How to collaborate on files and folders with iCloud

How to use Catalina Macs, iOS 13 and iCloud to collaborate

iOS Files app

Thanks to its system-level integration, Apple’s iCloud is a natural fit for any iPhone, iPad or Mac user that needs a way to share and collaborate on files and folders with others.

Here is how to use those features:

What is iCloud?

iCloud is Apple’s online storage service. It’s the place all your data is archived for access using any device logged in with your Apple ID, though the more information you store there the more likely it is you’ll need to spend money on additional iCloud space.

(You’ll find some useful tips to help reduce that cost here).

You can access the contents of your iCloud using apps (such as Photos, Mail or Books), and also via iCloud Drive on an iPad, iPhone, Mac, Windows system or using any standards-based browser. iCloud also supports some apps, such as Apple Pay.

Apple continues to improve the service, which has become a viable alternative to Dropbox, Box or Evernote, though it is true to say that iCloud isn’t as fully-featured as those services.

One of the biggest improvements across the last few years has been the introduction of better support for collaboration, which means you can share and work together on documents or images with others using iCloud.

The limitation is that both you and those you choose to collaborate with must be using iCloud, so this is a poor cross-platform implementation.

(Though there are some exceptions, such as collaboration on Pages documents which Windows users can engage in using Pages online).

You can share folders as well as files

iOS 13, iPad OS and macOS Catalina will let users share folders as well as files from within the iCloud Drive/Files app, making it much easier to collaborate with people. You can store documents, images, PDFs and other items in Files.

(Additional improvements in the upcoming OS updates include support for external file devices on iPads and improved integration with third-party file services).

How to share files and folders through iCloud Drive/Files

It has been possible to share individual files in iCloud, but this improved in 2019 when Apple introduced iCloud Drive support for folder sharing, which makes it much easier to collaborate on projects.  

The way this works is that anyone to whom you have provided access will be able to see and use files stored inside the shared folder, and also add items to that folder so which all parties with access to that folder can then see and use.

On a Mac:

In Finder, you must navigate to the file you want to collaborate on and select it.

  • With the file selected, tap the Share icon (a square with a North-facing arrow emerging from inside it).
  • Choose Add People to set up a collaboration on a file or folder.
  • You will choose how to share the item (Mail, Messages, Copy Link or Airdrop).
  • You also get to set your Share Options:
  • Who can access: Only people you invite or anyone with the link you create.
  • Permission: View only or Can Make Changes.
  • Tap Share and you’ll be asked who you wish to share the link to files and folders with.

On iOS:

The process seems a little longer on iOS.

  • Open the Files app and navigate to the folder you wish to share.
  • Firm press on the folder and tap the Share item on the contextual menu.
  • Or, to share multiple items, tap Select and choose the folders you wish to share before tapping the Share item.
  • You will be given a set of ways to Share files. In the top row you will see the names of frequently contacted people from your contacts book (also including AirDrop), alternatively you can share through the next row and an app, such as Mail or Messages.
  • You can also swipe up on the Share menu to see a list of additional items, including the Add People item.
  • Tap Add People
  • You can choose who gets access for that file or folder: The default for access is set to ‘Only people you invite’, but this can be changed to ‘anyone with a link’.
  • Finally, you choose the file/folder permissions: You can set this so anyone can make changes, or that access is View Only.
  • You then choose how you wish to invite someone to collaborate on the item, who to share the item with.
  • The person(s) you want to collaborate with will be provided with a link to your folder or file.

What’s missing from this implementation?

If you’ve ever collaborated on a project, then you’ll already know how useful it is to be able to share files and folders with others to help get things done.

However, Apple’s implementation has a few flaws.

One of the biggest of these is lack of an easy-to-find version rollback or auditing tool – it makes sense when working with others to be able to see all the previous versions of edited documents in case errors creep in, or in a scenario in which the project group decides to revert to a file.  

(It may sometimes be possible to recover deleted documentsin iCloud online).

Another missing piece is the lack of ways to annotate an item from within iCloud – sure, if you are using a Word document you can annotate that, but there’s no built-in collaborative communication tools inside the Files environment.

Apple would likely argue that for more extensive collaborative work professional users are likely to invest in a more powerful set of tools.

To help develop such tools Apple has published a FileProvider API third-party developers can use to better integrate their solutions into the Mac/iOS experience.

For an idea of how app-specific sharing on Apple’s platforms can evolve, the company also offers slightly more evolved collaborative tools inside its iWork (Pages, Keynote and Numbers) apps.

However, at present it doesn’t provide an all-encompassing solution that easily enables users to collaborate across multiple Apple apps (Notes, Reading List and Files, for example).

More articles about iCloud:

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Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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