What does Apple have up it’s sleeves? What will they reveal to us at WWDC? This series is a look into a few areas of iOS that I would love to see improved.
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The iOS 7 Crystal Ball Report- Part 4

WWDC 2013

Another week gone, another week closer to WWDC. It’s once again time to take a look at areas that I hope Apple will address in iOS 7. In last week’s installment, I went through some ideas for improvements to the current messaging and document storage systems in iOS. In this installment, we’re going to take a good, hard look at one of Apple’s biggest sources of frustration over the last year: Cloud Services. Specifically, we will go through iCloud and iTunes Match in this segment. Technically, we could also include Siri, Dictation, and Maps, but I’ll save the problem children for another day. They deserve a segment all their own.

 

Good News First

As much grief as Apple has taken over the aforementioned services, it isn’t all bad. Before we beat the company up, let’s take a look at the positive aspects of their cloud service offerings.

iCloud

  1. Seamless backup of all data, including app data, that works right out of the box. 
  2. Setup is integrated into the device startup process, and single-user setup is simple even for a novice iOS device owners.
  3. Document sync works well, and is now available in a wide variety of apps. This makes life so much easier for owners of multiple Apple devices.
  4. Sync between iOS Contacts, Calendars, Reminders, Safari Bookmarks, Notes, Passbook, and Notification Center is so smooth it almost goes unnoticed.
  5. Photo Stream isn’t a great archive method, but it is an easy way to view multiple photos from multiple devices with no effort. It’s also an effective way to get pictures onto a Mac or Windows computer for permanent backup.

iTunes Match

  1. Offers an inexpensive solution to keep your music available and in-sync across multiple devices.
  2. The option to stream music not downloaded to your devices helps with memory management on devices with limited storage space.
  3. Automatically upgrades music available on iTunes to higher quality versions, if available.
  4. Allows users access to all previously purchased iTunes content from anywhere.
  5. Upload up to 25,000 songs that are not available in iTunes to iCloud for use on any of your devices.
  6. Share content with up to 10 devices (5 of which can be computers).

Ok, so there are a lot of positives here that Apple can build on. In the case of iCloud, the majority of the service actually works just as it should. It just lacks in a few areas. If Apple can tune those up and add a few more compelling features, then iCloud can become a powerful backbone for Apple to build its future services on. The same can be said for iTunes Match, as well. Apple just needs to follow through, and continue to add features and fix the handful of major issues.

 

The Storms in Apple’s Clouds

icloud-logo

So what’s the problem? Well, there are several, depending on which service you are looking at. Let’s take a look at each service and break down what’s going on, starting with iCloud. Looking at the list of positives above, you might think that iCloud is pretty much what Steve Jobs laid out two years ago. A service that in his words at the time, “Just works.” Several aspects of it do, but there are a few pain points that need to be addressed before Apple can truly make that claim.

20130527-194215.jpgFirst, there is a small issue of flexibility with iCloud device backups. Performing either a full scheduled or manual backup is very easy, and restores tend to be trouble free, as well. However, there is a missing feature here that would add SO much additional flexibility if Apple would include it. Right now, even though users have the ability to designate which apps are backed up, and can see how much memory those individual backups consume, apps cannot be individually restored. App backups also can’t be kept if the app is deleted, a feature which was added to Android after Apple’s launch of iCloud.

This is unfortunate, because having these two small features would make life so much easier when working through issues with individual apps, as well as setting up an iOS device as new, rather than from a backup. If a single app starts acting up after either an app update or OS upgrade, there currently isn’t much recourse. If the app has it’s own method of backing up to or syncing to the cloud, then it’s not a big deal, but if it doesn’t, then you’re out of luck. This is the case with a lot of iOS games, and I know firsthand how much it sucks to lose a save that you’ve worked on for a long time. And while there are some manual backup methods available through desktop software, they are cumbersome and time consuming.

If Apple adds individual app restores and data holdover for deleted apps, users would be able to delete and re-load apps, and then simply restore the original save data to get back up and running. This feature would make app issue recovery, as well as memory management of 8 and 16 GB devices much easier. I know my kids have all had to choose which games to dump when they run low on available memory. If they were able to keep just the save data, they could re-load that game later on, and get right back to where they were previously. Also, users who want to return to a clean slate, or who have had corruption issues with an iOS upgrade from a backup will really appreciate being able to individually load their apps and restore their original data after setting up their iOS device as new. As it stands now, this is a painful and time consuming process.

