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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Dan Moren

Wish List: Preview for iOS

I spend a fair amount of time with PDFs, so upon noting last week that iOS 9 would have the widespread ability to save to PDF, I mentioned that it’d be great if iOS also had better support for working with and marking up PDFs.

Some folks pointed out that Mail in iOS 9 features the same Markup tools that OS X added in Yosemite, and while that’s great, what iOS really needs is a full-fledged app for PDFs. Preferably one that isn’t named iBooks.

Markup
Yosemite Mail’s PDF Markup tool

iBooks’s PDF support has always been kind of lackluster, so in the past I’ve turned to GoodReader and PDF Expert for my PDF needs. Both those apps are solid at what they do, but given how big a push Apple has made for productivity in iOS 9—particularly on the iPad—the absence of built-in PDF capabilities is conspicuous.

On the Mac side, Preview has been an integral part of the platform since the launch of OS X1. It’s gotten more and more capable over the years, adding annotation, form-filling, and even image editing features. But strangely, it’s never made the jump to iOS.

Not that there haven’t been rumors. Last year, 9to5Mac said a Preview app would appear in iOS 8, alongside a TextEdit app. As you can yourself confirm by checking your home screen, neither of those came to pass.2

iBooks
iBooks on iOS doesn’t even let you fill out forms.

As for iBooks’s weak PDF support, I would hardly say that the app is unjustly maligned. While it supports searching and bookmarking, there’s no annotation, no highlighting, and no form-filling.

iBooks is also a pain in the neck when it comes to file management; since its primary gig is as the repository for ebooks purchased from the iTunes Store, it lives in the same silo as your music, TV shows, and videos. Only PDFs aren’t themselves purchased media, so they get treated like second-class citizens. Unlike your ebooks, the only way to sync PDFs between your Macs and iOS device is via iTunes.3 Want to just sync PDFs between multiple iOS devices? Good luck. The only share options for a PDF in iBooks on iOS are email and printing, so once you have a PDF in there, you can’t even get it into a third-party app without some perambulations.

What makes the file-management conundrum extra peculiar is that Preview on OS X has its own iCloud Drive folder in Yosemite and on iCloud.com. It just doesn’t really have a counterpart on iOS, which I’ve always thought bizarre.4

Preview on iCloud
Preview has its own iCloud folder, but no counterpart on iOS.

For now, third-party alternatives are sufficient, but it would surprise me if Apple didn’t provide a better PDF experience on iOS at some point. Heck, given that the Markup feature in Mail is an extension, I presume there’s little reason they couldn’t add that into iBooks, if they so desired. Plus, as those third-party apps have shown, annotating and marking up PDFs on the iPad feels right at home, thanks to the multitouch interface.

More to the point, if Apple is determined to continue extolling the virtues of the iPad as a productivity device, it can’t continue to hold out on these kinds of PDF features. The addition of the Save to PDF feature in iOS 9 is a great step, but given iBooks’s lackluster PDF support, right now it’s a bridge to nowhere.


  1. Wikipedia claims Preview dates back to NeXTSTEP, though the brochure it links to simply says it’s an app for reading TIFF and PostScript files; granted, PDF was still in its early days at that point.  ↩

  2. Part of me wonders if this year’s substantive revamp of the Notes app on OS X and iOS obviated the need for a TextEdit app. But the same can’t be said for Preview. Although, strangely, I did discover you can drop a PDF into Notes in iOS 9—you just can’t do much with it once it’s there. ↩

  3. If you sync your collections across iCloud and you happen to have the same PDF on multiple devices, iBooks is just smart enough to put them in the same collection. But that doesn’t extend to syncing the files themselves. Sigh.  ↩

  4. iOS 9 currently has a “hidden” iCloud Drive app, which may open up some more options for managing PDFs on iOS devices.  ↩

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[Dan Moren is a tech writer, novelist, podcaster, and the Official Dan of Six Colors. You can email him at dan@sixcolors.com or find him on Twitter at @dmoren.]