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On my iPad, I use iCloud Drive and the Files app. My files are organized in folders in iCloud Drive so that I can access them on all of my devices.

I frequently want to point to a file that is stored in a different folder.

For example, I have four folders in iCloud Drive that I access via the Files app on iPad. I would like to have a reference/pointer to the same file (e.g., a PDF) in all of those four folders.

Having copies of the file in different folders causes redundancy and it needs space. When I update the file, I have to update it in all folders.

On macOS, I can create a symbolic link or an alias for such purposes. I believe that this is not possible on iOS and iPadOS.

I‘m aware of tags and favorites. However, they are global and I don‘t want to clutter these with files I need only in certain projects. They also cannot be organized hierarchically like folders and subfolders.

So, what is the best way to point to a file in a different folder without having a copy of that file?

Although symlinks and aliases are not supported by iPadOS, I am looking for creative ideas to deal with this shortcoming.

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    Can you describe the use case? Are you working in Files.app and do some operations on files? Do you want to have quick access in "file picker" from different app? Jan 31, 2023 at 11:59
  • I have added more information regarding the use case
    – John
    Jan 31, 2023 at 12:49
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    Especially for projects, tags with the project name would work quite well.
    – nohillside
    Jan 31, 2023 at 13:23
  • Yes, for a few projects. However, I have many and I organize my projects in folders and subfolders, i.e., I make use of a hierarchy. Hierarchies are very well suited to manage complexity and to get a structure. Tags cannot be hierarchically organized. „Thus my central theme is that complexity frequently takes the form of hierarchy and that hierarchic systems have some common properties independent of their specific content. Hierarchy, I shall argue, is one of the central structural schemes that the architect of complexity uses.“ From The Sciences of the Artificial by Herbert Simon
    – John
    Jan 31, 2023 at 19:42
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    @vomako - I see you've experienced what I call the "down vote horde." Don't let it get to you. Your question is actually a good one...the answer though.... +1 for the question!
    – Allan
    Jan 31, 2023 at 22:18

3 Answers 3

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... what is the best way to point to a file in a different folder without copying the file on iPadOS and iOS?

To paraphrase Steve Jobs, "You're doing it wrong!" That's not meant as a dig, but more of a facetious way to approach this question.

Everything should be done via iCloud (or another cloud service)

You shouldn't be trying to create symlinks and/or manage what file is where when iCloud Drive was designed to do exactly this. If you enable iCloud Desktop and Documents always select the file using iCloud (found in the sidebar). This way, any changes you make will be automatically synced with the cloud and you won't have to worry about symlinks and copies upon copies of the same file.

While iCloud is great, I have opted for Microsoft OneDrive. It provides a better mechanism for creating my folder hierarchy and configuring which folders I would like to sync and which ones I don't.

OneDrive Preferences

In your sidebar, you have all the locations from which to access files. Instead of linking things from point A to B to C and copies made in two or three different places, always access the file via your cloud service. Below are screen grabs from both my Mac sidebar and from my iPad Files App of where you should be storing your files for centralized access:

Cloud Services in Sidebar iPad Locations Selector

In my setup, I have my Documents folder completely sync'd with OneDrive. Therefore, whether I choose to navigate through OneDrive (locations) or directly through Documents, the file is always the same one. One feature of OneDrive that I particularly like is the ability to send a link to the file rather than the file itself. If I send a Word or Excel file to be reviewed, for example, the recipient will get a link and open the file on my OneDrive account. Any changes made will be saved there and they won't have to email me back a different version of the file.

It may take a little exploring around and experimenting with what you want and don't want synchronized, once you take the perspecitive of the cloud being the center from which you operate, you'll find that it works substantially better than all the symlinking you were looking to do.

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    This answer seem to have misunderstood the question completely - he's asking for a solution on an iPad. You're giving him a solution for the Mac, which he states he already has.
    – jksoegaard
    Jan 31, 2023 at 21:47
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    That's all good - but it doesn't address the question at all. You're talking about having the same file duplicated on computers, tablets and various cloud services - that's not what this question is about.
    – jksoegaard
    Jan 31, 2023 at 21:50
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    No, I have not missed that. I'm saying that your "theme" misses the point. You're answering a different question than what was asked. He's saying that he's using an iPad and he's using iCloud Drive. Imagine that he's using those exclusively. The point of your answer doesn't apply now. What he wants to do is to essentially "store" the same file multiple times in the file hierarchy without having it take up lots of extra space, and without the burden of having to update the copies seperately.
    – jksoegaard
    Jan 31, 2023 at 21:59
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    I.e. a typical example in the work place would be having a folder structure with a folder for each client, and below that a folder for each project. Each project has a set of unique files. However, you might have one file that is reused amongst many projects - you want to place that into each project's folder so that if you make external copies of the project, or want to re-familiarize yourself with the project after time, you remember and know that this file is part of the project -- however you would prefer that it doesn't take up extra space every time. [...]
    – jksoegaard
    Jan 31, 2023 at 22:01
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    @vomako - Unfortunately, you either have to copy the file or change your workflow. Cloud services require folks to change to effectively utilize the service.
    – Allan
    Jan 31, 2023 at 22:20
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  • For a small number of projects (or something similar), tags are feasible, where the tag name may be equal to the project name (thanks „nohillside“)

  • For many folders, one could have one folder where all the original files for all projects are stored. Then, in a project folder, one would have a text document with the name of the file, which serves as a pointer. With this approach, one would not even have to store the full path but only the name of the file (since all original full-size files are in one and the same folder). This would work but it is cumbersome since one cannot just click on the text document to open the original file.

I‘m looking for other creative ideas that are less limited or cumbersome.

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It sounds like you're looking for the equivalent of creating a macOS symlink, alias and or shortcut, for an iPad.

I've been looking for ways of doing this on my iPhone for years.

This is what I've found for the iPhone. It should be the same for the iPad too.

To jump to the best method I’ve found, see option 3 below in Other Methods of Achieving Similar Functionality. I highly recommend trying one of the two apps I listed before discounting as not a possible solution.

Natively, the short answer:

  • There is no native way of doing this in iCloud Drive or the Files app as of right now (iOS 16.5.1).

There are other ways of achieving similar functionality though. The best method I’ve found is by using a 3rd party app, see option 3 below.

Other Methods of Achieving Similar Functionality

  1. Shortcuts (possible native solution)

    • You could build a shortcut in the Shortcuts app to imitate the functionality. It’d be a relatively complex shortcut that may or may not be worth the effort. I’ve been making shortcuts since Apple first released the app and personally I decided it wasn’t worth the effort myself.
  2. Scriptable (3rd party)

    • You could use JavaScript in the Scriptable app to build a solution that imitates the functionality, similar to option 1. Scriptable also integrates with the Shortcuts app too. I haven't looked into this option too much because I don't know enough about JavaScript. This is probably a better way to go than using shortcuts alone (option 1).
  3. 3rd Party File Management Apps (Best option)

    • 3rd party apps exist that have features which are basically the equivalent of an alias on MacOS. Each app calls the feature something different (such as "virtual folders" or "file linking", "connections", etc.). In my experience this as close to the functionality as you’re looking for, if not exactly what you’re looking for.
    • The way it works, depending on the app, is you can point a connection to a folder stored anywhere in iCloud Drive and then go from there by adding more connections pointing to other files & folders.
    • Here are two free apps I've found which allow you to add files & folders pointed or linked to other files & folders. There are other apps which offer more features, but these are free so you can try them and get an idea of how it works.

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