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iCloud Is Bloated

I’ve written recently about iCloud; about how it’s a black hole that swallows up your data and documents, and how Apple is stingy with storage. But when you think about it, iCloud is many different services, all wrapped into one. Perhaps there are too many. You often hear people complain that certain apps are bloated; perhaps iCloud is bloated too, and this bloat makes it hard to manage and use.

So what exactly is iCloud? Apple’s website shows the many things it does:

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  • Content everywhere: iCloud allows you to access purchases from Apple’s various stores – the iTunes Store, the iBooks Store, the App Store and the Mac App Store – on all your devices. You can buy items, download them on different devices, and have them automatically download to certain devices. And you can stream video content you’ve purchased – or rented – to Apple devices as well.
  • iTunes Match: match your iTunes library, and access your music from iTunes, or an iOS device, anywhere. In theory.
  • iCloud Photo Sharing: this is your Photo Stream. It shares photos from any of your devices to all of your other devices.
  • Find My iPhone, and Find My Mac: this lets you find an Apple device, whether it’s lost or stolen, or whether you simply can’t remember where you put your iPhone.
  • Find My Friends: this lets you keep track of where your friends are.
  • Apps and iCloud: iCloud allows apps to store files and data, making them accessible across devices. This includes files you create with, say, Pages or Numbers, but also data that certain apps can store for you. This uses Apple’s CoreData, which has proven to be complex and unreliable.
  • iWork for iCloud: this recent addition offers web-based versions of Apple’s iCloud apps, which show the same files you’ve created or edited on your Mac or iOS device.
  • Safari: iCloud saves bookmarks, and even lets you access open browser windows on different devices.
  • iCloud Keychain: sync your passwords and credit cards across devices.
  • Mail, Calendar and Contacts: this is the heart of iCloud, and the part of the service that has been around the longest. Email is accessible on all your devices – even non-Apple devices – and on the web; contacts and calendars sync across devices.
  • Backup and Storage: finally, you can back up iOS devices to iCloud, and store files there, from specific apps. This overlaps a bit with Apps and iCloud.

A reader recently posted a comment to one of my articles saying that “iCloud just works.” Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. As I mentioned above, iCloud swallows up your data and documents, only giving access to the specific app that created them. Document syncing can be wonky, and I’ve lost files, and have heard from many readers who have had that problem too. (Have a browse of Apple’s iCloud support forums to see some of the many problems.)

I’ve found that data often doesn’t sync in a timely manner, doesn’t update regularly, and sometimes doesn’t update at all. I’ve had problems with contacts, repeatedly, and have had to zero my contacts and re-add them all again.

As for email, it’s fine when it works, which is most of the time. Oh, except the fact that iCloud deletes certain emails when it sees keywords it doesn’t like; it doesn’t tell you, whether they’re emails you’ve sent, or ones sent to you.

Safari bookmarks sync most of the time, but I have to wait a while if I want to open a web page that I’m looking at on my Mac on a different device. iCloud tabs works, but it’s slow.

iTunes Match sort of works for many users, but I get plenty of emails from users who have problems. I often get errors when updating iTunes Match, and the way it works is inscrutable. Problems with iTunes Match are legion.

Apps that sync data with iCloud often have problems. Granted, this may be partly because of the apps themselves not working correctly with iCloud, but there are enough developers with iCloud troubleshooting pages to suggest that the problem is systemic. Some developers simply gave up trying to get iCloud to work. And, don’t forget, only apps sold in Apple’s stores can even use iCloud, limiting its use. The Verge has a long article about apps and developers who have had problems with iCloud, mentioning many who simply gave up.

And regarding storage; again, 5 GB is not a lot, considering that I’ve spent, well, thousands of dollars on Apple devices. I don’t keep a lot of email on my mail servers, and my iCloud email address is not my main account. But I know people who do, and their email eats up a good share of their 5 GB. But there’s not much I can do with that storage, other than back up my iOS devices and store files created with iCloud-compatible apps. I can’t put files there to share with other users, as I used to be able to do with the iDisk (which was part of MobileMe). Yes, I use Dropbox, but if Apple wants people to integrate iCloud into their lives, a file receptacle is essential.

Apple has never been successful with online services. From iTools to .Mac, from MobileMe to iCloud, there have always been problems. Apple has constantly rebranded these services, hoping that users would forget the previous problems, but it’s still a nightmare for many users.

Perhaps Apple is trying to do too much with iCloud. Perhaps they need to scale back the service, or not lump so many things together. I don’t know what the solution is, but I’d really like iCloud to just work.

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The Cloud Bursts its Bubble

The cloud has been in the news lately. Prices are starting to drop for a number of cloud services – those online, in-the-ether file repositories. Google and Amazon have both lowered their prices recently, by about 50% for Amazon, and 68% for Google.

But iCloud still only offers you 5 GB storage, no matter how many Apple devices you have, upgrades to iCloud are expensive, and Dropbox is holding back for now on reducing its prices.

