’s iDisk ($99 per year), all of these services are free (though most let you pay extra for additional storage). As such, there is nothing stopping you from creating free accounts on any or all of them to test them out and determine which services work best for you.
Third-party apps that use these services
A variety of iOS apps are available to help you take advantage of these services. Some let you view and transfer files, others actually let you edit documents.
Memeo Connect Reader
Both of these apps allow you to access your Google Docs account directly from your iPad. GoDocs features a more traditional list interface to display the documents stored in your account. Memeo Connect displays separate folders for each file type, which gives you a more organized experience. Both apps let you download selected files and view them from within the app. However, if you want to edit them you have to open the downloaded documents with another app.
Office2 HD not only lets you access your online documents, it's a full word processing app that lets you view and edit a wide variety of formats. It can connect with Mobileme, Google Docs, Drop Box, Box.net, and several others services, ensuring that no matter where that important file is stored, you'll always be able to access it. Unfortunately, Office2 HD does not allow you to sync any changes you've made to a document back to your online storage, you can only save locally.
This extremely versatile app lets you access, read, and transfer files. Like GoDocs and Memeo Connect, you cannot edit your documents from within this app. However, Superfiles allows you to access apps in a wide variety of locations, including Google Docs, Flickr, Dropbox, and iDisk. It even lets you access FTP sites. Once downloaded, you can choose to view the document, e-mail it, or open and edit it within any word processing app on your iPad. Finally, you can upload any changed document to your iDisk, Dropbox, or FTP account (but unfortunately, not to Google Docs). With the exception of editing documents, there is virtually nothing this app cannot do. It is the ultimate cloud sync app.
Like Superfiles, iFiles allows you to log into a myriad of online accounts and view your stored files. You can access Google docs, Box.net, Flickr, Dropbox, Mobile Me, Facebook, others. Once downloaded, you can view the files, e-mail them, or open them with another editor app. The intuitive interface made it somewhat easier to use than Superfiles, but I was disappointed that, unlike Superfiles, you cannot sync edited documents back to your file storage service from within the app.
What really impressed me about this one is that it not only lets you access the usual suspects (Google Docs, Box.net, iDisk/MobileMe, and Dropbox), it also lets you access a wide variety of other storage services. You can also access RackSpace and Gmail, and this is the only app that will let you access Microsoft's Live Mesh or SkyDrive. Unfortunately, the default account that goes with this app will only let you access one online account at a time. You can upgrade to access multiple accounts, but that can be a bit expensive.
Quickoffice Connect Mobile Suite
Of the apps I tested for this article, Quickoffice offers the most complete solution for managing and editing your online documents. Online access is limited to Google Docs, Dropbox, Box.net, and MobileMe, but the vast majority of our readers probably use one of those services. Quickoffice includes powerful word processing and spreadsheet editing features, allowing you to edit document from within the app. Once you finish editing a document, just tap Save and you’re given the option of saving the document to any of your connected online services. It is the only app which allows you to access, edit, and re-sync your word processing and spreadsheet documents to your online accounts, and it makes the process very easy.
While I was impressed by the variety of apps available, I was also disappointed by the fact that most of these do nothing more than display the document. In most cases, when I store a document online, I want to be able to access and edit it on the go. And with the apps that do let you edit documents, I want to be able to re-sync it with my online storage. It is true that you can use one app to access the file and another to edit it, but that is a more convoluted (and expensive) process. Only Quickoffice Connect lets you do both in one app.
Online file storage is fantastic because it lets you access your documents from virtually anywhere. But to be truly useful to the mobile user, you have to be able to work with the documents and save changes online. It appears there’s still a ways to go before these apps catch up with our mobile lifestyle.