20130527-194223.jpgThe second issue with iCloud has to do with document management. Basically, there isn’t any. When implemented by developers, iCloud can handle app file and document saves, and sync the latest versions across to your other devices effectively. The problem is more with the organization, or extreme lack thereof. As in iOS, where Apple has chosen to obscure the file system from the user, they have avoided using typical methods of file organization in iCloud. Just adding the ability to sort files into folders would smooth a lot of ruffled feathers among both users and developers.

This has been the source of a lot of frustration from users who want iCloud to become an Apple replacement for services like Dropbox. I understand that isn’t what Apple is looking to do with it, but at some point, don’t they want to give their users what they want, even if it wasn’t their idea? Only time will tell.

While we’re on the subject of documents, there is another issue with iCloud that keeps me from making much use of the service for that purpose. I have a Windows 8 laptop, and while Apple offers a special iCloud app that gives Windows users the ability to synchronize Mail, Calendar, Contacts, Tasks, Safari Bookmarks, and even Photo Stream, we don’t get any kind of Document sync.

icloud-control-panel

This isn’t a major issue for me thanks to the document and note apps that I currently use, and their integrations with Dropbox and Box, but it may be for others.

Considering how focused Apple is on gaining enterprise marketshare, and how successful they’ve been at it so far, this ommision is surprising. Fortune 500 companies aren’t going to suddenly drop their licensing agreements with Microsoft and run to the Mac. Apple knows this. Why not throw IT departments and enterprise users a bone here, and make this task a little easier?

 

Don’t Bite the Hand That Feeds You

icloud-logo-smallWhile the first two issues that I raised aren’t the end of the world, the third is a much bigger problem, and has gotten a lot of coverage in the tech press over the last three months. iCloud’s Core Data sync has basically never worked, and because of the negative coverage, this one obscure part of Apple’s cloud suite has given the whole thing a bad name.

Let’s back up just a second. In case you don’t know what Core Data sync is, it is supposed to be a system for synchronizing app databases across multiple devices. Unfortunately, since databases are much more complex than single documents or save files that iCloud’s Document sync handles very well, Apple has had multiple issues and tripped all over itself trying to implement this feature. Their tight-lipped approach to tech support on this issue has also rankled a lot of developers, leaving them to field questions from customers as to why their apps either don’t have Apple’s awesome iCloud integration yet, or do have it, but don’t sync properly. Many of the brave, early adopters who have implemented Core Data sync have found it to be a support nightmare, and have expressed frustration at the lack of help from Apple.

Come on, Apple. These are NOT the people to screw over and put off. The iOS ecosystem is one of Apple’s biggest treasures, and enthusiastic developers are the backbone of that. If you advertise a tool that should make both theirs and their customers’ lives easier, then you have an obligation to make good on your word. Two years down the road is absolutely inexcusable. No matter what it takes to fix this problem, it needs to be right up there on Mr Fixit himself, Eddy Cue’s priority list of problems to squash.

The bottom line is that Apple has to get Core Data sync right this time, or raise the white flag and pull the feature out of iCloud. That would be a huge black eye for them, but they also can’t afford to leave it there broken, while fielding questions on what to do about it all through WWDC. With that event quickly closing in, I sincerely hope that Apple has already beefed up the team in charge of Core Data (which many developers claim has been very small to this point), and has its ducks in a row. If not, expect another firestorm of negative press on this issue after WWDC.

 

And One More Thing….

Two years ago, after struggling to pull it off myself, I wrote a post on how to set up iCloud for a family that shares one for iTunes account for music and apps. I really didn’t expect a ton of interest, but thought it might help out a few people who found themselves in the same jam. I ended up answering a LOT of questions from users in similar situations (which were unfortunately lost when we transitioned to the Disqus comment system). The fact that they were having to come to me is a problem, because it shows how little support they were getting from Apple.

iCloud is dead simple to set up and use for a single person with a single account, but I know SO many people with several iOS devices in their households. They need help, too Apple, and they shouldn’t have to rely on friends and bloggers for it. There needs to be additional setup tools and support material, including support training for Genuises at Apple Stores, so that average users don’t have to go searching all over the web to find solutions to set up iCloud for their families.

