App Silos

My recent post on Dropbox versus iCloud sparked a little debate on App.net (click the link below the last comment to show all comments) and in my inbox. The common thread that I have seen from naysayers — those who believe Dropbox will always be better than iCloud — is simply that access to the file system is still needed. People believe that file system access is not only wanted, but necessary for any advanced computer user. I find this line of thinking short-sighted: Looking more at “the now” than “the future”.

Dropbox is the best of the best right now, however, Dropbox is not likely the best for the future. Future technology is going to look more like iCloud than it does Dropbox — we know this already because tablets and smartphones are far more popular than computers and when is the last time you popped open Finder on your iPhone? This, understandably, worries many geeks.

People don’t want to be tied to one app for a certain file type, stuck in these app silos where the data only exists within one app. This feels like a dictator telling us how we can use our devices and it understandably rubs advanced users the wrong way. Moreover the huge fear is that if we go the way of obscuring the file system, like it is in iOS, advanced users will be stuck in a world where we lack control over our own creations.

You can see this pain right now by saving a PDF to iCloud in Preview on your Mac and then trying to retrieve that PDF on your iPad. You can’t retrieve it on your iPad because there is no Preview for iPad that can access that file. And even if you have PDFPen installed on your iPad, you still can’t access that PDF file. This is a legitimate problem.

More frustrating still is that many users see this as restrictive and unnecessarily constraining a user to one single app. What if you want to write in ByWord on your iPad, Simplenote on your iPhone, and iA Writer on your Mac? The only way to “share” one file between the lot is with Dropbox, not iCloud.

And while it’s up to Apple to solve the stupidity that is iCloud in TextEdit and Preview, the larger problem of obscuring the file system seems easily cured by Apple.

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”. 1

Users don’t need to see the file system as much as they just need to be able to open their files in any app that they wish. You could argue that you like folders, which mix file types, but I think it’s becoming clear that this is just not as necessary as many people think.

Enter: Plain Cloud.

Plain Cloud is a little app that lists all iCloud apps with how many files each app is storing in iCloud. Click on an app and Plain Cloud opens the folder containing those files in Finder. Very simple.

This doesn’t solve all problems geeks have with iCloud, but for users in between novice and geek, a tool like Plain Cloud actually makes iCloud easier to grasp and use than Dropbox. (Easier to understand too.)

Here’s the iCloud workflow for typical users:

  1. Enable iCloud
  2. Open files from a dialog that pops up listing all the files you have made in that app.
  3. Saving is automatic.
  4. If you ever need access to a specific file outside of iCloud, open Plain Cloud.

That’s an order of magnitude easier than the same workflow with Dropbox. Dropbox requires you to authenticate, select where you want the file saved, find that same location when you want to open the file, and choose the app to open the file with.

Basically: Dropbox requires using Finder, and Finder sucks.

iCloud requires that you use Finder via an “open” dialog, but that dialog is friendlier looking and better designed than Finder itself.

The biggest shortcoming I see with iCloud is simply that it’s Apple only and yet I’m not sure how much that shortcoming matters. iCloud is a huge selling point for Apple if, and only if, it’s widely liked, which bodes well for users hoping things get better.

I think the easiest way for Apple to appease those less than impressed with iCloud is to add the “Open in…” dialog to all iCloud apps and finally allow users to “share” iCloud documents between apps.

This is not to say that Apple will change anything fundamental about iCloud. I don’t think we will see a move towards Dropbox-like ubiquity, but I do think Apple will make a few smaller tweaks that effect how apps interact with iCloud, which will greatly improve the service.

  1. Meaning you use iOS and OS X only.
Originally posted for members on: January 3, 2013
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