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.

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

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.

69 Comments
  • While I agree that Apple's services suck and need an overhaul, I don't agree with the frequent imagining people do of a future without file hierarchies. It simply won't work. Have you ever tried to organize thousands of papers on your desk without using a file cabinet or folders? Good luck. The fact is that almost everybody, even "non-power users", do too much in too many different places to not use a hierarchy. I'd rather not mix all of my work files and personal stuff, thanks. So what's the newer, better think you speak of? Without any world-changing proposals, I don't think it exists in the near future. I'd much rather see apple do something along the lines of your Files.app global-access repository (where I can manage my own hierarchy, thanks). Of course, I actually want Dropbox to do it since Apple's cross-platform support is nil.
  • I agree about the need for hierarchies. I believe that dismissing them out-of-hand is a temporary fad that we'll recover from before too much longer.
  • I don't get that either. Yes, if you have a dozen documents, it's easier to just see them directly in an app's interface (not sure about more intuitive, but easier). If you have hundreds or thousands, the concept falls apart. People don't organize by app, they organize by project or some other kind of categorization. Sure, you can assign metadata... and IF you've properly assigned it... in theory... you could find stuff just as easily. However, at that point, you've probably put in more cognitive work than just learning how to use a file-system. Ever do a Spotlight search over thousands of documents when you can't come up with specific enough terms? It just doesn't work very well. But, here's the big thing. Apple, historically designed easy ways to do things, while allowing access to more power once the easy was mastered. With this move, all we have is easy, leaving anyone mastering the system frustrated and impaired. Regarding the cloud... the problem here, again, is in it being a bit too simplistic. It's so simplistic, you can mess up your data (if the iCloud doesn't do it for you) and it will efficiently mess it up everywhere in an instant... no history, no backup because the backup is now trashed.
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  • File hierarchies are a special case of searching on the name of an object. If you let the object names have slashes in them, they look like directory paths. If you can list all the objects with names starting with /a/b/ you are listing a directory. If you can search on names and content, as with spotlight, there's no point in having any other hierarchy.
  • So true. If you can remember where you put something, you can just as easily remember a tag you've attached to it. And with content searching as well, you don't have a problem. The yellow notepad on ios, so little valued by most of us, proves this superbly! You can easily have thousands of notes in it and rapidly do a multi-tag search. You never lose anything in it.
  • I must be stupid! I want to use many different apps but have all my stuff in one place. I want it filed and sorted the way i like it, where I can see all of my stuff and access it when I need it! I am obviously holding it wrong!
  • No. It's much better to have it spread out everywhere and have to back up everything separately, not be able to delete the app, and ...I forgot the third thing. But it was an awesome point.
  • Before the car, people wanted faster horses. Before the iPhone, people wanted better Treos. It's natural to cling to file systems. I feel the same way. But we're computing dinosaurs. And they're not the future.
  • Ok So where is the preview app for iOS? iOS 7 has a lot of holes to address. Where do I save my PDFs and access them on my Mac and iPad using different apps? iBooks? Seems like there are some half finished white boards in Cupertino.
  • That's part problem, part old thinking. You shouldn't need a preview app, PDF or image files should just present to any app capable of showing them, including PDF Pen, PDF Pro, and iBooks. Because iCloud documents are app-bound, anything made on TextEdit for Mac can't be opened on iOS simply because there's no TextEdit for iOS. And that's silly.
  • Yes, but they are *FILED* with the App. As you said, the interface is the app. That is the problem... it's not future, it's silly. Sorry, Apple blew it on this one. Hopefully they come back to their senses one of these days.