 

The Match Game

iTunes-match-logo

One area of Apple’s Cloud Services that seems to have a sunny outlook is iTunes Match. The service got a lot of attention when it was announced along with iOS 5, and for good reason. It decoupled users’ music libraries from the iTunes on a desktop. and put it in the cloud where it belongs. For a mere $25 per year, iTunes Match offers a lot of bang for the buck. Throw in iTunes in the Cloud, which was announced at the same time and adds the ability to re-download purchased music at any time without having to pay again, and Apple really had a powerful combination.

I was a very early adopter of the service, actually getting in on one of the iOS 5 beta rounds before the public release. I actually experienced several bugs with the service recognizing my music during the beta, but those were quickly smoothed out within the first two weeks of release. Despite using Match heavily at times, my wife and I haven’t had any problems adding or uploading music to the service in at least a year. She has worked in the children’s music ministry at our church for three years now, and as part of that, she has to upload a lot of songs that aren’t available in iTunes to an iPod Nano that was issued to her. On several occasions when there were problems using that iPod, or she was running short on time, my wife was able to fall back to playing the music on her iPhone to run rehearsal thanks to iTunes Match. Lifesaver.

The fact that iTunes Match allows you to sync 10 devices is also a huge plus, because we have several devices in our household of five. My wife and I each have iPhones and an iPad, my oldest son has an iPhone 4, and my two younger kids have iPod Touches. Add in my parents and their two iPhones (they share our apps), and a single computer, and you have a full deck. Only having to purchase apps or music once for this entire collection of devices is a huge money saver. Being able to manage the music library on any of these devices without plugging into a computer is even better. As a guy who works on a computer all day, every day, that’s worth more than $25 by itself. Just don’t tell Apple.

So what exactly is the problem with iTunes Match? There aren’t many weaknesses as it currently stands, but there are a few things that Apple can address to make it even better. First of all, when iTunes Match was first announced, it was a great value and its feature set really stood out. However, with their additions of music library matching and optional streaming service, Google Play Music now offers a more complete service for only $10 per month. Their free service still gives users the ability to upload 20,000 of their own tunes to the cloud for free. This is 5000 fewer than Apple provides, but since the feature is free, and it works cross-platform, Google’s service is still the better value.

So Apple needs to work on adding more value to iTunes Match. $2 per month isn’t a lot to ask, but they still have to offer more than the free alternatives to justify that cost. Fortunately for them, it looks like they’ve been working on that. There have been rampant rumors about Apple taking the wraps off a streaming music service, similar to either Pandora or Spotify, either at WWDC or later in the Fall of this year. With all the chatter surrounding this, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if they prove to be true. Considering how much the competition has heated up in the music space, Apple needs to make this move to stay on top in the long run. If they make said service available for $10 a month, then they’ve achieved parity and won’t have to worry about losing chunks of their user base to the alternatives. However, if they make it cheaper, it would be an instant success and could bring iOS users who’ve abandoned Apple’s iTunes ecosystem back to the fold.

 

Pushing the Limit

On top of streaming, it would be wise for Apple to push the maximum number of songs that can be uploaded to the cloud higher than the current 25,000. Google is offering 20,000 for free, so this should be another no-brainer. Another worthwhile addition would be offering tiers of additional upload storage that would serve users with large collections of music not available in iTunes. I’ve seen plenty of comments around the web, including on Apple’s own message boards, from users who are willing to pay the extra money to store their large libraries, if Apple would just give them a way to do it. The good publicity among power users is worth the effort.

20130527-194205.jpgWhile we’re on the subject of music in the cloud, another thing that Apple should consider is offering better tools for managing iTunes Match content from the web. When Apple first released iTunes Match, it lacked streaming capability, but had flexible controls available for use on iOS devices. You could enable or disable Match per device, and hide music not downloaded to your device to unclutter your library from Settings. You could also download or delete any song, artist, album, playlist, genre, etc to or from your device from the Music app. It was very easy to operate.

