By Dave Smith
Apple products are designed to "just work." But iCloud, Apple's integrated internet-based service for synchronizing content across devices, is an uncharacteristic wreck - and has been for awhile.
Millions of people are learning about iCloud after a 4chan user hacked several prominent actresses' phones and posted hundreds of private photos online this weekend.
Thing is, that particular hack was allegedly the work of several hackers over several months - though they didn't admit to how they pulled off this photo heist, it's believed to be the result of an exploit in the Find My iPhone API, which allowed hackers to repeatedly try different passwords without getting locked out. Apple patched that exploit Monday morning.
What might irk some users is that at least one of the actresses said she deleted her photos prior to this leak. It's possible she did delete those pictures locally on her device, but not in iCloud. Remembering to delete both copies (locally, and in iCloud) is one common usability issue that could be simplified in the future, but it's also possible this was a case of mishandled user data, where a deleted photo could still be found on another synched device. This is actually another common complaint among users.
There are plenty of long-winded grievances about iCloud on Apple's support forums, with tales about data loss and corrupted files after syncing and kids accidentally discovering their parents' plans to wear Santa Claus outfits and much more. This particular piece from The Verge was written a year and a half ago, and astoundingly, the vast majority of its criticisms still apply today.
Here's the thing: Apple can fix its cloud right now.
Let's start with the price. Apple is and will always be "high-end," but 5 GB of iCloud storage on a mobile device is a pretty tame offering, to say the least. Google and Microsoft offer 15 GB and 7 GB to start, respectively.
If you want another 10 GB of space, Apple wants you to pay an extra $20 a year; for $8 less, Google will give you 10x the storage for the year.
Apple should double the starting storage for users and reduce the penalty to pay for more iCloud storage. But more importantly, Apple needs to address the quirks of synchronization - sometimes you don't want to sync information to all your devices, and syncing becomes problematic when devices disconnect and reconnect to the internet after awhile (Handoff in iOS 8 will help with this).
But perhaps above all, iCloud needs to learn how to play nicer with other devices in general.
Obviously, being closed-off is a hallmark of Apple products, but Google and Amazon are dominating the cloud space right now, while Apple is missing out on a potential revenue stream since it could allow developers to rent server space or store or process data in those servers, but simply decides not to do that.
But even if Apple didn't open up its data centers, it could still teach iCloud to work better with non-Apple devices and be a true cloud - currently, it's more like a small playground for Apple stuff that's not as useful or practical as it could be.
As ReadWrite's Jodi Mardesich points out, if you're a developer and you want to offer your app on more than one App Store, iCloud is little more than "a backstop service they can integrate into apps - if they dare. It can provide cloud storage for apps - a place to stash saved games or documents, for instance, but [even] that can be problematic."
Javier Soltero, cofounder and CEO of the email app Acompli, told ReadWrite "if you even have the slightest intention of creating a cross-platform tool, iCloud doesn't make sense."
So Apple can address the small kinks in the armor - the synching issues, the backend errors, and the bugs along the way - but the company should think bigger in terms of upgrading the platform as a whole. Now is a great time to reassess iCloud's usefulness, particularly with so much new Apple hardware right around the corner.
It's too closed-off and inconsistent right now - iOS 8 will be a big step in the right direction thanks to Handoff, which will hopefully fix some of the synching problems between Apple products, one of the most common complaints. But iCloud could be much more functional and easier to use, and a more reasonable storage option for developers and end users alike. Let's hope someone says "iCloud" more than once or twice on stage come Sept. 9.