  • Sure, it's old thinking, but it solves a very real problem. I couldn't live without Spotlight these days, but Spotlight would also be unusable without the ability to restrict it to a certain subset of my data. Currently, I use directories to do that. It's a very simple way to narrow down the dataset I'm looking at. If you take away the filesystem, you have to replace that functionality somehow. iPhoto does it with albums, iTunes with playlists etc. etc. They're all just different implementations of the same metaphor. So you do away with the filesystem, you have to come up with a different way to do exactly the same thing for each and every datatype/application. And they're all a pain if I want to access the data from outside the app. Anyone who wants to dump everything in the same folder is free to do that already. Your wanting to take that away from the rest of us who don't want to do that is just silly. Apple's whole iCloud/iOS no-filesystem metaphor is broken. Admittedly, it would work better if it were data-centric, not app-centric (such a ridiculous mistake), but your flat "filesystem" idea still leaves the user with the problem of having to categorise huge numbers of files to make them manageable and reasonably searchable. The filesystem servers exactly the same function as the domain name system, the library classification system, the species classification system. And if things belong in more than one place, there are symlinks or openmeta tags. A filesystem plus Spotlight-like search solves the problem extremely well, and you're looking to replace it with a multitude of incompatible systems for little benefit and a lot of overhead. How do I integrate a hundred apps' hundred different organisational metaphors with my backup/versioning solution that depends on files (so it works with *everything*)? How do I keep my data in sync across different platforms? How do I keep files away from an app that I know will break them (Cloud Outliner, I'm looking at you and the OPML files you destroyed)?
  • While it is true that iCloud has some issues, the scope of its implementation has contributed to creating them. People seem to forget that it does work very well for document-based systems (but yes, it's got a few cache problems). The real pain is core data.
    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.
  • The car didn't replace the horse, the engine replaced the horse as a way to move the "cart". Same method of movement, different driving method. Whether it's via an OS file system or an application linked system that pulls in any supported files in storage, the "file system" will always be the basis of any type of interface system because that's how humans organize their thoughts. And search is the same thing as a visual search, it's just faster because the system can do it faster. The problem with the system search is that if you don't quite know how to specify what you are looking for, you will likely end up doing a visual search anyways. When it comes to computer systems, even future ones, every way of categorizing and accessing files is going to come back to the "file cabinet".
  • For the end user, the interface is the app. Everything is just binary in the end, but it's how it's presented to the human being that matters.
  • What about when the end user needs to deal with more than the five Pages documents they have created? Sure, I get it is more simple. But, more simple is only good when it actually covers needs. An App is a tool to work with a document in some manner. It's that end document that is important, not the tool. When I'm looking for a document, I either remember some key component of it, or I remember how I've organized it. I don't think, now what App was used in the process of creating it.
  • Apple walks the fine line between power user and soccer mom. In many instances they choose to keep things simple enough anyone can work them, and then rely/expect a developer to create their own solution for a power user.
  • ...except in this case, on iOS (and OSX, if you want to get into the Mac App Store, a requiremnt to access iCloud), Apple expressly forbids developers from creating comprehensive solutions.
  • I have hundreds of Pages documents on my iPad all filed accordingly, within Pages. For anyone except an extreme "power user" one folder level is more than enough. It's actually the way most people organise their stuff, into folders that are all on more or less one level. I've been looking at people's file systems for many years and rarely do I find anyone who doesn't simply drag some files into a folder ant then leave that folder on the desktop. The thing most techies don't understand is that the people that make elaborate filing systems of many levels of folders and so forth are a rarity, not the norm.
  • Why?
    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. :)
  • If you really go in depth on how iCloud actually works, it's no different that Dropbox. iCloud itself uses a file system to sync data. There's a special folder just for a particular app in iOS, you put a file into that folder and it automatically uploads and syncs across all your devices. The entire basis of this article of Dropbox is doing the wrong thing is in itself inaccurate. With the Sync API for iOS, Dropbox has actually given us an iCloud with added benefits and total control. There are no headaches any more for managing Syncing which let me tell you is an extremely annoying task. I'd to work 2 months to write up and refine a syncing algorithm for http://writeapp.net using Dropbox SDK. Had Sync API be available before, that work would've been cut down to 10 days instead of 60. But now that it is, there's no doubt that Dropbox is going the right path with the right choice.
  • I'm not sure what you're proposing as an alternative. File systems are old and somehow hard to understand? You just spent half an article abusing the way iCloud does things, so that's not the answer. DropBox, Drive, and Skydrive work great and feel automagical because they embrace the natural human tendency to organize things into hierarchies. One of the frustrating aspects of IOS is its insistence on pretending there isn't an underlying file system.
