Dear Apple: Can iCloud ‘just work’ already?

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Apple launched iCloud with one of Apple’s late CEO Steve Jobs’ last and most-repeated promises: “It just works.” With iCloud, we would never worry about a crucial email message or photo being on the “wrong” device, fuss over downloading apps or content to our gizmos, or perform dreaded syncs with our computers. iCloud would make all that go away: users would have all their stuff, all the time, from whichever device they happened to be using. (Well, whichever Apple device, anyway.)

We’re almost two years into the iCloud era, but we still seem far from that promise. A great deal of iCloud does work, but one doesn’t have to stray far from guided path of Apple’s own curated services to run into trouble. Most tellingly, Apple’s vaunted app ecosystem — now counting over 850,000 iOS apps — isn’t seeing much benefit. With Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) taking place next week, many people — including all those app makers — are hoping Apple will announce improvements to iCloud so it really does “just work” &mdsah; for everyone, not just Apple.

Where has iCloud failed to live up to its potential? Can Apple improve icloud so it’s truly the center of our digital lives and the apps we love, rather than just a niche offering for Apple’s own services?

It just works. Sometimes.

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We often think of iCloud as a single thing — Apple encourages that — but in reality iCloud is a collection of services. Some are high profile, like Photo Stream, FaceTime, Messages, and the paid-for iTunes Match. Others are perhaps less sexy but we rely on them all the time: backup, storage, and syncing email, calendars, and contacts across devices. When you tap intoiTunes-purchased content from a new device? That’s iCloud. GameCenter too. iCloud also encompasses Apple’s various “finding” services (like Find my iPhone and the seemingly little-loved Find My Friends), along with Back to My Mac and document synchronization across devices.

For most people, most of the time, these iCloud features do “just work.” Set up a recent Mac or iOS device under the same Apple ID, turn on iCloud services, and presto! When you add a contact on one device, it almost always appears on others faster than you can check them. Get a new app for your iPad? It’s pretty much immediately available on your iPhone too. Start a proposal in Apple Pages on your iPad and need to do serious typing on your MacBook Air? The document is right there, in sync — you can even revert to previous versions. Sure, there are exceptions: maybe an app isn’t available for iPhone, or maybe the local Wi-Fi is a little flaky and an update takes a while. But, honest: these features of iCloud are generally consistent and reliable.

Frailty, thy name is Apple ID

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It doesn’t take long to go off the rails with iCloud. A common case is multiple Apple IDs. iCloud users can set up one Apple ID for iCloud and another for purchases through iTunes and/or the App Store. That’s handy if a family needs an Apple ID for each person and a single account for everyone’s purchases — and updating apps — without sharing everyone’s contacts, photos, and messages. (Awkard!)

But if you’re one of the lucky millions who’ve wound up with three, four, or more Apple IDs over the years (signing up for iTunes, Find my iPhone, MobileMe, early versions of FaceTime, etc.), good luck getting Messages, FaceTime, iTunes content, or purchase syncing to work with the right combination of Apple IDs. Users can change the email address on an Apple ID…but that’s not always useful, and they can’t be changed to an address used by another Apple ID. Devices can’t use multiple Apple IDs for iCloud services, and Apple does not let users merge Apple IDs. The result? Some users have no choice but to start over, potentially leaving behind contacts, email, or years of content and/or app purchases.

Files? We don’t need no stinkin’ files

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Unlike a traditional computer, iOS doesn’t provide access to the file system: instead, documents are (mostly) only accessible from within the apps that made them. In some ways, this makes sense: most people think in terms of apps even on traditional computers. Need proof? Consider all the folks who save everything to their desktop — or who open items from “recent files” menus — to avoid navigating anywhere else. These habits may offend purists, but they aren’t wrong: they demonstrate how opaque file systems are to real people.

iCloud can amplify problems with the app-centric model for managing documents. Let’s say you have a favorite note-taking app on your iPad, and it supports iCloud so your notes are immediately backed up and accessible from (say) your iPhone. When you need to get your notes to your Mac or PC, what do you do? Most likely, you send yourself a copy via email. Now, you might have four copies of your notes: one in the original app, one in iCloud, one in Mail, and potentially another in iCloud mail or another mailbox somewhere. If you update your notes and send yourself another copy, you could have six total. Which one is the latest? You might have to go through them all to find out.

Now: what if that note-taking app is orphaned and stops working with a new device or the latest version of iOS? Or maybe you find an app you like better, so you delete the original? No problem: just pull all your notes down from iCloud and open them in another app! Right?

Not so fast. iOS and iCloud documents are only accessible to the app that created them, they’re effectively locked away if the app is missing or incompatible. Even if you have an app that can read your notes, you can’t sync them to a new device without the original app, or log in to iCloud from a Mac or PC then transfer the files to your device. The documents are still in iCloud — and still consuming your storage! — but totally inaccessible.

Not everyone will be up a creek. Other apps might be able to open your note files if they were a common type (say, PDF or text files), but the original app’s developer would have had to allow for that. (Same with iOS File Sharing that can make an app’s files accessible when a device is tethered to a computer with iTunes.)

That syncing feeling

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If an app handles a lot of information — say recipes, pictures, news, social media feeds, social games, or jogging routes — it’s probably using a database. App databases can be big: just one of my everyday mobile apps uses about 14 MB. Apps could synchronize their entire databases across iCloud just like any other file, but that would be slow and quickly chew through data caps. Instead, it’s more efficient to tell iCloud just about changes to the database — “add peanuts to Tom’s list of food allergies” — rather than uploading an entire database (Tom’s allergic to lots of stuff!).

This part of iCloud (called Core Data sync) has been a feature since iCloud launched, but no one — not even Apple — has been able to ship an app where it works reliably on either iOS or Mac OS X. Many have tried. Jumsoft removed iCloud sync from its three Money apps, BlackPixel announced it was abandoning iCloud sync in the next version of its popular NetNewsWire RSS feed reader, Bare Bones Software has held back adding syncing to its digital-junk-drawer app Yojimbo after more than a year of trying. The worst-case scenario may have been endured by noidentity, which shipped with support in its ListBook app and then removed it because of customer complaints.

Many apps have never been developed — or have been forced to turn to non-Apple solutions like Dropbox or even Windows Azure — because this part of iCloud just doesn’t work.

Parting the clouds

Apple is famous for introducing revolutionary products, then steadily improving them with each new release. iCloud is as ambitious as anything Apple has attempted, but it’s been nearly two years and iCloud is still trying to come to grips with fundamental issues — or, in some cases, still struggling to work at all.

The time to improve iCloud is now — or, arguably, a year ago — and the place to announce improvements is next week at WWDC. There’s little doubt cloud services will be at the center of computing and mobile devices for the foreseeable future. Unless Apple can deliver fundamental improvements, app makers will be forced to look elsewhere for cloud support. At that point, not only will iCloud not be the center of Apple users digital lives, but Apple will have lost control of a critical part of its platform. The iPhone- or iPad-killer might not be a device: it might be a cloud ecosystem that really does “just work.”

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