Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

This Week's Sponsor

Kolide ensures only secure devices can access your cloud apps. It's Device Trust for Okta. Watch the demo today!

By Jason Snell

Wish List: Whole-home AirDrop

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

Expanding AirDrop support might complicate security, but you can already scan for devices in a crowded café or conference.

When I first started using a Mac, there wasn’t built-in file sharing—you copied files onto a floppy disk and walked them to a different computer, a process delightfully known as “sneakernet1.” But the ’90s were an exciting time for more than just grunge music, and the Mac finally got built-in file sharing with System 7, so you could find a Mac, connect to it, see its shared folders, and drag things in and out within the Finder.

This is a file-sharing model that has largely remained intact through all the changes in the Mac platform. To this day I can open a browser window, find a local Mac, give it a password (or log in as a guest), and view a subset of its files as if it were an external disk on my Mac.

But something funny happened back in 2011: Apple introduced an entirely different approach to exchanging files between devices, one that it added to iOS a few years later: AirDrop. Unlike the old approach of mounting a shared folder or volume, this was modern Apple’s take on solving the problem of exchanging files.

AirDrop’s interface is simpler, because you don’t mount any volumes—you just exchange individual files. (AirDrop’s still a drag-and-drop process on the Mac, but on iOS it’s all done out of the sharing interface.) AirDrop is simpler than setting up file sharing and more elegant than emailing yourself or a family member a file (and waiting for it to make the round trip up to your mail server and back down). It bypasses the complexities of your local network and connects directly via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

Over the years, Apple has continued to improve AirDrop. In the last year I’ve completely abandoned my old method of transferring large files (mostly audio stuff for podcast projects) between my Mac and my iPad. I previously attached a cable and used the file-sharing features embedded clumsily within iTunes. Now I just use AirDrop. When I AirDrop giant audio files to my iPad, the transfers are fast and iOS does exactly the right thing, offering to open the files in any compatible app, including Ferrite, my podcast editing app of choice. It couldn’t be easier.

Well, that’s not right. It could be easier. When I complete a podcast project I want to transfer the archived Ferrite project file to my Mac, where I can file it away for backup and long-term storage. AirDrop’s an easy way to do it—but only if I’m within 10 or 15 feet of my Mac Mini server, which lives in a corner of my garage. I end up walking into the garage and standing by the server until the AirDrop concludes.

This got me thinking: AirDrop is well established and easy to use and, especially on iOS, a far better alternative to traditional file sharing. (Let me also point out that Apple has refused to support traditional file sharing access in iOS, though you can get to it via a third-party app such as FileExplorer.) So why not expand it to include cases where devices are on the same local network but not within close proximity?

What I’m advocating is an extension of AirDrop that doesn’t just search for devices that are nearby, but also offers devices that are AirDrop-capable and reside on your local network. I can appreciate that the transfers might not be as fast and that there are security issues that would need to be worked out, though I’m not sure the security aspects are more complicated than using AirDrop at a crowded conference or café. Apple has already built in layers of permissions, including the ability to only transfer files to your own Apple ID or the Apple IDs of people you have added to your contacts list, and a requirement that you accept all file-transfer requests from other people.

The other day my daughter needed a few big media files that were stored on my iMac. I told her to walk her MacBook out into the garage and stand there while we transferred the files. It seemed utterly unnecessary. Why couldn’t she go back to her bedroom and get the files across our local network? Why should I set up file sharing on my iMac for a one-off file transfer?

With AirDrop, Apple has come up with a simpler way to pass files around. In doing so, it’s made traditional file sharing seem old and fussy. So my modest proposal to Apple is to take AirDrop and expand its powers. Let people in homes and offices use it to drop files to each other, even if they’re not fortunate enough to be sitting right next to each other. Apple, you did your job and you did it well—I’ve utterly embraced AirDrop. But now I want more.

  1. We used an add-on product called TOPS to move files around our local network at my college newspaper office. 

If you appreciate articles like this one, support us by becoming a Six Colors subscriber. Subscribers get access to an exclusive podcast, members-only stories, and a special community.

Search Six Colors