The Missing iCloud Storage Bump

In my post yesterday following Apple’s education event, I mentioned that I felt the increase of free iCloud storage for students from 5GB to 200GB was a good idea, and I hoped Apple would be giving us all more storage at WWDC.

Dan Moren feels the same, but more passionately. I think the single best reason for giving us increased storage is Apple Photos. They’ve built a platform that lets us take, save, and share photos, but it requires nearly all of us to make regular monthly payments so we have enough storage. This is annoying. Our Apple devices are expensive, and Apple is hardly cash-strapped. Moreover, a lot of people (perhaps most people?) refuse to pay for extra storage. I hear from readers and listeners all the time that have a problem with it. I expect the refusal to pay is even more common with non-geeks. They don’t pay. Their photos don’t get backed up.

So let’s take the capitalist approach. Taken to its logical conclusion, paltry free storage results in people losing their photos and being understandably pissed at Apple. Google is well aware of this because nearly every advertisement I’ve seen from them that has any relation to photos always points out they have free storage. These disgruntled consumers see that and move platforms.

I'm not even arguing Apple needs to make it free across the board. Just raise the free tier to something rational. 200GB seems about right.

iCloud Text Replacement

There has been a lot of press the last few weeks over iCloud’s lackluster text replacement feature. Brian Stucki wrote an excellent post documenting just how bad the service is.

I have to admit that I forgot iCloud even provided text replacement services. For years I would eagerly test out iCloud text replacement when there was a new version of iOS, but after a while I gave up. I could never get it to work reliably. Indeed, I wasted so much time trying to get it to work that I ultimately gave up and stopped trying.

I left my old job a few years ago, and iCloud text replacement still tries to occasionally drop in that old phone number even though I've fixed that entry repeatedly.

I think that is one of the challenges of iCloud. It covers so many different services that it's easy to lose one or two in the mix, especially when it's one that doesn't work reliably. That has certainly been the case with the text replacement feature.

The good news is that Apple is now moving text replacement onto the CloudKit API, which is much more reliable and should, hopefully, solve the problem once and for all. Indeed, Apple representatives told John Gruber that this rollout would happen "in the next month or so". I sure hope so.

iCloud Authentication Video

Apple has recently announced that starting June 15, any Mac app needing access to iCloud data is going to need an app-specific password. While this is a bit of a pain, it provides a significant increase in your security and I'm all for it. The gang at Fantastical asked me to make a video explaining exactly how to make an iCloud app-specific password. This video is for Fantastical, which is my calendaring weapon of choice, but you'll be going through the same steps with any third party app starting June 15.

New iCloud Storage Pricing

At last week's event, Apple announced new pricing for iCloud storage. You can now get a Terabyte for $9.99/month, which matches Dropbox. They have a lower tier at 200GB for $2.99 and 50GB for $0.99. There still is no method for family sharing, which means I'm currently paying for three people. I like that the pricing is now more in line with Dropbox and other cloud storage providers. I still think the 5GB free storage is not enough when we're buying expensive iPads and iPhones. You can see the international pricing here.

"Organizational Issues"

MacRumors reports on an article about iCloud suffering from  "Deep Organizational Issues". I've had my own set of problems with iCloud as of late but based on everything I've experienced with Apple, including just a tiny bit of the inside, I don't think the iCloud stumbles have been a result of untamed bureaucracy or anything organizational. Everyone I've ever dealt with from Apple is incredibly focussed.

If I had to bet a nickel, I'd say the problem is that cloud stuff between multiple platforms (even platforms you own) is really, really hard. Dropbox and Twitter started small and got big slowly and they had plenty of growing pains along the way. When Apple releases a new cloud service, it immediately has millions of users. Apple still needs to prove they can deliver the goods in the cloud, but I have a hard time believing their cloud-challenges are organizational issues. 


iCloud Drive Syncing Improvements

A few weeks ago I wrote about my problems getting documents to sync with iCloud Drive. In response, I heard from several developer friends telling me that things were about to get better and to install the 8.1.1 developer preview. So I did. After using it for a week, and the beta going out to the wild yesterday, I'm pleased to report iCloud Drive document syncing is loads better with the latest updates. This morning I spent 30 minutes moving between my iPad and Mac on a large numbers spreadsheet and both devices were keeping up. In short, iCloud document syncing is manageable again. Third party apps, like Drafts and Mindnode, are also seeing the benefits of this update. If you've been waiting, or had a bad prior experience, update your Mac and iOS devices with yesterday's updates and give it a try for yourself.

