Posts tagged with "iCloud"

The Dropbox Platform

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.

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How to Know When Apple Finally Gets iCloud Right

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.

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“Open In” Is Not The Solution

"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.

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Transloader: Download URLs On A Mac From iOS

Transloader: Download URLs On A Mac From iOS

Nice new utility by Matthias Gansrigler (creator of Yoink and ScreenFloat, among other apps): Transloader is a $2.99 Mac app that can download URLs remotely. What this means is that, from an iPhone or iPad running the free companion app, you can send a URL to download on your Mac using iCloud.

Have you ever stumbled upon a Mac demo, a zip or dmg file, an image or a movie on your iPhone and wished you could download it to your Mac right away? Transloader uses your iCloud account to transfer URLs you enter on your iOS device to your Mac for download. Once you’re back on your Mac, your downloads will be ready for you.

The idea is interesting, and it reminds me of the old NoteTote app based on Simplenote. In my tests, Transloader has worked as advertised with .zip archives and PDFs, but I'd like to see an option to download webpages as .html files as well. iCloud took a couple of seconds to beam URLs from my iPhone to my Mac, but I have to mention iCloud has been far from reliable for me lately. Transloader's concept is executed well in this version; I'd also like to have support for notifications for completed downloads and Preferences to set a specific destination folder; on iOS, it'd be nice to have automatic recognition of URLs already in the clipboard.

Transloader for Mac is available at $2.99 on the Mac App Store; the iOS app is free and Universal.

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The (Un)Obviousness of iCloud

The (Un)Obviousness of iCloud

Chris Bowler writes (via Shawn Blanc) about his slow yet inexorable migration to iCloud:

And so it has gone with iCloud overall. I never really set out to use it to its fullness, but it has become integral to my computing experience. It should have been an obvious transition, but instead it was subtle. This past year came with migrations to two new laptops. The ease of setting up each blew me away both times. The combination of Dropbox (my data), Rdio (my music) and iCloud (preferences, OS X integrations, applications and everything else) is a powerful one and a testament to the time we live in.

I have previously written about how, for the end user, iCloud may as well look like "the operating system".

When I think about it, I'm thankful for the kind of integration that iCloud provides. I use Calendar, Safari Tabs, and Find My iPhone on a regular basis and I enjoy their functionality. On the other hand, I'm less excited about iCloud Mail and its continuous downtimes, and I understand third-party developers who lament the poor state of iCloud sync and APIs for their apps.

Major shifts like iCloud take time. When you consider that Apple hasn't traditionally been great at web services, what they have managed to make work reliably is quite a remarkable achievement. Yet, like Maps, average users don't care about this: they just want their devices to work. And if Apple gave them iCloud, then Apple needs to make sure users can trust it.

As an aside, I'd point out that several friends of mine constantly ask me about iCloud -- the things it does and what it is. Maybe my friends are lazy, but I'd go all the way out to guess perhaps Apple needs to tweak the initial guided setup to make iCloud even more understandable. I've always thought the short trackpad videos Apple embeds in OS X are nice and effective because they show features in context. Rather than using an animated cloud, short videos and actual screenshots would be a nice addition to iOS' first setup guide.

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iCloud and Document Sharing

iCloud and Document Sharing

Over at Macworld, Dan Moren writes about the poor state of iCloud document sharing between apps and users:

For example, if you’d like to take a text file created in TextEdit and stored in iCloud, and then edit it in some other program, there’s 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 there’s no equivalent Apple text editor on that platform.

And about collaboration:

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, they’re sure to be working on the most up-to-date version.

Realistically, I imagine "simple collaboration" with other people ("send John a document") would be the easiest for Apple to integrate in iCloud. Just like you can "find friends", Apple could leverage the same infrastructure to "work with friends" -- obviously making the necessary adjustments to switch from a location app to tools like Pages or Keynote.

It gets more complicated with stuff like real-time editing, sync, and tracking changes or differences. I believe there is plenty of room in the iCloud Document Library for a "Your Collaborators" tab that would show people working on a project with you or editing a document you are "subscribed" to. Imagine being able to receive "updates" for a document via iCloud email, or to assign to-dos of a document to a Reminders list. Imagine asking Siri "has John updated the presentation yet"? Once you start thinking about pulling all the iCloud strings together, the possibilities are endless.

