I'm looking for a solution for sharing and reviewing PDF collaboratively with a number of people in the same room who may not have strong technology skills. The main goal is save time and paper, compared to printing out a copy of all documents for each person. Access to additional features like searching, hyperlinks, tagging and sorting would be a nice bonus. I have a number of iPads which I can configure and lend out for this purpose (the devices will not be supplied or managed by the users), and I'm looking for the right software to run on them.

The best option I've found so far is GoodReader, which can be configured to sync with an SFTP or SMB server. If the iPads are all on the same wireless network, and the person distributing documents has write access to the SFTP or SMB server, they can update its contents from any convenient network device and the iPads can be configured to sync with it. However, GoodReader was designed for power users who manage their own devices, so this method has some disadvantages:

  • The iPads don't automatically sync when the shares are updated; the user must hit the sync button. And the sync button is tiny, so it's easy for someone who is unfamiliar with the app to forget or struggle to sync the documents. Waiting up to 30 minutes for the next auto-sync is not acceptable.

  • In general, GoodReader has way too many distracting features that can't be disabled. Users must learn to switch between the document library and reading views, each of which will present them with tens of options which are mostly irrelevant to my use case. Users must also understand that a single tap in the middle of the document, in reading mode, toggles the display of the UI. Even if I use Guided Access to lock users into GoodReader, they can still break the system by deleting sync records.

  • There's no way to force users to view a particular document given a command from the master device. GoodReader is designed to empower the user, whereas I'd like to be sure everyone is looking at the same document (while allowing users to browse freely at other times). It would also be nice if I could force users to look at a particular page of a document. (Admittedly, a bundle of paper doesn't have this feature, but my experience has been that people can reliably turn to a particular page of a long printed document, whereas navigating electronic documents using a touch screen is more difficult.)

There are a number of less popular apps which provide the system administrator with some ability to remotely control an iPad. However, so far as I am aware all of these apps rely on a proprietary backend with ongoing costs and usually, a requirement that the iPads be connected to the internet – not just a network with access to files shared using standard protocols like SFTP. I'd much prefer to remain in control of the server hosting the files and the network connecting it to the iPads.

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