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iCloudy with a 100% chance of stupidity

I use a lot of cloud services for file storage, primarily Dropbox, but also Box and (begrudgingly, for certain shared projects) Google Drive.

I also use iCloud, but not in any way that would be considered a true cloud file storage service. I use it strictly as a sync service for contacts, calendars, reminders, notes, Safari; I also use Back to My Mac.

But that’s it; I don’t use iCloud for cloud-based file management at all. Why not? Because iCloud in its current implementation is chock full of the stupid, at least for those of us who still use and rely on OS X.

Stupid #1: Not enough free space, and too costly for more

A quick comparison chart shows just how far out of line iCloud is with other cloud-based services:

Provider Free Tier 1 Tier 2 Tier 3
GB GB $/Yr $/GB/yr GB $/Yr $/GB/yr GB $/Yr $/GB/yr
Box 10 100 $60 $0.600 1000 $180 $0.180
Dropbox 2 100 $100 $1.000 200 $199 $0.995 500 $499 $0.998
Google Drive 15 100 $24 $0.240 1,000 $120 $0.120 10,000 $1,200 $0.120
iCloud 5 15 $20 $1.333 25 $40 $1.600 55 $100 $1.818
Pricing sources: Box • Dropbox • Google DriveiCloud
Note that you can get additional free space on Dropbox through referrals and uploading images; Box occasionally offers a promo with 50GB of free space.

Kirk McElhearn covers this price and space issue in more detail in his blog post, Why Does Apple Only Offer 5 GB Storage with iCloud?.

I agree with him; if iCloud wants to attract more users, it needs more free space, and more competitively priced upgrade plans.

Read on for more of the stupid…

Stupid #2: iCloud documents exist only within apps

In response to Kirk’s pricing article, David Chartier discussed the pricing relative to Apple’s overriding goal for iCloud: to kill the filesystem, at least as far as users are concerned. David wrote:

I don’t think most regular users care about direct file access like this. In fact, I’d argue that it’s a hinderance, an intimidating aspect of computing that Apple has long been directly working towards removing.

In pursuit of that goal, iCloud’s storage space exists only within an application. (Kirk describes this as the iCloud black hole.) Work on Pages or Keynote or Numbers on your Mac or iOS device, and your files will save to iCloud…but only be accessible from within the applications that created the files, regardless of which device or Mac you’re using.

While this may be fine for someone who spends the majority of their time on iOS devices (which are application centric), it simply doesn’t work for anyone using OS X, even on relatively simple projects.

For example, something as basic as a blog post can involve text, images, and possibly audio and/or video files. Most OS X users that I’ve met would organize that project into a folder, so they can get to all the project-related files in one place. Open the folder, and there’s everything you need to work on the project.

With iCloud, you can’t do that. Instead, you have to open each application—and remember which applications you used for each file in the project—in order to find and work on the project. You can export files from iCloud and save them to your Mac, but that’s a lot more work, and it must be done on a file-by-file basis.

Once a project grows beyond a simple blog post, this is a a horribly unusable workflow. It also makes sharing work much more complicated, as you can’t share a project folder, but instead must share every individual file with every involved user.

Contrast this with Dropbox, which offers two great ways to share. First off, you can set up a shared folder on dropbox.com, and invite specific users to share that folder.

Second, you can use a contextual menu item in OS X to get the sharing link for any item or folder in your Dropbox. Copy that link, send it to those you wish to access the files, and you’ve shared the entire project.

iCloud simply isn’t set up to handle projects, and that makes it unworkable for anything that extends beyone one document.

Stupid #3: iCloud cannot be ubiquitous

If Apple really wants iCloud to replace the filesystem, which I will grant is a confusing and intimidating thing to deal with, then you’d think they’d go to great lengths to make iCloud available to everyone—both developers and end users alike.

But that’s not the case; check out the web sites for nearly any application that’s available on both the App Store and directly from the developer, and you’ll see stuff like this:

  • Coda 2: “iCloud Sync for Sites & Clips: Laptop to desktop, easy. (App Store only.)”
  • PDFPen: “Now you can edit your PDFs wherever you are. Use iCloud or Dropbox for seamless editing with PDFpen for iPad and PDFpen for iPhone. (iCloud requires Mac App Store version.)”
  • MindNode: “Documents in iCloud is a OS X feature that is only available for applications purchased through the Mac App Store.”

See a trend there? These developers only include iCloud support in the App Store version of their apps. This isn’t because these developers hate direct buyers and want to force their customers to the App Store. No, it’s because Apple hates direct buyers and wants to force their customers to the App Store.

How do they do that? By restricting iCloud to apps sold through the Mac App Store:

Note: iCloud entitlements are available only to apps submitted to the App Store or to the Mac App Store.

In case you’d like to read the full story, you can find the above snippet in Apple’s iCloud Design Guide. (Note the restriction also applies to the iOS App Store, but it’s a moot point there, because if you want to be on iOS, you’re going to be selling through the iOS App Store.)

Given this restriction on the Mac side of things, there’s no way iCloud can replace the filesystem. There’s an entire world of applications that aren’t now in the Mac App Store, and won’t ever be in the Mac App Store.

And as much as Apple might like you to think that the Mac App Store can meet all of your computing needs, that’s just not the case. You won’t find Microsoft Office in the Mac App Store. You won’t find Adobe’s design apps in the Mac App Store.

You also won’t find apps that rely on inter-application communication in the App Store. You won’t find kernel extensions. You won’t find System Preferences panels. In short, you won’t find a huge population of apps in the App Store—and many of these apps would benefit from access to iCloud for document storange and sharing.

But no, Apple is using iCloud as the carrot at the end of the stick to attract developers to the App Store. But that strategy only works if you allow any type of program into the App Store (after a review, of course; I’m not suggesting an open store).

With restrictions in place on the types of apps available through the store, iCloud is destined to be a technology available on only a subset of the apps available for OS X. And that’s no way to get everyone using your technology.

Where do we go from here?

iCloud has potential—given the size of the iOS and Mac OS X user base, it’d be stupid to claim it didn’t. But to really succeed, especially if Apple wants it to eventually replace the filesystem, I think iCloud needs to address its capacity and pricing disparity; it needs some way to handle documents outside of applications (an iCloud folder with subfolders would work well), and it needs to be available to all developers, regardless of where they sell their apps.

Until such changes are made, iCloud will remain (for myself and many others, at least) nothing more than a freaky sideshow in the cloud computing circus.

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