iCloud Forgets to Keep it Simple

One of Apple’s mainstay principles — perhaps its key principle — has been to maintain a focus on simplicity and “ease of use.” This means that products, especially consumer-oriented ones, should require very little effort to figure out how they work. As Steve Jobs put it in the recently published biography: “Apple’s design mantra…[was]… ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.’ Jobs felt that design simplicity should be linked to making products easy to use….’The main thing in our design is that we have to make things intuitively obvious…’”

iCloud Forgets to Keep It Simple

After working with iCloud features for the past several weeks, including the just released iTunes Match, I find myself shaking my head. If iCloud was intended to live up to Apple’s “design mantra,” someone forgot to send the memo. iCloud is far from a shining example of “intuitively obvious.” Some features are mutually exclusive with non-cloud alternatives, others work side-by-side. There’s no way to predict which are which. Consistency is often MIA. Features designed to work “automatically” usually require a good deal of tinkering with settings before they work as expected — tinkering that Apple does not explain how to do. Most features remain either poorly documented by Apple or not documented at all. Typically, before I felt comfortable using a new feature, I either had to spend a healthy chunk of time doing trial-and-error testing or turn for help to non-Apple articles posted on the web.

If I was having these difficulties, I can only imagine what those with less technical skill were experiencing. My guess is that many users simply enable a new feature, such as Photo Stream or iTunes Match, and hope that it “just works.” With a bit of luck, this may be successful, especially if the user is content with only the most basic functions of a feature. When it doesn’t work, I suspect these users give up and choose not use the feature at all.

iCloud has a rough-around-the-edges version 1.0 feel. Which is understandable. It is a 1.0 version. I am optimistic that iCloud will improve over time. For now, to give you a sense of just how tricky iCloud can be, I offer the following Q & A. Judge for yourself whether or not iCloud lacks an overall simplicity and consistency.

Working with iCloud accounts

Q. If you have both an iCloud account and a not-yet-migrated MobileMe account, can you log in to both accounts at the same time via System Preferences on a Mac?

A. No. It has to be one or the other. You have to log out of one account to access the other account. Nowhere is this clearly stated. For example, when you go to the iCloud System Preferences pane, if you are currently logged into MobileMe, all you will see is an option to migrate your account. There is no mention of what you need to do to access your separate iCloud account. [Bugs & Fixes]

Q. As you migrate to iCloud, can you merge data from two or more Apple ID accounts?

A. Nope. Not at this time. You can, however, maintain separate Apple IDs for iCloud and the iTunes Store. To do so, you have to enter each ID in its designated location. For example, on a Mac, enter your iCloud ID in System Preferences; enter your iTunes Store ID in iTunes. [Apple]

A Macworld article walks you through more than a dozen variations in iCloud signups.

Q. Can you have more than one iCloud account?

A. Yes. One is called primary, the others are secondary. Secondary accounts are set up via the Mail, Contacts and Calendars System Preferences pane on a Mac, rather than the iCloud pane.

For those with more than one iCloud account, note that iCloud Bookmarks, Photo Stream, Documents in the Cloud, Backup (iOS), Back to My Mac (OS X), and Find My iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or Mac can only be used with one iCloud account at a time (the “primary” account).” [Apple]

Syncing and backing up

Q. How many ways are there to sync data to/from an iPhone?

A. There used to be just one major way: a dock connection between the iPhone and iTunes on your Mac. Additionally, some information could sync wirelessly, typically via MobileMe. Now there are at least three ways: via the traditional wired connection, via Wi-Fi Sync to iTunes on your Mac, or via iCloud. Each one is set up differently and they don’t all sync the same data (for example, movies only sync via your Mac, not via iCloud). Knowing how to set up each one — and which one (or ones) you should prefer to use — is not at all obvious.

Q. You can back up your iOS device data to your Mac or to iCloud. Are the two types of backups identical?

A. You’d like to think they are the same, since Apple doesn’t allow for automatic backups to both sources. You have to choose one or the other. But they are not the same. The following items are not backed up to iCloud, although they are backed up to iTunes: Music and TV shows not purchased from the iTunes Store; Movies, podcasts, and audio books; Photos that were originally synced from your computer. [AppleThat’s why Apple states that, even if you use an iCloud backup, “you still may wish to back up your iTunes data manually as well.” [Apple]

Q. When you select to sync via Wi-Fi Sync, will your iOS device’s data be backed up?

A. Typically, backing up is included as part of a sync of an iOS device. However, if you leave iTunes open, backing up won’t happen after the first sync via Wi-Fi. To force another backup, you either have to quit and relaunch iTunes or manually backup (via the contextual menu for the device). Additionally, if you’ve selected to backup to iCloud, there are no automatic backups to iTunes ever. It took me quite awhile to disentangle all of this. [User Friendly View]

