Software, Hardware, Silverware

iCloud and the Scope of Apple’s True Problem

iCloud’s been taking a beating lately. Ellis Hamburger kicked it off at The Verge, calling out the service for failing on Steve Jobs’s numerous promises for it:

Many veteran developers have learned their lesson and given up on iCloud’s Core Data syncing entirely. “Ultimately, when we looked at iCloud + Core Data for [our app], it was a total no-go as nothing would have worked,” said one best-selling iPhone and Mac developer. “Some issues with iCloud Core Data are theoretically unsolvable (stemming from the fact that you’ve put an object model on top of a distributed data store) and others are just plain bugs in the implementation,” he said.

Apple’s message was clear in 2010: iCloud is functional, easy, and awesome. That hasn’t been the case. Calling iCloud’s API’s for developers “buggy” is understating it. In many cases, Core Data syncing just doesn’t work. There’s no positive take on it: it’s ridiculously bad and it’s ridiculous that Apple hasn’t done anything about it.

Syncing alternatives exist, but none of them live up to the goals iCloud set out to achieve nearly two years ago: creating a seamless syncing solution that “just works” without logging in or setting up anything … “As much as I like Dropbox both personally and for Elements, I want to support iCloud because it’s one less barrier to entry for customers who don’t have or don’t want a Dropbox account just to sync files,” Elements app developer Justin Williams told me.

Developers want to use it. They’re begging Apple to be able to use it. It’s clear that Apple bit off more than they could chew. Apple promised developers the world and delivered an inhospitable morass. If that sounds familiar, you might be remembering the maps debacle from last year.

When Scott Forstall demoed the new maps app for us at WWDC and in the fall for the iPhone 5 launch, he lauded it as superior in every way to Google. It wasn’t. That mislead quite possibly led to Forstall’s ouster, but in comparison the maps debacle pails to the iCloud problem.

Is Apple’s maps data inferior to Google’s? Sure, in some cases. But the new maps have been usable from day one and have improved rapidly. iCloud has been around for twice as long, and it isn’t getting better.

To be clear, there are some parts of iCloud that have been very good. A good example is iCloud Backup. For the first time in technological history, regular humans are performing backups, in most cases every single day. In my experience, backing up and then restoring from iCloud has been flawless. It’s clear that Apple has some talent in server services. Of course, then there’s a catch: the free allotment of iCloud storage is a paltry 5 GB. While that may due for those of use who regularly move our photos and video to our computers, that’s not the majority case. It is far too easy to run through 5 GB; regular peopel won’t upgrade; iCloud Backup is useless.

And so it goes. All of iCloud’s services are at best half-baked. Thinking on it, a lot of Apple’s new stuff has left a lot to be desired. Joe Cieplinski saw this and blogged about it:

If the pattern used to be “release, then iterate, iterate, iterate,” it seems like Apple is not giving itself enough time for the “iterate” part of that process. It’s being pressured to move on to the next thing. And that leaves us with a lot of half-baked products and a ton of unrealized potential.

Joe thinks Apple should take a pause from the “new, new, new” cause that was particularly evident last year and fix all the cruft that rapid development cycle brought with it. I agree.

If Apple took the year and worked on half of its existing prodcuts rather than trying to introduce new ones, they’d be doing themselves and us a much bigger favor. If they spent the year fixing the unbelievably sloppy bugs that still exist in iOS and Mountain Lion (I’m talking boneheadedly simple things like drag and drop on the Mac), rather than bringing five new half-baked apps like Podcasts to the platform, our phones and our laptops would be better at surprising and delighting us.

Apple was once the king of great, stabile software. Remember Snow Leopard? Apple actually advertised that it had “no new features”. The entire goal of Snow Leopard was backend optimization and cruft-cleanup. That was an Apple that was focused on delivering the very best software and hardware. The Apple we’ve seen of late has been far too focused on out-doing their competitors on feature lists. Instead of thinking different, Apple’s been playing their game.

Apple’s focus has shifted away from great, stabile software. Joe points out that their resources are probably spread thin. To that I say: Apple, you’re rich, hire more resources. I’m confident that Apple can shift back, and I’m also sure that there are a lot of people at Apple that want to. Perhaps in a few months I’ll think myself silly for fretting it. I can hope, even, that if Tim Cook read this article he’d laugh at the dramatic irony.