iCloud Is a Black Hole

04/09/2014

IcloudI recently wrote about how 5 GB is insufficient for an iCloud account for many users, especially those who have multiple iOS devices. It would be a lot more logical for Apple to offer additional space when you buy a device from them. Heck, I’ve got two Macs, an iPhone, iPad Air, iPad mini, and an iPod touch. I don’t use much of my iCloud storage, because I don’t back up a lot of data from the iOS devices. But still; what if I wanted to back them all up, and found that I hit the limit?

But there’s another problem with iCloud: it’s a black hole. When used as designed, you don’t see a file system. Each app that stores data on iCloud does so in its own space, and you can only access that data or those files from those specific apps.

This is an annoyance. Say you’ve created a file with an app that stores your data on iCloud, and you want to view or open it in another app? On OS X, you can export the file, but on iOS you’re stuck.

Imagine this scenario. You created a file with an app, and for some reason, that app doesn’t work for you. It crashes, or misbehaves, and perhaps you can’t re-download it right away, or the new version has the same problem. I’ve seen this happen with some iOS apps, and the developers have to wait for Apple to approve an update that fixes the bugs.

Your data or files are locked into the black hole that this app, and only this app, accesses. There’s no way to get the file. Again, on OS X, there are workarounds. iCloud files are saved locally, in ~/Library/Mobile Documents; even those files you created on iOS devices, with iOS-only apps. (There are also apps that let you access these files more easily.) But if you don’t have access to a Mac, there’s no way to get them. You can’t even access them from the iCloud web site; but, of course, you can’t access that site from an iOS device anyway.

Another anomaly is that you can save certain documents to iCloud with Apple apps, yet not be able to access them on iOS devices. Create files with Preview or TextEdit; you can get to them on your Mac, but not on an iPad.

Apple needs to open up iCloud storage. Let apps store files in their own space, but let users access those files if necessary. Ideally, there would be a Dropbox-like app to navigate the iCloud file storage space, and allow users to email files, or open them with other apps that can read the same file formats. I’m not suggesting full access to the file system on iOS; I know Apple will never allow that. I simply want to access files that I’ve saved to iCloud from any app.

iCloud, as it is now, makes no sense. I hope that, in the next versions of iOS and OS X, Apple rebuilds iCloud. It’s a great idea, but the way it works, it’s more trouble than it’s worth, and bad things can happen.

Update: a developer friend pointed out something that’s worth mentioning. OS X apps can only use iCloud if they’re sold through the Mac App Store. (The same is true for iOS apps, but they cannot be sold otherwise, except for jailbroken iOS devices.) Apple should consider dropping this restriction, so more apps can use iCloud, though only if iCloud becomes more flexible. If they want the service to be useful, it needs to become ubiquitous.