Why Apple Strays from “Keep it Simple”

Something’s up with Apple. And not in a good way.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an column titled iCloud Forgets to Keep it Simple. In it, I argued that, with respect to iCloud, Apple was straying from one of its core principles: maintaining a simple easy-to-navigate user interface. Of particular concern was how iCloud’s settings were spread over too many different locations, making its settings hard to find and lacking a “consistent set of ‘rules’ for how they interact.”

As it turns out, Apple’s detours from the road to simplicity are not limited to iCloud. As I continue to use OS X Lion and iOS 5, especially their sync-related features, I keep discovering more places where Apple has strayed. My latest frustration concerns what, on the surface, should be a very simple task: Syncing items created via the Notes app on iOS devices. iCloud plays a role here, but it’s not the whole story.

Here’s a riddle: How many different locations does it take to accommodate all Notes-related settings? The answer is at least seven. That’s at least three or four too many. The penalty for not tracking down and mastering all of these settings can be a failure to sync all your notes or an unintended deletion of some notes. 

For those of you who have not yet travelled down this road, what follows is a guide through the twists and turns of Notes syncing. When it’s over, I’ll offer my thoughts as to why Apple is proceeding down this path and what a better alternative might look like.

iPhone: Notes app

If you were syncing Notes before iCloud came along, and you now use iCloud, you probably have at least two separate accounts for Notes. This, as you’ll soon see, will likely precipitate several complications.

Launch the Notes app on your iPhone. Do you see all the notes you expected to find? If not, it’s probably because you’re viewing only one of your multiple accounts. To view all of your notes, tap the Accounts button in the upper left corner. When I do this on my iPhone, I find three choices: All Notes, On My iPhone, and iCloud. To see all your notes, tap the All Notes option.

Notes app

Your iPhone may have an account titled “From My Mac” rather than “On My iPhone.” These are similar. They both represent syncing sans iCloud. Although I have some guesses, I’m still not certain what the difference is between these two titles — or why you may have one vs. the other. It’s one of those little mysteries that ideally shouldn’t exist and that I eventually decided to ignore.

Bear in mind that, when you sync Notes, they sync to their respective accounts. That is, notes from the “On My iPhone” account do not sync to iCloud. And vice versa.

At this point you may be thinking: “Okay. I’d like to merge all my notes into one account, so I don’t have to worry about multiple accounts anymore. Can I do this?” Sadly, as far as I can tell, you can’t do this from the Notes app itself. There is a way, but we haven’t arrived at that point in the story yet.

iPhone: Settings > Notes

When you create a new note, it is assigned to the account that is active in the Notes app at the time. But what if, as I’ve just suggested, you’ve selected to view All Notes. How does the app then decide which account to use for a new note?

To find the answer, you have to navigate beyond the Notes app to the Notes section of the Settings app. Here you’ll find a Default Account option. Select the desired account.

Back in the All Notes view of Notes, is there a way to easily check which account is assigned to a specific note? Nope, at least not that I’ve found.

iPhone: Settings > iCloud

If you have an iCloud account, you can sync your notes through iCloud. This means your notes can automatically sync across your Mac(s) and all your iOS devices (iPhones, iPads etc.).

To get your iPhone on board with iCloud syncing, go to Settings > iCloud on your iPhone and move the slider for Notes to ON. If you already have an iCloud account in the Notes app, you’ve presumably already done this.

Mac: System Preferences > iCloud

Let’s now shift our focus to the Mac.

How do you get the notes on your iPhone to sync to your Mac? Assuming your iPhone is already syncing notes to iCloud, go to the iCloud System Preferences pane on your Mac and enable the Mail and Notes item (that’s right, there is no option to sync Notes without Mail).

Mac: Mail

Having enabled syncing on the Mac, where do you go to view these Notes? It’s not what I would consider to be the most obvious self-evident location. It’s in the Mail application.

To view your Notes, scroll down the left-hand column in Mail until you get to the Reminders section. A subsection here will be Notes.

If you have more than one account for Notes, there will be separate sub-subsections for each account. Getting back to a previous question, this is where you can drag notes from one account to another, allowing you to manually “merge” all your notes into one account.

Mac: iTunes > Devices > iPhone > Info

What about that other non-iCloud account listed in the Notes app, the “On My iPhone” account? Where’s the setting that determines whether or not this account will sync to your Mac? It’s not a setting you access from the iPhone itself. Rather, it’s in iTunes on your Mac.

To enable this syncing, connect your iPhone to iTunes on your Mac (either via the Dock connector cable or Wi-fi Sync) and navigate to the iPhone’s Info section. From here, scroll down to the Other section and you’ll find the Sync Notes option. If enabled, the “On My iPhone” notes get synced each time you sync your iPhone in iTunes.

Should you enable this option if you’ve never used it before? Probably not, if you’re now using iCloud. As the warning in iTunes states, choosing to sync Notes here “may result in duplicated data showing on your device.” I’m still not entirely clear why Apple set it up so that duplicates are created , but I can confirm that they do appear.