Question remains as to whether it's in Apple's plans to tackle these requests in the short term. Which brings me to the issue with sharing files across iCloud-enabled apps. In my Mountain Lion review, I had a whole section dedicated to this subject. I concluded with:

I’d like an app’s visual Document Library — not just the Mobile Documents folder — to display files from other apps that can be opened and edited. It would enable me to use an elegant interface without giving up on the filesystem-oriented nature of the Mac, which, as much as it may be hidden by default in some areas, is still there and still part of my daily workflow.

On the flip side, I recognize how the majority of users don’t see this option as a must-have. The average user doesn’t fiddle with dozens of text editors, nor do they try 10 different PDF apps to see which one has the best support for annotations (I am guilty of this too). Still, I think there could be some edge cases in which those users would miss “shared iCloud documents” — for example, they could be using TextEdit on the desktop, but another text editor on iOS — so once again, I restate my hope that Apple will someday consider the possibility of making iCloud documents app-independent…as an option if nothing else.

After three months, I keep hoping that Apple is considering the possibility of real iCloud documents, not just app documents. Like Dan and I suggested, they could be the same files with an extra "shared" privilege; or -- mine is a more futuristic alternative -- iCloud could simply have its own "Documents" area that contains files any app can open and send updates to.

These things take time. As I said, though, I hope Apple isn't simply dismissing the idea as a "power user request". After talking to people who have upgraded to 10.8 for the past three months, I'm convinced file portability and inter-app access is something a lot of folks understand, not just nerds.

Read Dan's full story here.

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Windows Users Get the Bare Minimum for iCloud

Windows Users Get the Bare Minimum for iCloud

Andrew Cunningham for Ars Technica:

iCloud for Windows remains an effort aimed mostly at iOS users who also have Windows PCs. Between the new Control Panel and iCloud.com, it's possible for these people to keep their mail, calendars, contacts, reminders, notes, and iWork documents accessible, but it works less well alongside Macs, especially since neither the Windows control panel nor the Web portal allow you to access documents and data created in applications that aren't Pages, Numbers, or Keynote.

Despite having a Windows box, iCloud has never been something I wanted to use on it. Just as Apple maintains iTunes for Windows, they maintain some semblance of support for iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch customers by giving Windows users a basic iCloud implementation that, at least in style, mirrors the iCloud pane in System Preferences.

Obviously you can't open a document with a .pages extension in Windows, but there weird restrictions with e-mail, calendars, and tasks for example, which requires Outlook 2007 or 2010. Syncing bookmarks still requires Internet Explorer. With iCloud data being buried in iCloud > Storage & Backup > Manage Store in the iOS Settings app, there's really no need for home (i.e. not enterprise) Windows users to even consider installing iCloud onto their Windows machines unless Calendar and e-mail syncing is a must. Even your iOS device can be backed up to iCloud, obviating the need for iTunes unless you have slow upstream bandwidth with your home Internet connection.

Although... As everything on iOS is mirrored into Photo Stream as of iOS 5, Windows users can take advantage of one fringe benefit — Photo Stream photos can be dumped into any folder of your choice, making Dropbox a suitable location if you'd like to have your photos on all of your devices. (Mac users wanting to move photos from iPhoto to Dropbox may want to check out Federico's guide.)

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iCloud and Schools

iCloud and Schools

Bradley Chambers thinks iCloud should have better support for the education market:

Now you may be saying that personal iCloud accounts is just the way it is and get over it. In the iOS 3 and 4 days, we said the same thing about managing iPads. Apple has DRAMATICALLY improved this process. In iOS 5, they released a lot of MDM (Mobile Device Management) APIs and they also released Apple Configurator. Apple Configurator made it a lot easier to work with the Volume Purchase Program. It also dramatically improved the work flow for loading apps and settings onto iPads in bulk. This was a breath of fresh air for schools with even a few iPads.

Apple has made serious improvements to volume purchase programs and device management in the past few years, so I guess that with iCloud, they simply need more time. Still, this has been a real concern for educators and IT since last June.

Apple is thinking about iCloud in education, but they haven't made significant improvements recently. For The iPad Project, Fraser Speirs noted how iTunes U supported iCloud sync for notes, albeit with standard individual Apple ID management.

Primarily, this is another nail in the coffin of the "shared Apple ID" deployment model that we've been using up until now. If you have multiple pupils and devices all using the same Apple ID, you're going to get sync issues all over the place. Pupils' notes will intermingle, their read/unread statuses will get mixed up. It will be a hot mess.

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