I’ve got storage on several cloud servers:

  • Dropbox: I have 25 GB; the initial free 2 GB, plus another 23 GB I earned by referring people to Dropbox, by using their camera upload feature, and some other promotions.
  • Google Drive: I have 65 GB on Google Drive. There’s a free 15 GB, and I earned another 50 GB – good for two years – when I bought my Motorola Moto G smartphone.
  • Box: I’ve got 50 GB with Box, which came from a promotion the company ran a few months ago.
  • iCloud: I’ve got a measly 5 GB on iCloud, even though I own a Mac mini, a MacBook Pro, an iPhone, an iPad air, an iPad mini and an iPod touch. (I also have a few other iPods that can’t access the internet.) You’d think they’d give me a bit more to be able to back up all those iOS devices.

That’s a lot of space, and the only two I use regularly, for now, are Dropbox and iCloud. The former because I use it to collaborate with others, notably for my Take Control books, and the latter for apps, data and iOS backups.

But I’ve just added another cloud service, and this one is breaking all records for pricing. MediaFire has just released an iOS app, to go with its web-based and desktop service, and is running a promotion. MediaFire starts you off with a free 10 GB, and has two paid price plans. The 1 TB – yes, that’s 1,000 GB – plan is $5 a month, and the 100 TB plan is $50 a month. So, for $50 a year – you get a discount if you pay yearly – you get 1 terabyte of storage. Compared to iCloud, you’re getting 40 times as much storage for $10 more a year. Granted, it’s not baked into Apple’s apps, but the MediaFire desktop app works a lot like Dropbox, as does the iOS app.

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I’m tempted to grab the 1 TB plan, which is currently on sale half price: just $25 a year for now. I doubt I’d use all that space, though if I had enough upstream bandwidth, I’d use it to back up my music library. But it would be nice to know it’s there if I ever need it.

Cloud storage prices are going to continue to fall, and MediaFire has taken a bold step. They probably know that most users who take a 1 TB plan won’t use a lot of that space, but giving you that much for the price of a couple of movie tickets is impressive. It remains to be seen how reliable MediaFire is, but, for now, I like the way it looks.

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iCloud Is a Black Hole

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.

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Why Does Apple Only Offer 5 GB Storage with iCloud?

Apple’s iCloud is used for several purposes. You may use it for email; you can use it to sync your contacts and calendars; you can store files there, notably for Apple’s iWork apps; and you can use it to back up your iOS devices.

But what if you have several iOS devices, and also use iCloud for email and documents? If you back up your iOS devices to the cloud, you’ll quickly hit the 5 GB limit. I explain how to trim iOS device iCloud backups, but, still, some people will hit that limit quickly.

Apple’s free 5 GB is a good thing; it entices people to use iCloud. But it’s not enough. If they want people to use iCloud, they should make it easier to use. Apple’s prices for storage are quite expensive:

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Yes, you can get an extra 10 GB for only $20 a year; that’s enough to back up a couple more devices, but it’s pretty stingy. For $100 a year, you only get 55 GB (the free 5 GB plus another 50). Cloud storage prices are plummeting, and Dropbox, for example, gives you 100 GB for $100 a year, and Dropbox’s storage is much more flexible, since you can access it directly from a Mac.

Apple needs to move to a model where they give you more storage, perhaps 5 GB per device. It’s not that hard to manage; they could give you the storage when you buy the device, and have you register it, and then, say, once a year, have you connect to iCloud with the device to verify that you still own it. Or, if they were smart, they’d just give you a lot more storage free. After all, OS X is free, iOS is free, and the iWork apps are now free as well. Why make it so hard to manage file storage and backups?

(Note: when I bought my Android phone, it came with an extra 50 GB storage on Google Drive for two years; that’s in addition to the default 15 GB.)

By the way, I’ve paid for Apple’s online services since the beginning: iTools, MobileMe and .Mac. I very much regretted the loss of the iDisk – even though it didn’t work very well – but Dropbox has stepped in to to that type of receptacle, useful for sharing large files, the right way. I wouldn’t mind paying Apple for iCloud, if the service were good enough, and if there were enough storage. But let’s wait and see: with their big data centers, I have a feeling they may be planning something for the next big versions of OS X and iOS.

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Is Apple’s iCloud an Unsocial Network?

Michael Cohen, writing at TidBITS, thinks so.

So don’t look to iCloud as it evolves for best of breed collaborative software, for media sharing flexibility, for services that foster and promote community. Apple has always been a personal computer company; group hugs are not in its DNA.

He notes something I’ve pointed out several times when writing about Apple IDs and iTunes Store accounts:

Related Apple services and their limitations mirror the me-ness of iCloud. Your iTunes account is associated with a single Apple ID, and makes no real provision for families or even for transferring ownership. If a couple breaks up, or a child goes away to school, the media obtained from one iTunes account can’t be divvied up the way books and videotapes and DVDs and Blu-rays and CDs and LPs can. It’s one owner, now and forever.

