Stuck between the Dropbox that was and the iCloud that isn't yet

iCloud promised ubiquitous access -- all our stuff, every where and every when we wanted it. Not sync, Apple very carefully, almost awkwardly explained it, but an idea that was and is just as simple. You create something, it gets stored on the iCloud, and pushed down to all of your iOS and OS X devices. Not a server-side truth store, and critically, not a file system either. Unlike Google, it didn't live in the browser, and unlike iDisk, which came before it, there were and are no folders or hierarchies to get lost in, no Finder or Explorer to trudge through. iCloud, as Apple positioned it, was and is something new and something potentially much, much better.

The problem is, it doesn't work yet.

The architecture is unnecessarily dependent on apps. If I create a document in Text Editor 1, not only do I have to remember the document I created but, if I want to access it again, I also have to remember the app I created it in. If I later switch to a much better Text Editor 2, my document doesn't switch with me. I have to either copy and paste every document from Text Editor 1 into Text Editor 2, or keep a list of which documents are where. That's a non-trivial amount of cognitive overhead. If at some point I move on to Text Editor 3, or delete (or switch devices and don't re-install) Text Editor 1, it gets even worse. I have to track my documents over multiple access points, and perhaps even re-install old apps just to get back to the documents locked inside. It's a mess.

Decoupled, documents that present themselves to any app that supports editing their type, and apps that simply pull any document whose type they support, would be much simpler and better. A smart version of a document picker would remove the cognitive burden from users and let the system do all the heavy lifting. (I used to want Photos/image-picker-like access via a Files.app repository, but increasingly I think a flat store with search better fits the future.)

Of course, even if you do manage to keep track of all your documents across all your apps, iCloud's store and push features still haven't proven reliable enough for primetime. Key values seem to work okay, but documents still sound like a bag of hurt, with many developers struggling to implement them, or giving up on them entirely and switching to another solution. And that's on top of the larger problem facing Apple's services -- they're not historical one of the company's strengths, and haven't historically received the attention that Apple's software and hardware have enjoyed.

While Google, Facebook, and Amazon can snap up developers and designers and push out better looking and working apps, it's hard to imagine a plucky startup Apple could buy -- much less a NeXT-level acquisition Apple could make -- to jumpstart their services talent and technology the way they did their local operating system over a decade and a half ago.

Best case, Apple has secretly been working on something as important to the next generation of online services as WebObjects was to the last. Worst case, we're all in for a lot of pain and turbulence as they struggle to figure it out.

And that's in stark contrast to something like Dropbox, which enjoys about as much popularity on iOS as can be afforded a third-party service.

I've used Dropbox for years. My entire OS X documents folder lives in Dropbox. It's the first thing I install whenever I set up a new Mac. It's the closest thing I've found, Google Drive and Microsoft SkyDrive be damned, to truly automagical sync. It has versioning, it has un-delete, it has selective sync, and it's saved my ass more times than I can count. It's also being improved on the API side, making it even easier for developers to integrate. (Dropbox, it turns out, has also been a bag of hurt for developers for years.)

But here's the thing -- for all Dropbox's automagical-ness, it's a relic of the past. It's a file system. It's a hierarchy. It's a folder sync. It's a bunch of encrypted data stored on Amazon's S3 network.

As much as iCloud is the right thing still not realized, Dropbox is the wrong thing done brilliantly well. And at the end of the day, that still amounts to the wrong thing.

Those of us used to, and clinging to, traditional file systems love it, and will continue to love it as it becomes marginalized into obsolescence, as the growing mainstream -- those who aren't power users but are increasingly empowered users -- who won't get it and shouldn't be subjected to it, sweep past it and onto newer, better things.

iCloud could be that better thing, if Apple can nail it. It could be the iPad-style car to the old file system truck. So could something else, including a new version of Dropbox. But nothing and no one is there yet. So, as iPhones and iPads and other appliances bring computing to a broader user base than ever before, the services that bind them remain stuck between the best-ever version of the past, and a still sputtering and stammering future.