iCloud is Not for Everyone

Apple's iCloud - Documents in the Cloud

Apple’s iCloud – Documents in the Cloud promises “all your documents, with all your edits, on every device.” Image: Apple

In the most recent update of the Mac OS, Mountain Lion, the Apple branded cloud computing service iCloud was expanded to more fully embrace the Mac from it’s previous focus on iOS devices, the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.  After taking a look at in in reviews and a one friend’s somewhat exasperated experience with iCloud, I realize that the utility of iCloud will very much depend on what sort of user you are.

One of the enjoyable things I do, rather off to the side of the “day job” is serve as president of my local Mac User Group. Like many things in the tech world, Mac User Groups are not what they once were. Before the era of the internet, Applecare, the Apple Store, and the Genius Bar, Mac (and PC) User groups were often the only casual source of experienced to expert help and guidance for most users, especially non-professionals without their companies to provide IT support. And of course, mac’s were a markedly different species from PCs in those days, and were a lot more … well.. computer-y.

Apple’s arc in the last decade has been to cater to a vast underserved consumer computing market and to that end, has relentlessly pushed simplicity, elegance, design excellence and the appliance nature of their devices. Note that they almost never use the word “computer” any more, it’s even gone from the company name. It’s simply iMac, MacBook, iPhone, iPad… An iPhone is a more powerful and capable micro-sized computer that most of the Power PC line of Macintoshes, just one that happens to have a phone. And they’ve done away with most of the computer-y stuff that most folk associate with desktop computers, while still having it do all those THINGS, and typically very well. (Except Maps at the moment… opps) Using an iPhone, the focus is almost entirely on the apps, and what you’re doing, and not particularly on the device much at all.

Currently Apple is making an effort in it’s desktop computing operating system to bring that ideal to to their desktops and notebooks. And part of that effort is iCloud. But iCloud is not cloud storage as most of you who are power users already use and experience it, such as in Dropbox, Google Drive, Amazon CloudDrive, Microsoft Skydrive. There are also cloud computing services as well like YouSendIt, Amazon Web Services, Google Apps and the like which actually provide computing services and apps remotely, and most of the cloud storage services also have some of this functionality. iCloud also provides some dedicated services for various iPhone, iPad, iPod and Mac users, such as Music Syncing, iTunes matching, Mail and Calendar services, etc.

However, iCloud is NOT a big virtual disk drive in the sky. iCloud is application based, you cant see iCloud files as you might expect on the desktop, or the Finder. You have to connect to them through the application that created them. For instance, your Pages (Apple’s word processing application) documents in iCloud would be visible only from within Pages while Pages is running. You could see some files via the iCloud web interface, but only for certain applications. At the user group meeting, a member informally demoed setting up iCloud and was very frustrated when he enabled iCloud for TextEdit, but treated it like a virtual drive, saving a Photoshop (.psd) document into the iCloud dialog, but was unable to launch it, not being a TextEdit document, but it opened from within textEdit in Preview – the default behavior for Photoshop documents in TextEdit.

iCould only works for those cloud-enabled applications that are written with Apple’s iCould APIs, at the moment, apps almost entirely within the Apple Ecosystem. So the more you live within the Apple consumer world, the more utility iCloud has. The more apple devices you have, the more useful it is. If you use iPhoto, your work on the iMac, and your photo stream is available on a MacBook, your iPhone, an iPad, automatically. Your iCal calendars, your music lists, contacts, Mail, Safari bookmarks and browsing, a raft of Apple goodies, now available on all your devices. Also very useful, iCloud provides you with space to back up your iOS device, and restore the device from it.

But plain virtual storage is not offered. So Microsoft Office documents, that a majority of working computer users, is not iCloud enabled. Neither are Adobe Creative Suite applications, mainstays of Creative Professionals. And the more traditional a computer user you are, the more limiting iCloud is.

Macworld put up a pretty good guide to the basics of iCloud after the Mountain Lion update, can get you up and running.

“With Mountain Lion, however, Apple has added new features to iCloud and integrated those sorely missing from its desktop OS. …

“… The biggest of these additions is called Documents in the Cloud. This feature allows the app you’re using to store your documents in the cloud, wirelessly and remotely; you can then access them from any computer or iOS device you’ve linked to iCloud that has that application installed.

“Unlike your Mac’s traditional Finder, each app has its own iCloud Document Library; there’s no master list of all your cloud-based documents. That could make for some confusion if you use multiple apps—text-editing programs, for example—to edit the same kinds of documents.”Serenity Caldwell, Macworld

Now let me make this clear, in Mac OS Lion or Mountain Lion, there is nothing preventing you from organizing your documents as you see fit, and working in familiar and traditional folder-and-file methods. In fact, some of us have to work in this manner, based on our working circumstances. Working folks often have to collect documents and files from a spectrum of applications together in project folders, or by client or employer. Creative people in particular need to do this. I will very often have within a project folder, page layouts in Indesign. Photos and graphics from Photoshop, Logo built in Illustrator, Word and Pages and Excel and Powerpoint and Keynote files, and HTML files for a website, within it’s own structured folder. 

This does not translate well for many professional users in iCloud. For instance, I am writing this in Apple Pages saving this into a folder called “Blog Articles” to keep is separate from my professional work. But in iCloud, it can only go in the Pages iCloud space. If I wanted to import this text into inDesign as part of a print document, I better save a local copy, inDesign can’t see into iCloud, and even if it was iCloud enabled, it would only see into the inDesign folder.

If you want to find out more, this is Apple’s iCloud page.

“iCloud does more than store your content — it lets you access your music, photos, calendars, contacts, documents, and more, from whatever device you’re on. And it’s built into every new iOS device and every new Mac.” – Apple

Ars Technica, who I prefer over C|Net News now for their harder science, put up a detailed (really!) 24-page review of Mountain Lion, and devote a few pages to the tech of iCloud. Leans a bit technical, but very informative, especially under the hood.

John Siracusa gets into some of the implications of Apple’s app-centric approach.

“Well, iCloud is not the desktop. There is no comforting, easy-to-locate interface element that provides a constant overview of the contents of iCloud. The iCloud incarnation of the open/save dialog certainly does not fit the bill. It needs to be triggered from within an application, and it doesn’t show every file in iCloud anyway. (More on that in a bit.)

“For more experienced users, cloud storage solutions like Dropbox provide a much more familiar experience. But for novice users, history has shown that direct interaction with the file system is where usability goes to die. iCloud blunts the worst of these sharp edges, but in the process it also sacrifices some extremely desirable traits that users cling to.” – John Siracusa, Ars Technica

Pocket-Lint posted a thoughtful, and updated comparison article reviewing the various services.

“It’s been a busy time for cloud storage and music services and Apple’s launch onto the scene with Apple iCloud has officially declared it global war. The lines have begun to blur as to what you own, where you own it and just how much you have to pay for the privilege to do so and one could be forgiven for doing a little head scratching on the matter.”Dan Sung, Pocket-Lint

In it’s current form, certain to evolve, the usefulness and utility of iCloud depends very much on what kind of user you are, and what you DO. Of course Apple’s products are always evolving, and there are certainly alternatives in a competitive marketplace. As ever with all tech, your mileage will most certainly vary. I am too much of a chicken old curmudgeon (in training) to try and switch over just frakkin’ yet; but I’d love to see accounts of working persons, especially Creative Pros, that went “all-in” on Apple’s application-centric approach and see how that worked out for them.

I’d read it.

Google Drive
Amazon CloudDrive
Microsoft Skydrive

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