The reason I've been so critical of iCloud lately is because I haven't dismissed it. I see real potential to using Apple's cloud solution. I like its tight integration with the operating system and since I'm using all Apple hardware, it just makes sense for me. I'm also considering going deeper into tagging and assuming that Apple tags will be better supported with an Apple cloud. I hope the problems of last month are initial stumbles. For now, I'm just happy to see the service working again as expected.

iCloud Drive Stumbles

Over the past few weeks I’ve had a post it in development concerning iCloud Drive and document syncing. Through the beta process for both Yosemite and iOS, I had varying degrees of success with synchronizing documents through the iCloud drive, by which I mean it rarely worked. 

Apple made a lot of changes under the hood with these most recent releases and I understood that this was going to be difficult for awhile and I was going to face the host of evils that come with running beta software. However, I also expected that when these products shipped, everything would be sorted out.

I am under no illusions that Apple can magically become the masters of cloud sync overnight, especially when they’ve been behind competitors like Google for so long. I was prepared for a few rough patches as the software released but I was not prepared for the problems I faced when Yosemite finally hit the streets and iCloud Drive was a real thing and no longer a beta thing.

Originally, my ability to sync through iCloud Drive was crippled. My iPhone, iPad, and Mac all had different versions of documents on them despite numerous attempts to reset the system, including logging out of iCloud entirely, switching my .Mac identity to an “iCloud” identity, and even nuking my iPad entirely and starting again from scratch were all fruitless. The most frustrating part is that these failures were not only with third parties using iCloud drive, they were happening with Pages, Numbers, and Keynote as well. How are people at Apple not seeing these problems with their own apps?

For a few weeks, it just didn’t work for me. Sometimes I could get one device to sync with the other temporarily but then a few hours later it would stop. I spent way too much time trying to troubleshoot it and ultimately concluded the problem was probably something server-based or software-based and entirely out of my control. I was like a tribesmen trying to forestall a solar eclipse by looking at chicken bones. I knew at some level that all of my attempts to sort things out was pointless yet I couldn’t stop myself because I needed these documents to synchronize for my work. That whole thing I’ve always felt about my Apple products just working for me and letting me get on with my work went out the window and it drove me nuts.

The version of this post that I wrote a week ago, was a lot less generous than the one I am now posting. The reason for that is about a week ago things started to sort out for the iWork apps. At first, things would start syncing but just take a long time to do so. I’ve got a 20 MB numbers file. It took about 10 minutes to synchronize between my iPad and my Mac. They didn’t allow for simultaneous work but at least I knew I had the data available to me when I needed it. Since then the speed has increased even more. We’ve had a few updates to the iWork apps that have significantly improved iCloud synchronizing speeds as well. It still takes longer than it should to synchronize documents and I expect this is largely server-based. Also, it still is not perfect. I updated a Numbers spreadsheet last night on my Mac and then started working on it this morning on my iPad but realized, about 5 minutes in, that I didn’t have the changes synced from the Mac so I now had two inconsistent versions of the same document. Ugh.

On third party apps, things are still a mess. There was apparently a problem with 8.1 that makes iCloud Drive document sync cause apps using the service to hang up and, generally, break. Several of my favorite third party apps that use iCloud Drive are practically unusable at this point. I’m told the impending 8.1.1 update fixes this but I have to wonder how it got this far. 

I don’t know what to think about Apple and the cloud at this point. I think this is really important to Apple’s success (and my ability to get the most out of their products). Nevertheless, they keep stumbling. I know what they are doing at this massive scale is hard. However, Apple’s secretive nature combined with these obvious problems makes it appear they just don’t care, which I don’t think is true but nonetheless frustrating when it interrupts my flow. I suspect the truth is that the iCloud team is pedaling like mad and don’t want to publicly acknowledge these problems but instead just fix them. I sure hope they do. I’ll be reporting back on iCloud Drive and hope things get better. For now, you can hold on to your Dropbox account.

Can Apple Deliver on the Promised New iCloud Services?

Now that WWDC is over and we've all had a chance to digest Apple's announcements, I've been thinking about Apple and the cloud. Right up until WWDC, there were several questions in my mind.

1. Does Apple realize how important cloud data is to the future of iOS and the Mac?

This question seems silly in hindsight but right up until a few weeks ago, I wasn't even sure this was on their radar. It seemed as if every few years Apple announced some new semi-cloudy initiative but things never really changed. It felt as if this were an issue that received lip service but no actual attention. That changed this year with Apple not only announcing some very aggressive cloud tools but also committing to use these very cloud tools for their own software tools (including picture management).

