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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Dan Moren

Demystifying that viral iOS copy-and-paste video

There’s a good chance that you’ve already seen that viral video making the rounds over the past week, in which a self-described former Apple employee is blown away by picking up a photo from one iOS device and dropping it on the other. If not, check it out below.

Yep, that does indeed work as shown, and it’s a very cool feature.

I’m sure there are some readers of this site who will dismiss this as “obvious”, just as there are others who will have been totally unaware of the possibility.

But here’s what I find fascinating about it: this is actually two different features, introduced years apart in different OS releases, working in delightful harmony.

The first is Universal Clipboard, a feature introduced in iOS 10 and macOS Sierra back in 2016 as part of Continuity, a whole set of enhancements to make it easier to move back and forth between Apple devices. With Universal Clipboard, if you’re logged into multiple Apple devices—iPhones, iPads, Macs—using the same iCloud account, anything you copy to the clipboard on one is immediately and invisibly1 transferred to the clipboard of all your other devices.

This is exceptionally handy when moving text and images between devices, because it avoids having to retype things or mess with files. It’s also one of those innumerable Apple features that is awesome when it works, but also just sometimes doesn’t, and there aren’t really any specific settings for it anywhere in iOS or macOS. (It’s falls under the umbrella of the Handoff settings that also control a bunch of other Continuity features.)

The second feature working along with Universal Clipboard are the three-finger copy/paste gestures that were added to iOS and iPadOS 13 in 2019. These let you “pick up” text or images and then paste them elsewhere—they’re basically just gesture equivalents of keyboard shortcuts command-C and command-V on your Mac. (There are similar three-finger gestures for undo and redo if you swipe left and right, respectively.)

The thing about those gestures are that they’re not particularly discoverable. I admit, I’ve rarely thought of the copy/paste gestures since iOS 13 came out, and even the Undo/Redo gestures—which are often the only way to perform those actions—are often critical, every time I try to undo something I generally end up swiping the wrong way first.

But none of this should take away from the coolness or enthusiasm over this trick. What I love about this particular application finding its way into the cultural zeitgeist is that the combination of these disparate features feels magical, in the best Apple tradition. (It certainly helps that the TikTok is shot in a way to emphasize it being mind-blowing.) None of these features may truly be “discoverable” in the usual sense of the word, but it’s still fun and exciting when someone does stumble across them: not only does it open it up to a new audience, but it may encourage us old-hands to revisit something that we’d forgotten about.

  1. Usually invisibly. With large items, such as images, you’ll often get a little dialog box with a progress bar. 

[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at The latest novel in his Galactic Cold War series of sci-fi space adventures, The Nova Incident, is available now.]

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