Photo Stream syncing

Q. Does syncing photos via iCloud replace the need to sync photos via iTunes?

A. No. iCloud only syncs photos via Photo Stream, which only affects photos taken on an iOS device (as stored in the Camera Roll) or ones that you newly import on your Mac. [Apple]

Q. Suppose you want to clear out all the photos in Photo Stream? Is there “Select All” and delete?

A. No. It’s not anywhere close to that simple. The only way to clear out photos from Photo Stream is to go to the iCloud website (www.icloud.com), click your name to access account settings, click the Advanced button and finally click Reset Photo Stream. [Apple]

Even after doing this, you still haven’t deleted the Photo Stream photos stored locally on each device. To clear these out, you have to go through a convoluted process of disabling and re-enabling Photo Stream on each synced device. [TMO] This appears to be an exception to the overall iCloud rule that the “truth is in the cloud” — namely that whatever changes you make to data in iCloud are propagated downward to all devices that sync with iCloud.

iWork syncing

Q. Do iWork documents sync between Macs and iCloud in the same way that they sync among iOS devices and iCloud?

A. No. iCloud syncs among iOS devices exactly how you would expect. However, when going between Macs and iCloud, you have to manually upload/download documents as needed via the iCloud website; Mac-based documents do not sync to iCloud. Nowhere does Apple make this distinction clear. [Bugs and Fixes]

There is a partial work-around for this limitation. However, it requires going outside Apple’s recommended procedures and entails risks. It involves using the Mobile Documents folder located in the Library folder of your Home directory. [Bugs & Fixes]

And all of this is separate from the File Sharing option that still appears at the bottom of the Apps section of each iOS device in iTunes.

Using iTunes Match

Q. After you enable iTunes Match on your iPhone, can you still sync your music to your iPhone by connecting the device to iTunes on your Mac?

A. No. iTunes Match and syncing via iTunes on your Mac are either-or. You can’t do both. However, as explained in a Macworld article, music that you synced to an iPhone prior to turning on iTunes Match remains on the device.

Q. When you delete a song from iTunes on your Mac, is it also deleted from iCloud?

A. Nope. Not unless you specifically request the dual deletion (as shown in this Apple support article). If you don’t delete the song from iCloud, it remains listed in iTunes and can be re-downloaded from iCloud. If you do delete it from iCloud, it will also be removed from any iOS devices that have iTunes Match enabled.

Speaking of downloading from iCloud, one of the promises of iTunes Match is the ability to replace inferior copies of your music with higher quality versions from iCloud (not just when you’re streaming from iCloud, but replaced locally on your Mac). But do you know how to do this — in one step — for all the qualifying music in your Library? I didn’t until I read a Macworld article by Jason Snell. I couldn’t find any place where Apple discusses replacing matched music. The procedure requires that you delete all your low bitrate songs before downloading the newer ones! Scary. But it worked.

Q. Turning on iTunes Match also re-enabled iTunes Genius (which had previously been turned off). Can you disable Genius at this point?

A. Apparently not. If you have iTunes Match enabled, Genius must remain on as well.

Bottom Line

These questions are by no means exhaustive. They are just a sample of what you may confront with iCloud. However, I believe the sample is more than sufficient to make the case.

An “average” Mac user coming to iCloud will potentially have to master a maze of options: the nuances of the different backup options, the differences between what syncs to iTunes vs. iCloud, what photos appear (or do not appear) in Photo Stream vs. iTunes syncing, how to sync (or copy) iWork documents to iCloud vs. other file sharing options, and the difference between iTunes music syncing vs. iTunes Match. While working through all this, you’ll need to learn what iCloud options can work side-by-side with non-cloud alternatives and which ones are mutually exclusive. Finally, you’ll need to find out where all the settings to control these options are located — both on your Mac and on your iOS devices.

Even if you figure out how it all works, there are still many “why” questions to resolve, such as: “Why should I choose one method over the other? What are the pros and cons of going down one route vs. another?”

That’s an awful lot to know — especially when Apple doesn’t offer even a brief manual explaining the basics of how iCloud works.

What needs to be done to fix all of this? Easier said than done, but Apple should rethink the iCloud user interface, placing options into fewer locations and providing a simpler more consistent set of “rules” for how they interact. And some end-user documentation wouldn’t hurt — perhaps with decision trees that walk users through the major choices.

Despite all of this, iCloud is an impressive achievement. Apple has attempted to integrate a variety of complex and largely unrelated features under one cloud-based umbrella. For the most part, it all works. iCloud provides a powerful set of tools for freeing your devices from wired connections and local storage of data. This is the “wave of the future” for personal computing — and Apple has made a strong start in surfing that wave to shore. As you ride along, just be careful of the choppy water you may confront.