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.
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Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.
I'd also like to come back to the point you are making about acquisition. We all know that Steve tried to buy Dropbox without success. There is one company whose cloud service I've been using since its beta days, that is a godsend for developers: Parse.com. I have seen and given many talks where Parse is simply defined as "what iCloud should have been", and it really is.
You highlighted a number of issues in your article, yet this deficient thing is the future? The iPhone is better than a treo. Unless you want to pet a horse, a car is an improvement. Storing files in the related apps IS NOT an improvement outside of simplicity for the absolute beginner. With that kind of thinking, we could also get rid of the virtual keyboard in iOS. Hold the device in one orientation to get the weather, another get's Apple's site in safari, etc. That would be WAY simple for beginning users. Four simple choices; simply tip the device. None of that messy typing stuff that is so yesterday. :)
There's no app for iOS yet, but it's a start.
No need to interact. Just take a picture on the iPhone, and it will appear almost instantly on your iPad, Apple TV, or iPod touch! Make a note and same thing! Put your iPhone on the charger and it backs up your phone without even knowing! Visit a website on the iPhone and you can continue on the iPad! Install an app or buy a song and it will do it automatically on the iPad without even doing anything! Again plain, simple, and just works. I don't think an average consumer wants to deal with file systems or whatever you call those stuff. Just like android where majority of users don't even know that they can change stuff. They just want a cheap phone with touchscreen then that's it. Only the techy wants to customize. The only thing that iCloud should improve on is staying on all the time. There's a blackout every now and then.
http://dayoneapp.com/support/icloud/). iOS devs in particular took iCloud up with great enthusiasm when it was introduced (in preference often to Dropbox because the latter didn't then offer a sync API), but are increasingly pausing to wait for more functional iterations from Apple. Two of the very best development shops in the business, OmniGroup and Bare Bones, cannot get it working reliably. Both wanted to use iCloud from early on, tried, and failed. OmniGroup have had to develop their own sync server as an alternative, while Bare Bones' updates sound increasingly despairing (http://www.barebones.com/support/yojimbo/icloud.html). It's not a question of it being 'hard' to do, or of its having some problems. It's half-baked, and it involves more very risky gambles with dev time than many businesses can afford to take on. The ball is very much in Apple's court. If they can make it work and document it properly, devs will use it in droves. Until then, they'll continue to invest their time in things they know they can make work.
But you still want to group them in a container. It reduces clutter because storing them in a flat filesystem will only make them get lost. It's the same as in iTunes: most of my files are "lost". I don't know what I have anymore because it's so much. When I create a smart playlist, a lot of songs will match and voila, they are back. But there are dozens of files which may not get matched and stay hidden. In that case I would have preferred to browse in a hierarchy and find my manually organized files back. It's just too much work to organize files manually beyond placing them in folders. You are screwed when you forget to apply the correct metadata. Your stuff gets lost in a huge flat root folder so to speak. Lastly when it comes to files, you still want your stuff to be interchangeable with Linux, Windows and whathaveyou. A database is not, a file system does. Searching, metadata are FRIENDS of a hierarchal system. They should complement eachother.