Why Are Apple’s Cloud Services So Weak?


(Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: “Weeks after its high-profile launch, Apple’s [new cloud service] has been drawing widespread criticism from [iPhone/iPad/Mac] users angry about a troubling pattern of [lost files/downtime/crashes/bandwidth overages/skin rashes].”

(Just kidding about the rashes. Sorry, Apple.)

This moment-of-truth story about flaws found in a new Apple service is becoming a core part of the Apple news cycle, up there with next-iDevice rumor stories and one-month-later assessments of life with Apple gadgets. But why?

Downtime and data losses

Let’s start by inventorying the category of Apple-service snafus most likely to make the news: the ones that are either unintentional or unexpected, in the sense of not living up to Apple’s own descriptions.

For example, not long after Apple Music launched, Mac journalist Kirk McElhearn realized the service was providing copies of songs he owned that came encumbered with “digital rights management” restrictions, not the DRM-free copies his iTunes Match subscription should have yielded.

Only weeks later, Loop Insight blogger Jim Dalrymple related an even worse experience that involved 4,700 songs apparently going missing. Days later, he was able to recover most of those songs… with in-person help from Apple at its campus.

(In McElhearn and Dalrymple’s cases, confusion caused by Apple’s vague documentation and general inability to communicate could be a factor.)

Before that, Apple’s new Photos for OS X app was surprising Mac owners by monopolizing their bandwidth while uploading their photos to iCloud. As Jason Snell wrote at Six Colors, this routine was “saturating my outbound Internet connection and making it essentially unusable.”

And prior to that, users of Apple’s iMessage found texts from friends disappearing if they switched from an iPhone to another phone without first deactivating iMessage on their Apple phone (something that’s hard to do when somebody steals your iPhone first).

Apple’s iCloud service has suffered such high-profile security breaches as last year’s “Celebgate” hackings and the remote erasure of writer Mat Honan’s devices in 2012. Developers have voiced more than their share of complaints about its unreliability, and users have griped about downtimes unannounced on Apple’s own status page.

Give Apple this much credit, though: iCloud hasn’t been nearly as awful as its woeful predecessor MobileMe and Mac.com—both services for which Apple charged $99 a year.

(Who was dumb enough to sign up for them? Me, for one. I really can’t explain what I was thinking then, but it may have been related to paying for an account on Apple’s AOL-based eWorld online service in an earlier millennium.)

Other restrictions apply

But then you have instances where Apple services function as God and Steve Jobs intended: They’re carefully closed extensions of its ecosystem that assume your gadget spending starts and stops at an Apple Store.

Even an iCloud with 100 percent uptime, for instance, would less useful than Dropbox, Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive—because, unlike iCloud, those online-storage services let you access your files from any Web browser.

In contrast, you can see your Mac’s contacts and calendars at iCloud.com, as well as by using Apple’s own iOS and OS X apps. But if you want to sync them elsewhere, Apple will say you must use Microsoft Outlook, the one program its iCloud for Windows software supports.

(You can get your iCloud data on Android devices with third-party software, courtesy of iCloud employing open calendar and contacts standards. But you didn’t hear that from Cupertino.)

Apple’s unilateral approach gets particularly silly in social services. Find My Friends and the location-sharing features added to iMessage are of limited utility unless your pals first meet Apple’s system requirements.

I’ve even seen Apple break something as simple as a Web page: If you try to bring up its Find My Phone site on an Android device, you’ll be sent away for using a “not currently supported” browser. But if you then use the Chrome browser’s “Request desktop site” option, that page will work fine.

Neither plain nor simple

Two longtime Apple observers could only suggest that this pattern of dysfunctionality lies in the company’s own sense of its priorities, however misguided it might be.

“Apple is more interested in moving fast on the OS (both iOS and OS X) sides than making sure its software (iTunes, iPhotos, and Photos, notably) keeps up, and services seem to fall below that,” wrote Glenn Fleishman, a Macworld columnist with some two decades of experience covering the company. “If services quality and reliability were truly important to Apple, it could deploy them well.”

“Many of Apple’s services are free, and those that aren’t don’t contribute to the company’s bottom line in a significant way,” wrote Adam Engst, who co-founded the TidBITS newsletter in 1990 and still runs the site. “In Apple’s world, services are always subordinate to software, and software exists to sell hardware.”

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has said a similar thing, though not in the same words. As he declares on Apple’s privacy page: “Our software and services are designed to make our devices better. Plain and simple.”

Fair enough. But in that same letter, Cook also throws down a challenge to the conventional way of doing business online—you and I handing over our personal information in exchange for free services.

“We don’t build a profile based on your email content or Web browsing habits to sell to advertisers,” Cook writes. “We don’t ‘monetize’ the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud.”

That’s a message that deserves a wider audience. Apple is offering a privacy-first option I think we need.

But if your decision boils down to picking a free-with-ads service that works on any device or an ethically-pure one that doesn’t… well, ads are easier to ignore than outages and deliberate incompatibility. Meanwhile, an Apple user who’s learned to rely on another company’s e-mail, storage, calendar, and contacts services will have fewer hangups buying somebody else’s computer.

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