  • I think the part being missed here is the "empowered user" that Rene refers to. These are the majority of the users of iOS these days and the main target that Apple is aiming for. These users don't care if they have a file hierarchy or not, they just need to find their PDF or document and view/edit it. The Age of the Geek is upon us, unfortunately everyone is becoming a geek and the true power users will be left behind in support of the masses.
  • "Empowered user" seems a nebulous and fluffy concept. Not sure how the idea of file hierarchies would mystify a person and cause them to feel "unempowered." The ability to navigate, search, and choose which app to open which file is quite empowering. Anything that restricts such activities is apt to feel limiting.
  • It is vague, but refers to the majority of the users who Apple is targeting. The user who has no idea that the magical device in their hand does so much more than send text messages, make phone calls and send/receive emails. Apple isn't looking to keep the power user happy, they are looking to draw in the new user with an easy to understand and use interface. Power users will purchase apps that scratch the itch. The majority of the users (Apples main audience) will just use what's there and be perfectly happy. My mother has no idea what a file structure is and could care less. She just wants to see the gas bill she received via email. Me, I file it away in a folder for that month, with the payment receipt, along with all of the other bills from that month, all from my iPhone or iPad.
  • The author has already stated this in a reply, but bears repeating... The file system is for the computer. What is needed is an interface for the user.... Not the developer who understands the limitations of the computer and the file system.
  • The author has already stated this in a reply, but bears repeating... The file system is for the computer. What is needed is an interface for the user.... Not the developer who understands the limitations of the computer and the file system. Or to put it another way, people want their data... not learn more software.
  • Again the assertion that file systems "are not the future" Tell me, when you organize your own system, do you do it by app or by concept? If you are like, well, anybody, you do it by related concept - imore files in one location, home finances in another location, and so on. It is the least amount of congnitve overhead, because you already make this distinctions in your mind, regardless of the presence of a computer. And, as to the patronizing attitude of "yes, but I'm special, but *others* need it more simple" -- it ain't more simple. Lets take a look at home finance. In a couple of months, everybody is the USA gets to deal with taxes. That may include PDFs of pay stubs, Excel/Numbers spreadsheets of budgeting, and Notes/Word documents of reminders. If you are a business, you can likely add proprietary expense and payroll applications, as well as legal documents. Are you seriously attempting to claim it is "simpler" to hunt for these documents in various different applications, each presented in a separate flat list, versus having an are designated "2013 Finance" on your storage device? Adding metadata on top of those documents - assuming every app will allow the same metadata to be added in the same way, simply recreates every "problem" of a file system you decry, and disintermediates the user from direct access to his/ her data. Bad all around. Nobody is "clinging" to file systems to a avoid change. But you are going to have to come up with a compelling reason why grouping documents by related real-world use is strictly inferior to rigid enforcement off app silos, because "the future" you envision explicitly disallows users from thinking that way. And all of us - not just "dinosaurs" - think that way.
  • Your holding it wrong ! Lol I agree with u 100%....now apple is telling us our brains don't work right!
  • Rene, I have totally disagree with you. If we continue to dumb down everything we become 1984 all over again. I have interacted with many businesses and schools over the past 27 years with the Mac. Example. A user create's a project with Quark Express. You have the Quark Document, Graphics, Fonts and Text related to the Document. You put all those files into the same folder. Possible under "DropBox", under Mac OS X and Mac OS 9 and earlier. With iCloud forget it. I gave iCloud a try, but like MobleMe Apple just doesn't get it yet! Steve Jobs new "DropBox" was the answer, he just wouldn't pay the price to get it. iCloud for handling personal Calendars and Contacts may work some of the time, but for me Pages in the Cloud is a total disaster. DropBox worked so well I ponied up and paid for it even though I didn't need all the extra space. DropBox Works I can't imagine my friends Law Office under iCloud. It would be more like Documents in a Tornado or Hurricane! I do enjoy most of your writing and your work on MacBreak Weekly, but iCloud. I think your judgement was Clouded! Regards, Joseph J Gudac Jr.
    gudac@mac.com
  • Comes on files app in ios 7 and airdrop.
