In a series of updates rolled out today across iCloud.com, the App Store, and the Mac App Store, Apple updated its iWork suite of apps with design changes in the document editor, new templates, improved Retina display support, and several individual enhancements to Pages, Numbers, and Keynote.

On iCloud.com, the three web apps (which were last updated in January) have all received improved Retina display support and the possibility of opening documents directly from links in iCloud Mail. The document editor’s design has been refreshed, and documents shared from iCloud.com can now be set to a view-only mode that won’t allow recipients to edit them; previously, shared documents could always be edited by multiple users with access to a document’s link.

Apple brought specific changes to each web app as well, such as improved popup menu support in Numbers and new templates, better text wrap, and the possibility to edit charts in imported documents in Pages. (more…)

Two weeks ago, I covered CloudyTabs, a free Mac app to access Safari's iCloud Tabs from the OS X menu bar. For those who wished to have a more integrated solution for Google Chrome on the Mac, Thundercloud is a simple extension that, like CloudyTabs, reads Safari's iCloud Tabs and puts them in a popover. There are a couple of configuration steps to get the extension to work with Chrome, but they're explained upon installation and they're easy to follow.

Yesterday, I wrote about CloudyTabs, a free Mac app that lets you open iCloud tabs from the OS X menu bar instead of Safari. Kevin Marchand pointed me to his iCloudTabs project, which allows you to view iCloud tabs from other devices using Alfred on the Mac. You can view tabs, open all tabs at once, and even write the URLs of all tabs to a Markdown file on the desktop. It's a neat idea and available on GitHub.

CloudyTabs

Since I switched to Safari as my primary browser, I’ve been enjoying the convenience of iCloud Tabs, which allow me to easily find webpages that I have open on my devices and re-open them anywhere, at any time. iCloud Tabs have been reliable and fast in my experience, and I cannot imagine going back to a browser that doesn’t have this sort of functionality.

The problem with iCloud Tabs is that they’re limited to Safari, so if you’re using Chrome or Firefox on OS X, you can’t access the tabs that you have open on your iPhone or iPad. For this reason, Josh Parnham has devised a simple and clever solution: CloudyTabs is a menu bar app that lists iCloud Tabs open on all your devices. CloudyTabs reads data from the .plist file that stores iCloud Tabs data on OS X, which is why the app isn’t available on the App Store and has been released on GitHub.

Once installed, CloudyTabs will need a few seconds to find open tabs and after that it’ll present a dropdown menu listing devices and webpages open on each one of them. You can CMD-click tabs to open them in the background in your default browser, and there’s a handy shortcut to open all tabs from a specific device at once. You can also type the first few letters of a tab’s title to select it.

If you don’t use Safari on OS X and wish there was a way to open iCloud Tabs without copying and pasting URLs, CloudyTabs gets the job done quite elegantly, and it’s free. You can download it here.

In an update released earlier today, Apple brought various design changes and feature additions to iWork for iCloud, the company’s suite of iWork applications for web browsers available at iCloud.com. Today’s update (the first since November 2013) focuses on collaboration, editing, Accessibility improvements, and bug fixes.

All of Apple’s three web apps (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) have been refreshed with an iOS 7-inspired design that Apple first introduced to iCloud.com last year. The new design, however, has only been applied to the apps’ document libraries for now, as the document editors retain the service’s old user interface. From the main screen, it’s now possible to view a list of shared documents you have access to by clicking on the clock icon in the top toolbar, which will display a “Shared with Me” popover, listing shared documents. The three apps have also received support for sharing documents protected with passwords, a feature that will be added to iWork’s OS X and iOS counterparts as well.

The same new features were also added in terms of editing: keyboard shortcuts for object manipulation and support for floating tables (with formatting) are now available on iCloud.com, alongside other app-specific changes such as endnote editing in imported documents for Pages, or text flowing to adjacent cells in Numbers.

Apple first introduced iWork for iCloud as beta in October 2013, when the company also unveiled the next generation of iWork apps for OS X — both of which were met with widespread criticism. Following the launch of the new iWork suite, Apple confirmed that it was listening to its users and promised to bring back old features to the Mac apps while rolling out updates to its iWork for iCloud public beta.

You can read the changelog of today’s iWork for iCloud update below. (more…)

On the same day, we got two good posts highlighting how Photo Stream works and why Shared Photo Streams can be used without the sharing part for photo backup purposes.

Ben David Walker:

Shared Photo Streams, however, can be used as both storage and backup for your photos. Yesterday, my friend Tom Klaver opened my eyes to this possibility by highlighting that, in spite of the name, Shared Photo Streams don't actually have to be shared with anyone. And unlike the standard Photo Stream, photos in Shared Photo Streams are never removed from iCloud. They are eternal. Apple offers a great cloud photo service with many benefits over other services, and it's hidden in plain sight.

And David Chartier:

You must manually create Shared Photo Streams and manually add photos and videos to them whether they are already in My Photo Stream, your Camera Roll, or, if you’re on a Mac using iPhoto or Aperture, from other sources like apps or the web. Like My Photo Stream, photos added to Shared Photo Streams do not count against your total iCloud storage (however, it sounds like videos do; Apple needs to clear this up too). However, the great thing about Shared Photo Streams is they do not disappear and never automatically dump older photos to make room for new ones.

I am going to try a shared photo stream, but the truth is that Apple needs to simplify a lot of things here. Photo Stream was bolted onto iPhoto on the Mac, there is no web app, and albums can be local on an iOS device and they don't sync but there are streams and, actually, you have two kinds of photo streams but only one is automatic and has limitations.