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Understanding iCloud Backups of iOS Devices

With the recent demise of free iCloud storage for MobileMe users, many people are wondering whether they need to pay for more iCloud storage to keep their iOS devices backed up. A free iCloud account comes with 5 GB storage, and paid upgrades are available. But how much of that 5 GB do you really need? (To be fair, 5 GB is really stingy; Yahoo! is now offering 1 TB of storage for its email; not that you’d ever use anywhere near that amount…)

You can check by looking on your iOS device. Go to Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup > Manage Storage. You’ll see how much space is used by your different devices, by different apps (Documents & Data), and by iCloud email.

2013-10-10 11.39.18.pngIn the screenshot to the right, you can see my 64 GB iPhone; it’s almost full with music, so why is the backup only 188 MB? This can be confusing; from some emails I’ve gotten recently, people think that iCloud backs up is all or most of the content on your iOS device.

Apple has a support document which explains what gets backed up:

  • Purchased music, movies, TV shows, apps, and books
  • Photos and videos in your Camera Roll
  • Device settings
  • App data
  • Home screen and app organization
  • iMessage, text (SMS), and MMS messages
  • Ringtones
  • Visual Voicemail

Your iCloud backup includes information about the content you have purchased, but not the purchased content itself. When you restore from an iCloud backup, your purchased content is automatically downloaded from the iTunes Store, App Store, or iBookstore based on iTunes in the Cloud availability by country. Previous purchases may be unavailable if they have been refunded or are no longer available in the store.

Your iOS device backup only includes data and settings stored on your device. It doesn’t include data already stored in iCloud, for example contacts, calendars, bookmarks, mail messages, notes, shared photo streams, and documents you save in iCloud using iOS apps and Mac apps.

2013-10-10 12.08.05.pngAs the above says, iCloud doesn’t actually back up that much; it backs up settings and links to apps and other iTunes Store content, as well as photos and documents. But it doesn’t back up any actual apps, music or videos, so none of these will use any of your iCloud storage.

The main case where your iOS device backup will be large is if you have a lot of photos or videos (that you’ve shot) on your device. If you’ve already moved those photos to your computer, you can turn off photo backups to save space. In the Manage Storage screen, tap on your iOS device, then toggle off Camera Roll. While you’re at it, you can turn off backups for other apps too; just find them in the list, and toggle their backups off. This will not only save space, but make iCloud backups quicker.

You may also have some apps that store large documents; in that case, these documents will get backed up. If you don’t need backups of a specific app’s documents, you can turn that app off in the above settings. (For example, you may have an app you use to view PDFs or photos, that you use for work; if you have copies of the files on your computer, there’s no need to back them up to iCloud.)

Also, if you use Mac apps that store documents in iCloud – notably Apple’s Pages, Keynote or Numbers, but many others can as well – you may need more storage space for them. Also, if you have a lot of iCloud email, that will take up space. (You can always cull your email, moving some of it to your computer.) But if you don’t use iCloud for large documents, and don’t have a lot of email, you may find that 5 GB is enough for a couple of iOS devices.

So check what you need to back up. You might be able to trim your backups and save money on iCloud storage.

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Goodbye Free iCloud Storage

For many of us who were MobileMe members before iCloud, the day of reckoning has come. We no longer have the “complimentary” 20 GB online storage in iCloud that Apple so graciously gave us. The email came this morning, telling me the bad news:

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My iCloud settings in System Preferences haven’t updated to show this yet:

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No big deal. As you can see above, I don’t use much of my storage: less than 1 GB. (Though the email from Apple says I use 0 GB of storage.) I won’t need to pay for iCloud storage, and I suspect not many people will. It will be interesting to see the uptake as users lose their free storage.

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Free iCloud Storage Space to Vaporize September 30

If, like me, you had an Apple MobileMe account when the company introduced iCloud, in October, 2011, you currently have a total of 25 GB, or a bonus of 20 GB to compensate for MobileMe. The older service had a 20 GB iDisk, and Apple felt that adding that 20 GB to the free 5 GB that comes with every iCloud account would be fair compensation.

Well, that free space will be vaporizing soon; on October 1, 2013, your iCloud account will go back to 5 GB.


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For most people, this won’t make a difference. I only use less than 1 GB of my storage, as I only save a handful of documents to iCloud, preferring Dropbox. iCloud’s limitations – you can only open a file with the same app that created it (even though there are workarounds) – makes it too limited. Dropbox is far more flexible. I can open any files from my Dropbox folder with any app, and tons of iOS app support Dropbox as well, whereas there are no workarounds for iCloud on iOS to access files with different apps.

So, if you’re an iCloud user, be forewarned. I don’t know what Apple will do if you’re using more than 5 GB on the cut-off date; perhaps they’ll try to automatically charge you for the extra space. But have a look at your iCloud settings (System Preferences > iCloud) to make sure you’re under the limit. Unless, of course, you plan to renew with more than the basic 5 GB allocation.

What about you? How much space do you need for iCloud? Are you planning to pony up for a paid account? Feel free to post in the comments.

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