iOS Extensions: Document Provider Tutorial

In this Document Provider tutorial, you’ll learn how to create a UIDocumentProvider extension that allows other apps to interact with your app’s documents. By Dave Krawczyk.

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Note: This tutorial has been updated (23/09/2016) to use Xcode 8, iOS 10, and Swift 3.

Kids on the playground are told to share and play nice, or else they get put in time-out; these days, with users craving seamless interactivity, apps have to do the same (or they’ll get deleted). Users don’t want to leave one app to take advantage of another app’s capabilities or access another app’s files, so how can you extend the functionality of your app to be used by other apps on a device? The answer is in this Document Provider tutorial: iOS extensions and the Document Provider extension.

The Document Provider extension (commonly referred to as the document provider) allows an app to share its documents with the other apps on a user’s device in a safe and convenient way. If you have ever used the Document Picker, you might have admired all the apps in the Locations section. Maybe you wondered: how do I get my app to show up there?

Today, young grasshopper, you’ll find out. :]

In this Document Provider tutorial, you’ll be working on an app called CleverNote. CleverNote starts out as just an app that allows a user to create and edit simple text notes. You’ll be adding the document provider, which will allow users to do the following:

  • Open and edit CleverNote notes in other apps.
  • Move notes into the CleverNote app.
  • Import notes from other apps into CleverNote.
  • Export notes from CleverNote to other apps.

These documents aren’t going to provide themselves, so let’s get started!

Getting Started

Download the starter project here. Build and run (Product \ Run or ⌘R) the project in Xcode, and you’ll see the following:

document provider tutorial

Tapping on the + button in the upper right allows you to create a new note. After you add a title and text, hitting the save button will save the note to your device’s document storage directory. That’s great … except it can’t be accessed by other devices, which means your app exists in its own little closed world, and your user is getting annoyed. But don’t worry—you’re about to change all of that. ;]

Architecture of CleverNote’s Data Storage

In order to best understand how to share data, it is important to have a solid understanding of the iOS file system.

Where CleverNote’s Files Are Currently Stored

At this point, the notes created in the CleverNote app are stored in the Documents Directory. This is the directory where you can store user-generated content.

Note: When using the iOS Simulator, you can open the directory that contains these user-generated files. This is very helpful when debugging. To do this, open Note.swift and uncomment the print inside the localDocumentsDirectoryURL() method, then run the app. You should see something like this print in the Console:


That is the URL to the iPhone Simulators Documents directory. Copy that URL (excluding the file://prefix), open Finder on your Mac, hit CMD + SHIFT + G to jump to a folder, and paste the URL. Any created notes should show up right there. To learn more about the different standard iOS Directories, check this out.

Currently, the notes you’re creating are not visible to other apps because of the idea of an app’s sandbox.

document provider tutorial

You can think of the sandbox as a safe area for the app to play. An app should never be playing, or functioning, outside of its designated sandbox. In the above diagram, CleverNote sits on top of its own sandbox, but no other apps are allowed to play in CleverNote’s sandbox. Even an app extension does not have access to anything in the app’s sandbox.

Allowing Data to Be Shared Between Apps

iOS 8 brought us the concept of an app group: a collection of apps created by the same development team that allows two or more apps to access the shared data containers.

document provider tutorial

This concept allows apps or extensions to have a shared set of files. Awesome, right? But only if your user only uses your apps. What about helping your app play nice with apps from different designers?

Providing Files to Other Developers’ Apps

If your app needs to share its files with apps that are not part of your app group, this can be done with a UIDocumentProvider extension that has access to your app group. This extension allows other developers’ apps to access your files using the UIDocumentPicker, as seen below.

document provider tutorial

UIDocumentProvider provides four modes of interaction when accessing files:

In the import operation, the data is duplicated from your app’s container to the third-party app.
document provider tutorial

In the open operation, the third-party app is able to modify a file from your app’s container and then save it back to your app’s container.
document provider tutorial

In the export operation, the data is duplicated from the third-party app to your app’s container.
document provider tutorial

In the move operation, the third-party app moves a file from its container to your app’s container.
document provider tutorial

Now that you know how the data is currently stored and the operations other apps might want to perform on your data, it’s time to start providing some documents!

Adding Your Document Provider Extension

To add the Document Provider extension, first select the CleverNote project in the Project Navigator and click the + button to add a target (the + button is at the very bottom of the Targets list, next to the filter). Select iOS/Application Extension/Document Provider and click Next. Type Picker for the Product Name and make sure to check the box to Include a File Provider Extension; this will be important later. If Xcode asks if you would like to activate the scheme, click Activate. This will allow you to build and debug the extension.

At this point, your targets should look like the image below:

document provider tutorial

Let’s look through the Project Navigator to see what these targets have added to the project.

Under the Picker directory, you’ll see that Xcode has generated a DocumentPickerViewController. This is a subclass of UIDocumentPickerExtensionViewController, displayed inside a third-party application when using the Document Picker extension.

Under the PickerFileProvider directory, you’ll see the FileProvider class Xcode generated. The FileProvider coordinates all of the reading and writing during the file operations.

Dave Krawczyk


Dave Krawczyk


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