After iCloud’s launch with iOS 5 last year, last week’s launch of Mountain Lion saw another part of iCloud enabled – Documents in the iCloud. This brings iCloud closer to Dropbox, Microsoft SkyDrive and Google Drive in allowing users to share documents between their computers.
When you save a document in an app that supports Documents in the iCloud, you’ll see two tabs – the ‘On My Mac’ tab displays your file system as normal, and the ‘iCloud’ tab shows you the documents that you have synchronising via iCloud. I’m showing TextEdit here – the Preview app on OS X also works, as does Apple’s iWork office apps, although I don’t use those myself. Those documents will then be available to all other computers connected to iCloud which have that app installed.
It sounds quite a bit like Dropbox, but when you start looking closer, iCloud’s limitations become more apparent.
(This guide is written with the help of TUAW’s review of Mountain Lion)
1. Documents in the iCloud only works for apps that have been written for it
Right now, the list of apps that support Documents in the iCloud is pretty much limited to those I mentioned above. Your existing third-party apps won’t support iCloud until they’re updated; plus, only those apps that have been sold through the Mac App Store will be able to use iCloud. This means that iCloud document sync isn’t available to most of the apps that I use.
2. You need to have the same app on all of your devices to open your documents
This is important. Although the documents are stored on your computers file system – under
~/Library/Mobile Documents/[app name]/Documents – the only easy way to get to them is through the app itself, and not Finder. This makes accessing your documents from other apps difficult, but not impossible.
However, what is impossible is accessing those files on a computer that isn’t a Mac. If you’re on a Windows machine, then your documents are not synchronised to your computer at all – so there’s no chance of opening that presentation you wrote in Keynote on PowerPoint. On an iOS device, you must have the equivalent mobile version of the desktop app – so you would need to have bought Pages for both your Mac and iPad, for example. Confusingly, even though Preview and TextEdit on OS X support iCloud, because there’s no equivalent app on iOS, you won’t be able to open any documents saved in those apps on your iPhone.
And you can’t access those files by logging into icloud.com either – unless you have an iWork app installed.
You can, however, move documents in and out of iCloud, or between iCloud apps, by having both open at the same time with the Open Document panel open, and drag and drop files between them and/or Finder.
3. iCloud doesn’t handle file conflicts very well
Take this scenario: you create a file in Pages, then go offline and make some more changes. Meanwhile, you also make some changes to the same document on your iPad, which is also offline. When both come back online, iCloud will see that there are now two conflicting files with the same name and will ask you which one to keep. And it’ll then delete the one you didn’t choose to keep. So you may have kept the changes you made on your Mac, but the changes you made on your iPad will be lost.
Dropbox, by contrast, handles this much better – if it finds conflicting versions of a file, it’ll save two copies (one renamed). Plus, you can also retrieve older versions of files, or even files that have been deleted, for up to 30 days. It won’t yet allow you to merge the two conflicting versions together, to make one coherent file, but with the multitude of file formats out there that’s probably a feature that is some way off.
All in all, it’s not very good
That’s my opinion anyway. It’s as if Apple has designed iCloud in such a way that it encourages lock-in to its own apps (or those that it receives a share of the profits from when bought from its own app stores). For me, its competitors – Dropbox, SkyDrive and Google Drive – do a much better job. They don’t hide your files away in some obscure part of your computer, they don’t force you to use certain apps, and they’re accessible on multiple platforms and on the web. Maybe this is just how I work, and I haven’t yet got used to the ‘documents belong to the app’ paradigm that iOS uses. But I prefer the flexibility of accessing my files how I want to, and not how Apple wants me to.