iOS 5, day four: iCloud data syncing in practice

The real version of contact information is now out of my hands

Today I wanted to experiment a little bit with how iCloud wisps my data from device to device. There are a couple of interesting things you can do to illustrate the way in which the canonical versions of a lot of things suddenly exist out in the cloud, and not on your devices themselves. The first involves revisiting iMessage across multiple devices; the second, syncing up addresses across your gadgets.

Messages coming at you from all directions

Last week I spent a lot of time futzing with my iPhone, but I do have another iOS device: my iPad, which I finally got around to updating today. My iPad is Wi-Fi only, so I got to experiment with using iMessage on a device with no 3G access. You might recall that I've already explored what happens when your iMessage sees the same person as having two communications channels, one iOS-based and the other not. How does iMessage deal with multiple iOS devices synced up to the same Apple ID?

To find out, I decided to harass my poor friend Matt once again, sending him an iMessage to his Apple ID email via the iPad to see what would happen when he replied. I wasn't particularly surprised to find the answer: both devices popped up alerts more or less simultaneously, letting me know that he had gotten back to me.

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All right already, I'll respond

You probably aren't going to be surrounded at all times by your iOS devices, which means that if someone sends you an iMessage that you answer on your iPhone, you'll end up having to dismiss the message again on your iPad -- not exactly a huge burden. The iPad version of Notification Center sensibly takes up only a portion the screen's real estate, unlike its iPhone equivalent.

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Notifications on the iPad

One thing you might not expect at first is that your iMessage chats also live in the cloud. Send a few messages back and forth on your iPad, for instance, then look at the iMessage entry for that same contact on your iPhone and you'll see those same messages. As you can see in these screenshots, the iPad makes use of its more expansive screen real estate by adding little user pics -- a nice touch.

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Now you'll never forget a text

One last point of interest before we leave iMessage, which had been nagging at me ever since I heard that iMessage would work on Wi-Fi only iPads and iPhone Touches: what happens if you tried to send an iMessage from your iPad to someone who doesn't have iOS 5? I decided to try to send a text to my wife, who hasn't let me upgrade her phone's OS yet (she says she needs it to "make calls" or whatever). The iMessage app lets me select her contact information, but then immediately let me know that her phone number wasn't available -- a fairly graceful way to handle it.

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Now you'll never forget a text

Watch that data sync!

If for some reason you really want to see iCloud in action in real time, an easy way to do it is by playing with your Contacts app. To start, gather up every iCloud-enabled platform you can muster. The picture below shows my iPad, iPhone, personal laptop (with the Address Book application open) and work laptop (with a browser window pointing to the Contacts app on the iCloud Website). Yes, it's a bit much! I'm a professional tech journalist, but hoarding electronics is a serious problem.

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All those screens, softly glowing

You can now add, erase, or edit a contact on any one of these devices and watch the changes percolate out through the cloud and then back to your other gadgets. If you want to speed the process up on the iCloud Website, there's a "Refresh" command you can invoke:

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There's no equivalent to this on the iOS or OS X apps. But honestly, in most cases it didn't take more than a few seconds for the changes to show up everywhere. The laggard in this regard was the iPhone, which sometimes wouldn't update for up to a minute; but in general, the process worked seamlessly, and was kind of fun to watch (for certain very dorky definitions of "fun"). The key takeaway from the experience was to reaffirm that the definitive version of my contact data was now not resident on any specific device. Each gadget offered a slightly time-delayed front end to the real data, which on Apple's servers, and I can edit that data from whichever of those front ends that happen to be convenient to me. And yet, if the iCloud servers exploded tomorrow, I wouldn't have lost my data, as there'd be local versions everywhere. In some ways it's the best of both worlds.

I'm still going to be plowing through iOS 5 for a few days -- what are you interested in seeing me cover? Yes, I promise I'll get my wife's phone updated yet, and then we'll really put iCloud through its paces.

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