  • Can't agree much, I think Dropbox is perfection; specially if implemented as in the iPad app Notes Plus, there's not much to improve (if anything).
  • Drop box is really great. Hierarchical folder structures are great for easy organising. iCloud is a pain in the butt and I steer clear of it.
  • I love iCloud. It's great at keeping my backups, for restoring, for music. I like that I can download my iTunes music to any iOS device. Same with contacts, Photo Stream. All this is done with little input from me, the user. So it makes it extremely simple to use.
  • Renee, What you want is complete integration, and organized unrestricted cloud. You basically want Outlook on steroids. I'm not saying I could walk into Apple and start coding iOS from the ground up, but what I do know about iOS is it is being pushed and stretched beyond the limits it was created for. To have an OS as the groundwork and apps running over the OS is now in 2013 an archaic design. I think what you are wanting (and this is my best understanding of iOS code & protocol) is beyond the capabilities of iOS, like Widgets or Twitter/Facebook integration without actually building the app into iOS. I predict Evernote integration into Notes but not until a new platflorm is released by Apple to replace iOS, we are all stuck in limbo.
  • "it's a relic of the past. It's a file system. It's a hierarchy" In the immortal words of the Monty Python Cheese Shop sketch, "explain the logic underlying that conclusion, please." Everything on your wish list is accomplished by a file system with document type handlers. Your assertion is therefore...curious. You disclaim it by saying that *you* are also a dinosaur, but, aside from Apple's dictates, where is the evidence of the masses of mammalians who demand closed per-app document silos?
  • If anyone wants to sign up to Dropbox, use this link. It's a referral system, and we both get 500MB extra space for free, no strings attached. http://db.tt/ToqJBjNE
  • iCloud is not a file browser. The whole point is that the user does not have to interact with it. It just works. Sandboxing is another reason for its design. With OS X moving towards sandboxing, apps are only permitted to open files they create. iOS, which employs sandboxing, does not have the ability to work in a traditional Finder mode anyway. Where Apple does need to improve their iCloud service is to merge iCloud files with the traditional Open / Save feature, so that only the app that creates a file can see it, but you don't have to specifically go to iCloud to see the files in that app Cheers !
  • This argument makes no sense, but maybe that's because you're a journalist and I'm a web developer. I could not operate my development business without a file hierarchy , it would be completely impossible. Hell... A website can't hardly even exist without one.
  • I think this is the core of the "problem" right here. Developers and techies are exactly that small subset of humans that "do" file hierarchies and have no problem with sorting files into folders, keeping things organised, and finding them again when needed. The "problem" comes because almost all other humans have huge problems with this. The majority of people are the "other" way and don't want to have to manage and store their files. The average messy desktop is proof of this fact, as is the ten years or so of Apple's efforts to get around the file system so it's users can actually find stuff and work with files efficiently. The developers making the apps just don't "get" this. It's against their own nature to do so.
  • Those of you wanting a file app, just jailbreak your device and get iFile.
  • Install and run a copy of Copernic Desktop Search on a Windows machine -- or better yet a large network -- to get an idea of how to retrieve and use information in a wide variety of formats despite the fact (yes, despite) that the information is stored in heirarchical folder and file-type fashion. We installed it years ago, with the complicity but not approval of the IT folks, in a large Canadian government department and productivity immediately soared and error rates dropped dramatically as people suddenly started finding and using everything they wanted in a system that had baffled them before. We had thousands of PowerPoints, hundreds of thousands of Word documents, audio and audio-visual files, PDFs, and a host more of things, and suddenly a search could find anything within and across these categories, and on a click all these files opened from within Copernicsearch results. The system always presented the most recent versions first, etc. If Apple is headed in the direction Rene indicates, and they obviously are with iOS and OS now under one man, they could do worse than study Copernic as a model not just for finding, but for organizing and making useful what is found, whether in desktop or cloud information-base.