Saturday, October 22, 2011

Why Apple is, for now, up in the clouds

The age of instant gratification hasn't been helped by Apple. Every time they launch a shiny new bauble, we want it now. Actually, we want it yesterday, and can't come to terms with the fact it won't be available until next week.

Steve Jobs, bless him, is to blame for this "I want it, and I want it now" mindset. The medicine shows he performed to announce his latest iElixir were always slick productions of front-of-cloth magic. Usually we were enticed by the wares he had to offer.

In June he told us: "We are demoting the PC and Mac to just be a device and moving the digital hub centre of your digital life to the cloud." This came more than ten years after he declared the Mac to be hub. That's progress for you.

The day before Jobs' death, Apple unveiled iCloud - the latest incarnation of its 'storage-in-the-sky' philosophy (predated by iTools, .Mac and MobileMe) - promising an end to the apparent frustration we experience to keep our music, videos and photos synchronised on the myriad devices we now own.

Personally I've never had a problem with keeping one set of albums on my iPhone and videos on my iPad, as I rarely - if ever - want to watch a movie on my phone, and only listen to music on the iPad when I'm sat on a plane or a train. And I'm quite happy keeping the variety of music different on both.

But when Apple finally launched iCloud, plus upgrades to iTunes and its iOS platform to accommodate it, the Apple fan community rushed like lemmings to download it all. Here the first wave of vexation wafted in, for it took - I kid you not - the entire night to download and update both the iPhone and the iPad. Furthermore, I still needed to connect these devices to a Mac to transfer the new software. This was, Apple told us patronisingly, the last time we'd need to physically hook up these devices to a computer.

Then it became apparent that most of my paid-for apps were missing on the iPhone, along with most of my recently purchased albums on iTunes. Not to worry, Apple assured us, as visiting iTunes and the App Store would enable me to download everything. Laboriously, app-by-app, album-by-album, and even song-by-song. Having spent an entire night acquiring the applications in the first place - and this via a relatively fast home Internet connection - I still needed a second evening getting back stuff that had been on my devices to start with!

This may sound like curmudgeon but the expectation of any Apple product is that it should just work. It's what has made us such slavish Apple devotees. They have a knack for making something you might not have considered important, indispensably good.

Now, I'm happy to say, it's all sorted. My initial fears about how iCloud would work when you have a storage disparity between iTunes content living on a Mac (my MacBook Air has a 128Gb hard drive which is stuffed full), and the smaller capacities of the iPhone and iPad (32Gb each), have been allayed by the fact that the much-vaunted automatic synchronisation can be controlled. 

I am, though, left with the feeling that the absence of a USB cable between phone, tablet and PC is only a marginal improvement. Before, I ripped a CD, then hooked up my iPhone and there it would be, emporter, as the French might say. Now I need WiFi. Something presumptuous there.

I still don't have a huge need to keep everything synchronized on every single Apple device I own, but perhaps that's just me and the compartmentalised manner with which I regard the iPhone, iPad and MacBook I use.

True, the photo synchronisation is a very smart aspect of iCloud: take a picture on your iPhone and it's instantly shared with your other Apple devices.

All this, however, does make the assumption that you have either access to WiFi, or an accommodating 3G mobile provider. Carriers are increasingly imposing data limits on downloads and uploads, which raises questions about how viable a ubiquitous service like iCloud will be as such economies increase. And clearly you won't want this to be active when taking pictures on holiday.

The iCloud story is not yet finished, either. To come is iTunes Match, with which for a fee, Apple will miraculously scan the iTunes library on your home computer and 'add' the same songs to your iCloud content, regardless of how this music was acquired in the first place.

On this I remain sceptical: when you have somewhere over 1000 albums on a hard drive as I do, of which some are not widely available commercially or came off the front cover of a music magazine, I doubt very much that iTunes Match will be able to find them. More worrying is that as the service is based on your paid-for storage capacity, to maintain this wonderful idea will cost $25 a year on top of the additional iCloud storage you need to buy from Apple to accommodate it - and that could cost up to $100 a year for a maximum of 55Gb more (which is not enough, clearly, for all the content I might be storing in the iCloud).

There is much to like about iCloud's intentions. It can be a minor annoyance when you download the Bombay Bicycle Club's new album to your Mac on a Saturday and forget to add it to your iPhone before heading off to work on a Monday morning. But it is only a minor annoyance.

The cloud story is not yet ready for prime time. True, relying less on huge and breakable hard drives to store your content (that's right - you own it, you paid for it) is a good idea. But, like Google's idea of running laptops on cloud-based apps, it assumes that we're always on, and always connected.

When I can't get a decent 3G signal in the centers of London and Paris, let alone find a WiFi hotspot that doesn't cost an arm and a leg for just an hour's time online, the idea of ubiquitous access to content is still somewhat far-fetched. For now at least.

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