What iCloud Drive Is And What I Wanted It To Be

Apple’s new mobile and desktop operating systems are both out. iOS 8 and OSX Yosemite offer some of the best features to come from the company yet. Of these, one of the most exiting features to me is the iCloud Drive. Apple has finally realized that the way people actually want to manage documents in the cloud is what services like Dropbox and Google Drive have been doing for years.

iOS apps are no longer restricted to sandboxing which basically means that until now, your documents lived inside the applications themselves with no way to browse them beyond opening the application you created them within.

The iCloud Drive features a Dropbox style folder on OSX Yosemite. You can put anything in this folder, just like a Dropbox folder, and it will stay in sync across multiple devices. But Apple has made a few strange decisions as to how this all works. While creating a simple cloud drive folder seems a step in the right direction, they have maintained some baggage from the sandboxing model. For example, see the picture below. I can store any file I like in iCloud Drive. I can even organize them within folders however I want. However, the files I have created within various apps are saved into application specific folders by default. This is not a limitation as I can still get to those files from any app on OSX and iOS, but it adds a layer of unwelcome complexity. I see no benefit to keeping documents in these folders now that I can organize them however I want, so why do they need to exist?

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 1.28.28 PM

I am grateful that I can now open a file created in one app from within any other app. On top of this, Apple has allowed support for third party services to join the fun. They are calling these allowances “extensions” and the user interface you will see when you interact with them on a mobile device is called the “document picker.” See the images of the document picker below taken on my iPad. Opening a file from anywhere within my iCloud and Box cloud drives is now possible.

IMG_0405

IMG_0406

IMG_0407

I admit I have been reluctant to experiment with this a ton because it is all so new. The developers of software and cloud services need to code their apps to take advantage of these features. Not everyone has yet (I am looking at you Google Drive), and for some who have, the process is quite buggy at this stage (I am looking at you Dropbox). Even Apple’s solution, the iCloud Drive itself, does not work 100 percent bug free.

Time will tell how well these new cloud drive features work and to what extent they define the experience of managing documents between mobile and desktop devices. For the moment, however, I am still bothered that Apple has not taken what I feel is the simplest or most efficient approach to solving the problem in the first place.

Here is what I think Apple should have done:

Everyone is familiar with the Documents folder on the Mac. In fact, most people I know who use a cloud service like Dropbox or Google Drive still store documents in the Documents folder unless they know they are really going to need to access it from somewhere else.

If Apple wanted to create a cloud drive for power users without changing the way OSX or iOS works, they should have taken the existing Documents folder and simply turned it into the iCloud Drive folder. I don’t even think they should have re-branded it. Why do that? The philosophy of iCloud is that the user doesn’t have to think about it. So why not just take the place users are already storing their documents and upload it to the cloud? There is little reason for the Documents folder to continue existing when the iCloud Drive folder is available on the same computer.

On the iOS side of things, Apple could have kept things just as simple. An app like Keynote, for example, could still show a grid of document thumbnails like it used to (see picture below), but these could be previews of the files the user has stored in their Documents folder on Mac. To avoid mass confusion, Keynote would of course only show thumbnails of the files in the Documents folder that it was able to work with. This process could be implemented with every app on iOS. Take away those silly app-specific folders in the iCloud Drive and make things truly simple without the user even needing to know anything changed. I doubt the average user will go to the trouble of learning about the new features of iCloud Drive this early on, but I bet they would notice if iOS apps started magically showing them the documents they have created on Mac.

Screenshot 2014-10-18 15.02.54

IMG_0408

Of course, third party support for services like Dropbox would still be welcome. In fact, it is likely the average person uses more than one or two cloud services (likely Dropbox and or Google Drive). Why not offer the option to have that grid of thumbnails reflect the documents in a third party service by default instead of tapping through options in the document picker?

Since I have spoken of Dropbox so much, I think it is worth noting another major flaw in the new iCloud Drive. Until Apple provides a way to browse and manage files outside of the document picker (which can currently only be accessed from within another application), I will continue to use Dropbox as my primary cloud drive solution because they have an app on iOS that allows me to browse through my documents, move them around, share them, etc… Would it really hurt Apple to put a Finder app on the iPad and iPhone that worked like the Dropbox app?

Of course it is easy to be an “arm-chair” developer, sipping my coffee and thinking I know what is best for a company who has made billions off of their products. Still, I fail to see why Apple has gone out of their way to make something that doesn’t “just work.” Maybe someone with more technical knowledge than myself could explain a few simple reasons why my ideas are not feasible.

I will continue to watch the adoption of iCloud Drive as it unfolds in the coming months. In the meantime, here are some questions I still have about the service:

  1. If I open a Dropbox document from the document picker on iPad, what happens if I switch to another task and the app I was using stops running in the background? Is my work saved back to Dropbox? Is it saved at all?
  2. If I store a file created in Pages in the iCloud Drive, but not in the Pages folder, do all of Apple’s syncing and sharing features work the same way? For example, can I still collaborate on the same file with another user? Or, can I open the same document on iPad and Mac at the same time without creating conflicting copies?