iCloud: Sharing done wrong
Despite the prominent addition of sharing features in iOS 6 and Mountain Lion, the company's concept of "sharing" is actually a narrow one. And in an increasingly interconnected erawhen people are spending more and more time sharing words, images, files, and more with other people and among a variety of devicesthat's a problem.
Looking at iCloud in particular, it seems that Apple's approach to sharing is almost antithetical to the concept itself. The online service rigidly defines what you can share and how you can share it; its primary directive often seems to be to keep you inside Apples ecosystem.
Indeed, Apples idea of making all of your files accessible to you from anywhere through iCloud overlooks two specific user needs: Sometimes you want to open files in multiple programs, and sometimes more than one person needs access to a file.
Its clear that Apples launch of iCloud has the classic idea of a filesystem squarely in its crosshairs. In the future, youll no longer have to create a complicated hierarchy of folders, to maintain multiple versions of the same file, or even to remember where your file is stored.
From Apples perspective, this is all about making things easier for the user. You no longer have to remember where you put a file on a disk; instead, all you have to remember is the app you used to create or edit it. After all, it's easier to remember that you were editing an image in Preview than that you saved it seven folders deep on your hard drive. Ive certainly found myself relying more and more on the Open Recent menu option in apps that have it.
Tying files to apps has its advantages, to be sure. But Apple's way of implementing has a cost: Sharing files between applications is more difficult and unwieldy now than it was before.
Right now, files are associated with the programs that create them. That might be fine and dandy for apps like Pages or Keynote, which use their own proprietary format. But it quickly falls apart when you're working with more-generic file types, such as text, images, audio, and video, each of which can be worked on in a multitude of apps.
For example, if youd like to take a text file created in TextEdit and stored in iCloud, and then edit it in some other program, theres no easy way to do so. No other program can see that data, either on the Mac or the iPad. In fact, no iOS program at all can see the files stored in TextEdit, because theres no equivalent Apple text editor on that platform. The same goes for PDFs and images: You can save them in iCloud via Preview on OS X, but when you jump to your iPad or iPhone, those files are nowhere to be found.
Of course, you could just email the file in question to yourself, and then use iOSs Open In feature to launch the app you want to use. But you'd then have two versions of the file, stored in different locations, with no established relationship between them. If, after editing that file, you want to bring it back to the original application, you have to go through the email rigmarole again, creating yet another version of the file. That renders another of Apples clever filesystem tweaksthe Versions feature introduced in Lionentirely useless.
One solution might be to introduce an idea of private and public files. Private documents would still be limited to the current model of doing things, inaccessible to other applications without going through the above-described process. Public files, on the other hand, would be accessible to any application that could handle a file of that type. An Open dialog box for iCloud could display a separate list of files available from the other applications on your device.
Regardless of how Apple solves the problem, make no mistake: It needs to be solved. While services like Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsofts SkyDrive might be more complicated than what Apple hopes to offer with iCloud, all of them give you far more freedom to do what you want with your own files. And after all, they are your files, not Apples.
I am a rock; I am an island
Theres another facet to this sharing conundrum thats no less significant. Its about sharing files between people, not apps.
Collaboration is at the heart of many personal and professional enterprises. Here at Macworld, for instance, we work together on articles, keep track of information in shared spreadsheets, and even occasionally make joint Keynote presentations. In Apples filesystem-less future, none of this is remotely friendly.
Consider the workflow for a Keynote presentation that my colleague Lex Friedman and I recently co-created. Although writing an article together is simply a matter of firing up Google Drive and creating a shared document, if you want to create a presentation in Keynote, no equivalent method is available.
Instead, Lex created the presentation file and saved it in a shared Dropbox folder. We then took turnson alternate daysopening and working on the file. While one of us was editing it, the other would use Quick Look to view it from the Dropbox folderwithout opening it, lest doing so might create some sort of conflict or data corruption. Even then, the file had to be re-Quick-Looked each time the Keynote file was updated.
Had we stored the file in iCloud, even this convoluted process would have looked comparatively simple. The only options for sharing a Keynote file stored in iCloud are via email, AirDrop, or Messages. Each time I sent it to Lex, he would have had to send it back to me after making his changes. That would have required me to add the file into iCloud again, yielding two versions of the same presentation: one before Lexs updates, and one after.
Since OS X Leopard, Apple has been diligently constructing a system of versioning and backing up files, yet somehow it has permitted this unholy mess to accumulate. As with sharing files between applications, the strengths of features like Auto Save and Versions go out the window when multiple users are involved, leading straight to a world where files have names like Apple_Presentation_version_3-Lex-final-really.key.
Apple has dipped its toe into the collaboration pool in the past, most notably with the recently discontinued iWork.com public beta, but the support for sharing was laughable. Although you could let others view a file or add comments, there was no way for them to edit the content. In the shadow of relatively full-featured collaborative productivity software like Google Docs, iWork.com never had a chance to shine.
However, theres a huge opportunity here, especially with iCloud now in the picture. Imagine being able to see other documents that friends or co-workers share with you, right in that same iCloud Open dialog box. You open a file and work on it, all of your changes are automatically saved and versioned so that when your collaborators edit it later, theyre sure to be working on the most up-to-date version. Apple could even go whole hog and support real-time collaboration, allowing you to see the changes your friends or co-workers are making as they make them. If the ID you use for iCloud happens to be the same one you use for Messages, you could add real-time chattext, voice, or videointo the equation. Incorporating iChat Theater would let you demo a presentation to your collaborator as you worked on it.
This isnt exactly low-hanging fruit in the technology sense; such an overhaul would doubtless take a lot of work. But it might make Apples productivity software more attractive to both personal and enterprise usersespecially if the company added support for collaboration between any combination of iOS devices and Macs. Third-party products like Simperium already offer many of these capabilities, but Apple could no doubt introduce an even deeper level of integration with its existing software.
Apples iWork suite launched with a bang back in 2005 and was updated in both 2008 and 2009. Since then, however, it has languished, with only minor updates such as the recent 9.2 upgrade that brought support for iCloud itself. One way to add punch to a long overdue updatealmost four years in the makingwould be to focus on collaboration.
Again, this is just one mans take on a possible future. But as with sharing files between programs, Apple has given short shrift to document collaboration in the past. Google may have the headstart in that area, but it wouldnt take much to provide some much-needed competition. And Apple is well positioned to do just that.