The iPhone and iPad let you take a document from one app and open it in another app that can handle the same file type. If you are like me, you use this feature most often when someone sends you an attachment to an e-mail. Just hold down your finger on the attachment for a second or so, and you'll be give the option to open the attachment in some other app. For example, I often like to open up a Word document in the Documents to Go app because that app lets me see redline edits and footnotes, plus the app makes it easy to increase the font size by just pinching.
For some file types, you may have many apps that can handle the file. For me — and perhaps for you as well — this is especially true for PDF files because a large number of apps can handle PDF files, and I have quite a few of them installed on my iPhone and iPad.
I have two tips today. First, keep in mind that you can see a list of up to 10 apps that can open a file type, even though this is not so obvious on the iPad. Second, here is a solution for when the app that you want to use to open a file doesn't appear in the list of ten.
Seeing all ten apps in the menu
In iOS 5, Apple will show you up to 10 apps that can handle a file type. This is fairly obvious on the iPhone, but can be confusing on the iPad
On the iPhone, the list of apps that can open a file type appears in a large, full-screen list, and if you have more than seven items, the last item on the list is somewhat cutoff, indicating that there are more items if you scroll down. Scroll down to see the rest of the list:
On the iPad, even though the screen itself is larger, the iPad only shows four apps in the list. Even worse, there is little indication that there are additional items beyond those four. When the menu first appears there is a scroll bar on the right, but it quickly disappears. If you think to touch the menu and start to scroll it, you will again see the scroll bar to alert you that there are more items, but if you don't touch the menu you may just assume that only four apps can handle this file type:
So my first tip is that if you want to open up a document in another app, keep in mind that you can select from a list of up to ten such apps, even though on the iPhone you only see seven at first, and on the iPad you only see four at first.
Using apps that are not in the menu
What if you have more than ten apps that can handle a certain type of file, and the app that you want to use is not in the list of ten? There is a solution, but it is not obvious, nor is it all that elegant.
I had to deal with this issue yesterday because I updated the GoodReader app on my iPad. GoodReader is my favorite app for handling PDF files on my iPad becuase it is such a powerful app, and indeed one reason that the app can do so much is that the developer frequently updates the app to add new features. But after updating the GoodReader app on my iPad yesterday, I then tried to send a document attached to an e-mail to the GoodReader app, only to learn that GoodReader was no longer one of the ten listed apps for a PDF file. Until yesterday, GoodReader had always been in my list of ten.
The solution is to delete some of the apps in that list from your device. I looked at the list of ten PDF-reading apps and deleted one of them. This caused another app that could handle PDF apps to appear on the list — but unfortunately, it wasn't the GoodReader app. I deleted a second app, and again no luck. When I deleted a third app, suddenly GoodReader was once again on my list, at the very bottom.
What about those apps that I just deleted? Fortunately, you can always re-download an app from the App Store, and even if it is not a free app, Apple will not make you pay for the app again. Thus, I re-downloaded the three apps that I had just deleted. That put all of the apps back on my device, and none of them showed up in the "Open In..." menu; GoodReader remained in the last position.
The mystery of the list
How does the iPhone or iPad decide which apps to include in the list of ten? Frankly, I don't know. At first I thought that the list was simply organized by date, with apps that had been purchased or updated more recently appearing lowest in the list (and off the list completely if beyond the tenth position). But no date that I could associate with an app — date added, date modified, purchase date or release date (all fields that you can see in iTunes) — explained the order of the apps in my list of ten.
The developer of GoodReader states on its troubleshooting page that it is completely random whether an app shows up in the list or not:
The Open In functionality is controlled by iOS, we have no active control over it, we just declare GoodReader to be capable of accepting certain file types. iOS is known to show only a limited number (10 or so) of randomly selected apps for any given file type when you invoke the Open In action in any app. The actual maximum number of apps depends on a device type and on a version of iOS. The only way to resolve this issue is to delete some apps that you don't need that expose themselves for a particular file type, to make way to other eligible apps.
I suppose that could be true, but there does seem to be some rough (albeit imperfect) association between when an app was added or updated and where it falls on the list on my iPhone or iPad. A bunch of Google searches didn't give me any answer for how apps are listed (or not listed) in the menu other than what I just quoted from the GoodReader website. Perhaps someone reading this post knows the full answer, and if so I'd appreciate it if you commented on this post or sent me an e-mail to answer the mystery of which apps appear in the list of ten and the order in which they appear.
An area for improvement
I love using the iPhone and iPad because the smart folks at Apple do such a good job at paying attention to the tiny details. Having said that, there is always room for improvement, and that's why Apple frequently updates the iOS. My hope is that Apple improves the way that the "Open In..." menu works in a future version of the iOS. Specifically:
1. It would be nice to have a way to control which apps appear in the list of ten, most obviously by using the Settings app. I would like to be able to select (1) which apps show up in the list of ten, (2) the order of those apps on the list and (3) the default app for each file type (i.e. the first item in the list). Right now, Apple gives the #1 spot to its own apps. Thus, iBooks is always the top choice for PDF files, Pages is the #1 spot for Microsoft Word files, etc.
2. Apple does a good job of using the full screen on the iPhone to show apps that can handle a file type. The iPad has a much larger screen, but we can only see four apps at a time in the list. That makes no sense. The screen is more than big enough to show all ten apps at one time.
3. Do we even need the limit of ten? I presume the thinking is that it gets confusing to have too many choices, but it is even more confusing when the app that you want to use doesn't show up in the list at all. Why not include every app that can handle a file, and even if the user is not allowed to control the order, how about just using alphabetical order, or perhaps the order of which apps have most recently been used to handle that file type. With the ten app limit, you need to delete apps to get other apps to show up in the list of ten. This "solution" is not obvious, nor is it desirable if the app you delete has a document stored in the app. Deleting the app deletes all of its documents, and when you re-download the app, the documents are gone unless you also stored them somewhere else. For example, one of the apps that I deleted to make GoodReader appear was the Amazon Kindle app, and after I re-downloaded the app, I was given the option to restore my purchased Kindle titles to the app. But very few apps include this feature.