It's seriously confusing, and people don't have time for this. Cue Everpix.

At its first developer conference that kicked off today, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston announced the Dropbox Platform, a new initiative aimed at making Dropbox the “best foundation to connect the world’s apps, devices, and services”.

Part of the Platform is the new Datastore API, which will allow developers of Dropbox-enabled apps to sync more than just files:

Our Sync and Core APIs already take care of syncing files and folders, but as people use mobile apps more and more, a lot of their stuff doesn’t really look like a file at all. It could be anything — settings, contacts, to-do list items, or the latest doodle you drew.

With the Datastore API, we’re moving beyond files and providing a new model for effortlessly storing and syncing app data. When you use an app built with datastores your data will be up-to-date across all devices whether you’re online or offline. Imagine a task-tracking app that works on both your iPhone and the web. If it’s built with the Datastore API, you can check off items from your phone during a cross-country flight and add new tasks from your computer and Dropbox will make sure the changes don’t clobber each other.

It’s unsurprising to see various comments on how Dropbox Datastore looks like what Apple should have done with iCloud for third-party developers. Last month at WWDC, Apple acknowledged the issues that troubled iCloud’s Core Data sync and promised several fixes coming with iOS 7 and OS X 10.9.

It’ll be interesting to see if a new architecture based on drop-ins (components) that include (for now) a Saver and Chooser (for saving files to and picking them from Dropbox, respectively) will convince third-party developers of iOS apps to keep avoiding iCloud and embracing Dropbox. For as much as Dropbox improves upon its platform, key aspects of the iOS experience such as photos, videos, music, mail, contacts, and todos remain natively tied to Apple’s iCloud service. Can Dropbox apps, developers, and users grow faster than Apple can improve iCloud? Assuming that iCloud will work reliably in iOS 7 and Mavericks, will developers of groundbreaking and innovative apps support both iCloud and Dropbox? How many platforms is too many?

Dropbox says they now have 175 million users; the latest number from Apple is the 300 million iCloud accounts shared at WWDC ’13. A first result of the new APIs will soon be shown in an update to Mailbox, which Dropbox owns.

Gus Mueller:

But how are we going to know Apple has finally fixed iCloud syncing for developers and is really serious this time? And I’m not just talking about Core Data syncing, I’m also talking about the APIs developers are given to push document data back and forth. The broken stuff, the things developers laugh at Apple about and have given up on.

Here’s my short and inconclusive list of things that will let us know iCloud might be ready for real world developer use.

Gus has been trying to work with iCloud for VoodooPad since 2011. Some of the features he proposes have been requested by developers for over a year now.

I don’t think that “the Dropbox way” is a panacea for Apple’s syncing woes with third-party apps, but I do believe developers should get new tools, improvements, and fixes for iCloud.

“Open In” Is Not The Solution

Ben Brooks writes about iCloud and file management:

The only thing that iCloud really needs is an iOS style “open in” dialog for transporting files around. Add that dialog to all iCloud enabled apps and I can’t see any need for Dropbox if you stay within Apple’s “world”.

And this is yours truly, almost a year ago:

I think the same iTunes File Sharing feature would work a lot better as a dedicated, native iCloud app for iOS devices (and maybe the Mac too). After all, if Apple is providing an iTunes-based file management utility for Mac users, why couldn’t they build an app that enabled any third-party iOS app to save and import files from iCloud? This app would be built into the system and allow users to simply collect documents, like iTunes File Sharing. Developers could easily add options to their apps to import files from “iCloud File Sharing” and export files to it.

After a year of trying to rely on iCloud for document management, I’ve come to the conclusion that “Open In” is not the solution. The problem is still the same as September 2011: duplicates.

Decades of computing have shown that the filesystem is the single most complicated aspect of managing documents for the majority of users. People forget about “where they put stuff on the computer” all the time, and others keep simple levels of hierarchies because going deeper into the filesystem is, for them, annoying, “dangerous”, complex, or a combination of all these factors. In this regard, Apple’s “silo” model had a liberating effect: here are your documents, available in an app with a nice icon that you can immediately recognize.

However, the silo model — as opposed to the central “Finder” repository of files — has one big drawback: communication between silos. Therefore “Open In”: a menu that copies a file from Location A to Location B, getting from one document to two documents, now available in two different locations. And I would argue that the second most complicated aspect of managing documents is: figuring out the “right” version of a file.

Suppose you want to annotate a photo and save it in the Evernote app for iOS. You know that the iPhone’s Camera app sends photos with iCloud Photo Stream to the Mac, and they end up in iPhoto. From iPhoto, you know you can drag your photo out of Photo Stream and drop it into the Desktop, which creates a copy of the photo. Double-click it, and it launches Preview, which you know has the Annotate feature. There, you can add arrows and bold red text. Preview has this big iCloud library, but it doesn’t sync to the iPhone because there’s no Preview for iOS, otherwise you’d have used that instead. By the way, you’ve just saved the annotated image to the Desktop, but you can’t drag it back into Photo Stream on iPhoto because that’s read-only. Eventually you either give up and install Dropbox, start using the Evernote Mac app that you don’t like, or email the photo to yourself and use “Open In” or “Copy” from Mail for iOS to add another version of the file to Evernote.

You just used five apps and created four copies of a file (two of them are iOS Camera Roll + Photo Stream) to annotate a photo. Lather, rinse, repeat for note taking, PDF reading, electronic bill management, and assembling that nice slideshow of your vacation in Italy. Plus all those other things.

iCloud’s promise is powerful, and file management should be easier, but “Open In” is not the solution.