Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Clouds

James Fallows:

How could big tech companies offer cloud services to hundreds of millions of people without better guarding their data against catastrophic loss? On Google’s side, one explanation involved complexities of the law. My wife and I might think that Google had a “duty” to be able to find her messages after some hacker had erased them. But according to Google’s legal department, its higher and more stringent duty is to ensure that messages are erased, if whoever is in charge of an account wants them gone.

If you don’t back up your own files, the cloud is probably safer storage than your hard drive. But if you do, Apple and Google’s cloud technologies take away your control without really offering the kind of professional management that you might expect. When Fallows’ wife tried to restore the six years of e-mail that the hacker had deleted, Google’s automated systems only found four month’s worth and e-mailed to say, “We unfortunately will not be able to respond to any further emails on this case.”

It remains to be seen how iCloud will handle this sort of situation, but at first glance it seems to abstract away from files even more. Mail and iCal maintain local caches that theoretically could be re-imported if you had your own backups of them. But there’s no folder on your hard drive that corresponds to the current contents of your Photo Stream, and the only thing you can do from the Web interface is to completely erase it. (If you regularly import the Photo Stream into Aperture or iPhoto, you could back up those applications’ files.) iWork documents currently don’t sync down to your Mac at all. The general iCloud document approach seems to be to make it appear as though there are no files.

Not having files makes some things easier on the surface, so long as everything is working perfectly. But the lack of tools to do the sorts of things that we do with files creates other problems. If something gets messed up in your cloud, you can’t just go in and fix it. And good luck getting someone at Google to help you.

Dropbox, on the other hand, seems to have hit a sort of pragmatic sweet spot. It’s less ambitious, in a way, but it doesn’t take away your favorite tools. My Mac always has a full copy of everything, in a normal folder that I can back up, search, re-arrange, etc. Multiple iPhone text editors can share the same folder with BBEdit. Nothing is locked away in a silo, only accessible through a specialized client application. Everything is viewable and editable from the Web site.

iCloud offers some syncing services for Core Data, which Dropbox cannot match (without a lot of custom work). But for regular documents, compared with Dropbox, it does not seem to offer me any benefits as a user. The details are hidden, At Ease–style. I suppose to Apple that’s a feature, but I hope that the applications I use will continue to support more open approaches such as Dropbox.

Update (2011-10-25): Ted Landau on Losing iWork documents in iCloud.

4 Comments

Dropbox cannot ever support simultaneously editing a document on multiple devices with their architecture. No strictly file based system can. Apple's solution is different because they are thinking years into the future. Yes they are asking you to trust them, but at the same time, I believe iCloud will work in conjunction with Time Machine for local backup.

As always in computing there are trade-offs involved. And as always Apple is making trade-offs that allow them to move into the future and offer features that have never been possible in the past. We have hardly seen the beginning of what Apple is going to do with iCloud at this point...

@matthew Well, the difference is that iCloud handles this at the framework level and Dropbox leaves it up to the application. Or think of it like RCS vs. CVS. You can’t eliminate the problem of conflicts unless every device is always online and you have locks. There will always need to be some way to merge or to pick which version you want.

I’m certainly interested to see where Apple takes iCloud. But at this point we don’t have much to go on. Maybe they have some great ideas that they’re keeping secret. Or maybe it’s not fully thought out yet. I’m currently disinclined to trust given that Apple won’t even say whether non–App Store apps (other than Apple’s) will be allowed to use iCloud.

I love DropBox, but the problem is that not all mobile apps support it. I love OmniOutliner on my Mac, but the iPad version doesn't support DropBox (only iDisk, ewww). My guess is that it won't, either, it'll just go to Documents in the Cloud without adding DropBox. That's a shame, because as you note, you can control your own backup situation with DropBox, but not with iCloud.

[...] good. It’ll be interesting to see how Dropbox and iCloud evolve. Right now, it seems to me that the main weakness of Dropbox is that there’s no API call to [...]

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