Apple’s iCloud may be a victim of its own marketing. It promises much and yet delivers so little. The only consolation is that it’s bound to get better, says Seb Janacek.

Apple has a chequered history with online services. It has acknowledged as much and doing so must have hurt its pride. Past failings help explain why it was so important to get iCloud right.

iCloud is Apple’s cloud storage and computing service, announced by Steve Jobs in June at the World Developer Conference. The company had invested over a billion dollars in a mysterious datacentre in North Carolina to cope with the bandwidth.

Steve Jobs unveils iCloud

In one of three major launches, Steve Jobs unveiled iCloud in June at the World Developer ConferencePhoto: Donald Bell/CNET

I’ve used Apple’s cloud services since the first time they came out. It started with iTools in 2000 with a mac.com email address, online storage and basic web page publishing.

That service was in turn replaced by .Mac and then MobileMe, for which I paid approximately £60 a year. Again, the services provided were good though not spectacular and often affected by reliability issues.

The MobileMe debacle is well known. According to Apple legend, Jobs assembled the MobileMe team on the Cupertino campus and registered his complete disgust at the failure of the product, sacking the product chief on the spot and putting iTunes chief Eddie Vue in charge of operations.

I never had that much of a problem with MobileMe. It provided the standard suite of email, calendar and contact syncing, plus the convenience of iDisk cloud storage and the ability to quickly create simple websites and photo/video galleries of the kids for the grandparents.

I was a customer for the entire length of the product lifetime and never really had too many serious questions about cancelling the annual upgrade. But to Apple it was an embarrassment and a running joke. Subscriptions were refunded and large quantities of humble pie were consumed.

And so we come to iCloud, the most interesting of the trio of product announcements made at the conference, alongside Mac OS X Lion and iOS 5.

For 10 years, Apple had put the Mac at the centre of our digital hub. Now, with the iCloud vision, the web itself became the hub and the Mac was demoted to a device, although as it turns out one of lesser status than its iOS stablemates.

iCloud does some things very well. It syncs contacts and calendars more effectively and reliably than its predecessors. Those functions are the bread and butter of cloud syncing. The Photostream feature lets pictures taken or uploaded to one device cascade onto others. It’s a neat trick.

But that’s largely where the good stuff ends. Beyond these tricks, iCloud is just…

 

…as muddled as its predecessors, if not worse.

The primary thing a new platform needs to do for me is to instil trust. Trust that it is a better way of doing business and that it will look after my data. Reassurance that the data that lived previously on hard drives will thrive in the cloud.

Unfortunately, the first thing iCloud did was delete every single document stored on my iPad, some 18 months’ worth of Pages word-processor files and a couple of presentations. The restore process failed to bring them back and an Apple Genius couldn’t deduce a fix. Gone, bye bye.

Mine was not an isolated incident. There are dozens of reports on the Apple support forums. Not a great start and hardly the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Apple iCloud, Steve Jobs

iCloud is just not as simple as you’d expect it to be from Apple, particularly for such a high-stake venturePhoto: Donald Bell/CNET

The part of MobileMe that I found most useful was iDisk, which stored and synced all my documents on different Macs – and PCs, I believe, in theory – on different machines and in the cloud. Again, there were trust issues and I had problems with iDisk’s reliability. Other people I know swore by it.

iDisk had an infuriating habit of not syncing certain documents, normally ones needed for a deadline. In the end, I used to email essential documents to myself, which rather defeated the whole point of iDisk. I lost faith and trust in iDisk, largely because of these isolated incidents.

In comparison, I trust the impressive Dropbox service and have grown to rely on it for personal and professional use. It has never let me down.

I started the iCloud odyssey with a hugely negative experience. It has left me with no appetite to return quickly and I wouldn’t do it at all without a rock-solid back-up policy.

Another issue with iCloud is that it takes an awful lot of fiddling with settings at a system and at an individual app level to get things working. Again, that requirement is not so much an issue with calendars and contacts, more so with documents and apps.

iCloud is just not as simple as you’d expect it to be from Apple, particularly for such a high-stake venture in a field where it has a questionable track record.

The iCloud configuration process is a tale involving a cast of dozens of checkboxes and iOS sliders and a considerable amount of time spent testing to gain reassurance that things are working as they should, checking for the appearance of events and amendments to contacts on different devices.

The alternative, you suppose, is a service that is imposed on the user by Apple at a system-wide level and a loss of choice of system control. However, it’s surprisingly fiddly and the ‘It just works’ mantra simply doesn’t apply.

Not Mac-friendly

The most surprising element about the service – assuming iCloud doesn’t delete everyone’s iOS-based documents – is the lack of integration with the Mac, which raises a number of questions.

One simple answer is that Apple hasn’t got around to doing this part of iCloud yet, and I have no doubt that the Mac integration will follow. It’s typical of Apple to launch a product and add features in increments. However, the current situation represents a jarring user experience for the Mac user.

It is more difficult theoretically and technically to sync documents between iOS and OS X. The Mac has a visible file structure, increasingly a legacy feature. iOS doesn’t use the same metaphor for users. Overcoming this challenge was something I wrongly assumed Apple would have cracked and had in place early on.

Increasingly, there is a widening gulf between the iOS family and the Mac. According to reports, Apple tried to buy Dropbox, possibly to provide the insight or the product to link the Mac to the cloud. Dropbox’s owners claim to have turned down Jobs’ personal offer, citing their desire to build their own business.

As mentioned earlier, Apple removed the Mac from the centre of its digital world and replaced it with the cloud. I assumed the Mac would be able to gain the same level as access but it’s currently a second-class device for iCloud. It’s a depressing demotion.

iCloud has its moments and, lest we forget, it is only the beginning. I have no doubt that it will evolve given Apple’s stated goal to make it the platform for all its devices. However, it’s a disappointing and unsettling starting position. Committing to it requires a leap of faith that I’m unwilling to perform.

In a way it’s a victim of its own marketing. It promised so much and delivers so little. It will get better, but the initial offering is so bad that my faith in iCloud has been severely dented. As a cloud computing evangelist and a Mac and iOS user, that is a profoundly disappointing predicament to be stuck in – but that’s where I am.

Right now, I’m struggling to see iCloud’s silver lining.