I’m not sure what possessed Apple to mess with this great setup, but after adding the ability to stream your music library from the cloud, they really hamstrung the on-device controls for Match in iOS 6. For some reason, they removed the capability to download individual songs, limiting that feature to playlists, albums, artists, etc. Users let Apple know their minds over it, too, as the company’s support board registered a lot of complaints over this head-scratcher. Thankfully, Apple wised up and replaced Match’s original control setup in a bug-fix update it iOS 6, rather than waiting for iOS 7. Don’t screw this up again, Apple.

20130527-194123.jpgNow that Apple seems to have a good grip on what users want on their devices, how about delivering the same experience in the cloud? While it is limited in scope, Apple does have a user facing web interface for its iCloud services. Considering that Google, Amazon, and Rdio give users full web access to their libraries, and that Apple already has a natural home for the feature, it seems to makes sense as a great feature to add additional value for users. Unfortunately, since Apple tends to be keep its services locked into its iOS devices on mobile, this is probably a very unlikely scenario.

If Apple is unwilling to offer web accessibility to iTunes Match, a nice middle ground for Apple would be to make good on the vision for the service that Steve Jobs laid out when he announced it. The purpose was supposed to be take the focus off of iTunes on the computer, and put it in the cloud. While iTunes Match does give users the ability to manage their libraries per device, we still don’t have a way to manage the master library that’s uploaded to the cloud other than iTunes on a Mac or PC.

If Apple could add that management piece to either the iCloud web interface, the iOS Music app, or a stand-alone iTunes Match management app in the App Store, then Jobs’ vision of the cloud being the new digital hub for media would be complete. iTunes on the computer would be demoted to where it should be: a way to upload non iTunes content to the cloud, and just another way to play the music in your library. There are a lot of users who would no longer need iTunes software at this point, which would be a big step in the right direction. If anything, this would bring many average users further into the Apple ecosystem, and make them less likely to bring in music from alternate sources.

 

Time for the Truth

Two years ago, Steve Jobs took the stage at WWDC and told us that, “the truth was in the cloud.” Close, but not quite. The issues with Core Data sync certainly beg to differ. The other items I raised are as much feature suggestions as real issues, but for Apple to be seen as a real presence in cloud services, they are going to have step up their game. That includes fixing Core Data sync, no matter how hard it is, and adding new features that bring value and make iCloud the platform advantage that Apple wants it to be. There were very few changes made to iCloud last year. Apple can’t afford to wait another one to move forward.

What do you think about the current state of iCloud? What features would you like to see changed or added? I would love to hear your suggestions. Feel free to let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter @jhrogersii, or Google+.

 

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  • JimGramze

    I think Apple has fought very hard to make their own apps seamlessly sync since they introduced iCloud. I remember multiple instances of entries in Calendar and Contacts and it was a horrible mess. They seem to have cleaned up their own private backyard and I have seen some 3rd party apps get better syncing their own files between OSX and iOS devices. Now, hopefully, they can fix the inherent problems with iCloud sync for the rest of developers.

    Apple was too ambitious in attempting to eliminate the file system from the user’s perspective. It is rare, but sometimes I want to access files in more than one app even if I am just using without modifying files; ie, trying out a bunch of video player apps without having to load the same video into each one in order to fairly compare them. Perhaps an app could default to keeping a file private to the app in question but the user could have the option to store some files “publicly” to other apps on the device as stored in iCloud. That would keep it dirt simple for novices while allowing more savvy users to take an extra step for more flexibility.

    I’ve not used iTunes Match but all your comments are spot on from my experience. Well done.

    • James Rogers

      I would agree, Jim. Apple has definitely made subtle improvements. Kind of the same situation as iOS 6. Time to stop polishing now, and move forward this year.

      Thanks for reading!

      • Agreed. Apple has been giving iOS the spit shine for too long. Let’s see some real additions!

        • James Rogers

          I think that management shakeup will yield a lot of results over the next two years. Plus, a lot of Apple’s original iOS teams have left or are leaving now. A lot of them have vested options and are cashing out, or moving on to other challenges. That kind of thing can go either way, but sometimes new blood is just the thing to give a product a good, fresh shot in the arm.

          Apple has what looks to be a strong leadership team right now, and an improved, more cohesive internal structure. They can afford talent to replenish the ranks. If the chemistry is right, it could prove to be just the thing to carry the platform forward. We’ll see.