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How Apple Sees the Cloud: Not Like You Do

Rob Pegoraro
Tech Columnist
June 3, 2014
Cloud Computing, Apple-Style: There Is Only An App For That
Cloud Computing, Apple-Style: There Is Only An App For That

The news from Apple at Monday’s Worldwide Developers Conference left me with the same impression I’ve had about many presentations from the company: This looks neat, but at what point will I find my data or my apps on the wrong side of an elegantly designed, Apple-built wall?

iCloud still closed
For a worst-case example, see the new iCloud Drive online storage system. In a welcome and overdue fix, iCloud will now let you get at online files through the desktop Finder, not just in the Open and Save dialogs of particular apps

This desktop access will be reserved for the Finder in the upcoming OS X Yosemite (which will at least be free). Apple’s preview page, however, says Windows uploading will be limited to just Windows 8 — as in, the version that CEO Tim Cook mocked at the start of the WWDC keynote for running on a mere 14 percent of PCs.

Want to connect to iCloud from an Android device? Forget it. And the Web access that came with Apple’s long-gone iDisk isn’t an option either — except for photos, which you will be able to view in a browser.

iCloud Drive looks like an improvement, but three years after iCloud’s debut, it still functions more as a cable connecting Apple-approved devices than as a window open to all. It remains far from the kind of anywhere, any-device access you get with Dropbox, Google Drive, or Microsoft’s OneDrive. 

And this controlling mind-set extends to developers who use iCloud storage in their apps. When programs are written using Apple’s new Cloud Kit code framework, they can be sold only in the iOS and Mac App Stores. This makes it expensive or impossible to ship an Android, Web, or Windows version later on.

Is it really that hard for Cupertino to accept that some of its customers might use somebody else’s phone or tablet while still valuing its services and the apps built on them? Management there has to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, Android has to lose.

(You might want to use only Apple’s devices, but what about your friends and family? You don’t get to choose their computers, and you might want to share data with them at some point, or need to borrow a device.)

This comes even as other parts of the keynote showed the company undoing old mistakes and opening up to non-Apple services: Safari will once again support RSS subscriptions, and iOS 8 will let you use third-party onscreen keyboards.

“Continuity” over compatibility
I was more impressed by Monday’s demos of “Continuity”: moving data and communications from iOS to OS X and back. If you own both an iPhone and a Mac, you’ll be able to start a phone call on either device and then transfer it over. Email and document hand-offs looked instant and obvious, signaled by notifications on each device. Using your phone as a WiFi hotspot would require only bringing it near the Mac. (Aren’t we glad AT&T can’t shut down a feature like this anymore?)

Some of these nifty capabilities aren’t so novel. Switching a document from one device to another is nothing new for Google Docs users. Starting a message on one device and finishing it on another comes free in Web mail and any mail service using standard IMAP synchronization (sorry, most likely not your Internet provider’s crummy email). Bluetooth already does hands-free calling — and years ago, Apple let you use it to place a call from a Mac’s Address Book app, although you had to switch to your phone for the actual chit-chat.

But where most of Continuity involves Apple making existing possibilities look not so remote, Apple’s WWDC boast about enabling AirDrop file transfer between iOS and OS X devices represents the company reinventing the wheel in a less-rounded form. If Apple had supported Bluetooth file transfer in iOS — something OS X does quite well — it wouldn’t need this proprietary system.

Reply hazy, try again later
I’m on the fence about the souped-up version of Messages coming to iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite this fall. Apple promises strong new features, starting with the ability to bail out of a group text-message chat that’s outlived its usefulness or entertainment value. 

You’ll also be able to share your location temporarily with fellow Messages users (which could in theory end the need for a lot of “Where are you now?” exchanges) and send audio recordings back and forth (which sounds like a functional reincarnation of the old Nextel push-to-talk feature).

But until you can get every one of your pals to buy iPhones, you’ll need to use somebody else’s messaging replacement to have a conversation with all of them that’s fancier than text and attached media. It’s the same hangup that has kept Apple’s Find My Friends app less useful in practice than, say, a group text chat consisting of “Where are you now?” messages.

Don’t forget that Messages is the system with a documented habit of leaving people’s phone numbers in text-messaging limbo if they switch from an iPhone to some other device: Friends using Messages may think they’re still sending texts your way, but they might vanish and never make it to your new phone. 

I didn’t expect Apple executives to say, “Remember that horrible bug? We fixed it!” But letting this problem persist for so long does not speak to a mind-set that accepts that some customers might want to leave the fold. And it’s something you should think about before hopping into Apple’s embrace.

True to itself
Apple is a publicly traded company, not a public utility, and it doesn’t owe us openness or compatibility. But the flip side of Monday’s pitch of an elegantly seamless experience from one Apple device to another means that Apple is making it even harder on customers who might want to exit its ecosystem. And it marginalizes your friends who haven’t gone all in on Apple.

It also undercuts Apple’s privacy-first counter to Google’s business, which is based on funneling aggregated data about us to advertisers. Google could use some competition, but Apple’s offering of services that look intentionally closed or broken won’t help with that. Neither does suggesting to customers that the price of privacy is getting locked into one vendor.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.