2. Is Apple working on catching up with cloud services?

I use the term "catching up" intentionally. While there are many areas for which Apple remains an industry leader, providing fast, reliable cloud services is not one of them. Moreover, because they are so secretive, we had no idea whether they were taking steps to improve the situation or sitting around convincing each other this isn't a big deal. (See point one above.) 2014 WWDC's announcements including iCloud Drive, CloudKit, and the initiative to store all of our photo libraries on their servers answers this question. They have been working on it and they've got some pretty big aspirations, which leads to the last question.

3. Can Apple deliver worry-free cloud services?

All of the promise of WWDC will be forgotten if these new services are slow, unreliable, or otherwise not up to snuff. This is the part we are waiting on. While the narrative that Apple can't do the cloud is fun enough, it's not really true. They serve a lot of data every day through their app stores. Pieces of iCloud, like contact and calendar sync, have always reliably worked and they include millions of users. Apple's cloud problem, in my mind at least, has always involved pushing big blocks of data. Does anybody remember how bad iDrive was at moving anything bigger than a Pages file?  

In fairness, this question will not get a definitive answer on day one when all of this goes live. You can't reliably load test these types of services for hundreds of millions of users. You do your best, stock up on duct tape, and then you push the green button and stand by. I'm certain there will be some hiccups. However, at some point in the not too distant future, we all will make a decision whether services like iCloud Drive are just as reliable as Dropbox or not. Only in that final judgment will we be able to answer this last question. 

Eating a Little Crow with iWork Collaboration

I wrote a few weeks ago about my less-than-impressive experiments using iCloud collaboration to work on a Pages document with a client. Following that post, I received a few emails from readers explaining that I was doing it wrong. In order to make collaboration work, I needed to not be using the Mac Pages client but instead we both needed to be working directly in the web browser. 

Pages in iCloud

Pages in iCloud

Today I was on the phone with that same Mac-savvy client and we decided to try the experiment again. I started a file in Pages and sent him an iCloud link. However, this time I then closed down the Pages application and logged into my own iCloud.com account and accessed the web version of Pages. We both got logged in and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that collaboration, when both parties are in the web version, works pretty great. We were both typing as we were talking, changing font sizes, and otherwise mucking about in our document and it was showing up on both screens in real time. So Pages collaboration does work so long as you don't use the native app. 

This is good news. Now you can collaborate on documents without Google Docs. I'm going to be exploring this further but there is promise. It is kind of wonky that I can't use the native Mac app but in fairness, I don't use Google Docs out of a native app either. I can understand how adding that extra layer of getting this data out of the web and into the native app can gum up the works.

This message showed up at 3:05.

This message showed up at 3:05.

For giggles, I also tried collaborating from the native Pages app on the iPad with the other person on the web and that didn't work any better than when I was in the native Mac version of Pages. I got the same delays and messages asking me to approve changes that took place two minutes earlier.

While my initial post was correct for anyone using a native app version of Pages, collaboration can work through iCloud so long as everyone is sitting at a browser window.

iWork Collaboration in the iCloud

This week, Apple released some pretty nice upgrades to the web-based iWork apps in iCloud. The improvements include more fonts, more chart options, and the ability to handle larger sized files. The experience really is quite remarkable. If you haven't yet, log into your iCloud account and create a document in iCloudy-Pages. You'll be surprised. You may even forget that you are doing this all in a browser. One of the other updates was the ability to have up to 100 collaborators. It was this bit that had me most interested.

Google Documents really is the standard for online document collaboration. I've used that tool for years and, while it isn't all that pretty, it absolutely nails the ability to have multiple people typing on one document at the same time. While Apple is now moving this direction, it hasn't got there yet. Yesterday I had a small writing project with a Mac-savvy client and I decided to do it collaboratively with him using iCloud Pages. I figured that if the application can support 100 collaborators, it should be pretty solid with just two. It still isn't.

While the experiment ultimately worked and he could see what I was typing, it was hardly simultaneous. Basically, we discussed and I wrote and he waited for the changes to show up, which happened about 30 seconds after I typed. If he typed anything on his side (even just a space bar), I got a conflict message on my end and had to pick a version to become gospel. While I think Apple is nailing the "productivity app in a web browser" part, they still have work their work cut out for them on the collaboration part.