What if Sync Notes is already enabled, should you disable it? Ultimately yes, assuming you want to wind up doing all your syncing via iCloud. However, the disabling process can also get a bit tricky. When you uncheck Sync Notes, a dialog box pops up, asking whether you want to remove Notes previously synced to the iPhone.

Notes warning

If you select Remove Notes, all items synced from the Mac should be deleted from your iPhone (as well as your Mac). Notes synced via iCloud are unaffected.

If you select Don’t Remove Notes, the notes on your iPhone should remain intact but are no longer synced when you make changes to them.

At least that’s the way I believe it should work. This is another one of those places where you can soon find yourself falling down a rabbit hole. Even after selecting Remove Notes, some notes may remain (especially likely if you had previously disabled Sync Notes and had selected Don’t Remove Notes). For me, even notes that get removed are not completely deleted. If I re-enable Sync Notes, they typically return. Sometimes the entire “On My iPhone” account vanishes from the iPhone. Other times, the account remains. I was finally able to get the account to vanish from my iPhone by “force quitting” (where you get the x’s to appear on app icons in the multitask bar and select to remove the app) the Notes app and launching Notes again. The account remained listed in the Mail app however. After awhile, I gave up trying to completely eradicate it.

Web browser: iCloud

One last stop. If you’ve enabled notes syncing for iCloud, you can go to www.icloud.com in a web browser, log in to your account and select the Mail option. From here, you can see a list of all your iCloud-synced notes. Each note will be assigned a name that appears to indicate the last device where the note was edited. For example, a note last edited on my iPad was assigned my iPad’s name: Ted’s iPad 2 3G. A note last edited on my Mac, was simply assigned my name: Ted Landau.

More problems

As you might imagine, all of this potential confusion leads to opportunities for things to go wrong. And they do. As examples, check out this Apple Support Communities thread, a second Apple thread and this MacRumors thread. They all covers failures to get Notes to sync via iCloud. [If you find yourself in this boat, one often recommended potential fix is to delete the iCloud account from your iOS device and then recreate it. Give it a try.] 

Could this be simpler? 

Is syncing Notes so inherently tricky that Apple was forced to use these convoluted and sometimes mysterious methods? Hardly. I could imagine several simpler alternatives.

As one example, imagine that Apple had an iCloud service that worked like Dropbox. Further imagine that the Dropbox folder contained a special subfolder named Notes. In the simplest set-up, any notes that you created on any synced iOS device would automatically save to this iCloud Notes folder (as well as locally on the creating iOS device). A duplicate Notes folder would be maintained on each synced Mac. These Notes-folder items would then be accessible from (i.e., sync to) all your other synced locations. Individual notes would also be accessible from your Mac(s) by going to the Notes folder in the Finder. Apple could provide a new OS X Notes app to view these files, or the files could open in TextEdit.

For users who didn’t want to use a cloud-based service, files could locally sync to the Notes folder on each Mac when you synced an iOS device in iTunes.

Any changes you manually made to the Notes folder on your Mac would be similarly synced. If you tried to make a change that was incompatible with the Notes app (such as dragging a PDF file to the folder), a warning dialog would appear.

I am aware that this might not suffice for all permutations that users might require. But it’s a straight-forward simple system (much more so than the current setup) that should work well for most situations. It bypasses the need to involve the OS X Mail app, almost entirely bypasses iTunes, eliminates the need for multiple Notes accounts, and provides easy access to the Notes files. The only required settings would be simple on/off switches for enabling syncing for each Mac and iOS device. You could even have a single master system preferences pane on your Mac where the on/off switches for all synced devices could be toggled.

What’s going on?

So, assuming you agree that simpler alternatives exist and would be preferable, the key question becomes: Why didn’t Apple do it the simpler way in the first place? Why do they instead seem committed to these more convoluted unnecessarily cumbersome solutions?

Is it because Apple’s engineers don’t have the skills to do a better job? I seriously doubt that is the explanation. Does Apple mistakenly believe their current approach is superior? I don’t think this is the case either. I believe they fully understand the negative implications of what they’ve done.

So why do it? I believe the answer gets back to the core design of iOS and iOS devices. They have been designed with sandboxing of apps and app data as paramount, with restricted walled-off access to actual data files. Any solutions to syncing problems must work within the confines of these initial restrictions. It’s a tough nut to crack. Apple has boxed itself into a bit of a corner. In the end, this is why file sharing of iOS files has long proven to be a hassle, why related hassles persist in the syncing of iWork documents via iCloud, why iCloud is in general too complicated, and why related problems (such as with syncing of Notes) keep cropping up.

Ironically, one of the stated rationales behind Apple’s approach is: to make using iOS devices simpler. While there are certainly benefits to a sandboxed approach, it can (as we’ve seen) too often have the opposite of this intended effect: making things more complicated. I believe it’s time for Apple to take a hard look at all of this and do a mid-air course correction. I’m not optimistic that this will happen. But it can’t hurt to ask.