WWDC Predictions Part 2: iCloud
Apple’s attempt at a major cloud services offering is almost here. Tomorrow morning we’ll have a better picture of what iCloud is, and how it will affect Mac and iOS users and developers.
In this post I’m going to look into what Apple could be working on from the perspective of what I think that iOS could benefit from with a comprehensive cloud services offering. By identifying these areas that can be improved, I think that I can predict at least some of what we on Apple’s priority list with iCloud.
Problem: larger music ibraries don’t fit on smaller devices
Problem: Purchasing content from iTunes doesn’t allow that content to be redownloaded at a later time.
I think that for some users, this will be the most exciting thing about iCloud, while to many others, it will have limited usefulness. The Music companies can never keep quiet when signing a new deal, and this is no exception, so we know that there will be at least some kid of streaming or synching cloud based library. Perhaps there will be a fee for this, perhaps not, but I think that this will be only one of the important aspect of iCloud.
Problem: iOS devices require a computer when you first get them home, even before you use them.
Problem: iOS devices require a computer and iTunes to be able to back up their contents
Expect to see some of this addressed by Apple tomorrow. I’m not sure if they can pull off an entire computer-free environment just yet, but something like adding Time Capsule support for iOS would allow the device to do it’s sync and backup without iTunes, and without requiring a home internet connection with a huge upstream and lots of cloud storage.
Problem: Finding already-purchased apps on the App Store for re-download is difficult.
Even though the App Store allows unlimited re-downloading of apps, it doesn’t provide a view of all of your apps, making the simplest way to make sure your apps are on your phone is to use iTunes. A proper interface for listing the apps available to install would simplify matters.
Problem: Apps don’t update themselves from the App Store, users have to go get all updates manually
I’m sure that Apple is going to be changing this. Expect them to allow apps to auto-update in the background.
Problem: With multiple iOS devices, settings and app data doesn’t sync across the web easily.
If you have multiple devices, this can be a real annoyance. Some app developers that want to address this end up writing there own web connections that allow them to synchronize the devices. Most end up leaving it alone. What if iCloud brought dropbox-like content synching to iOS, where a simple folder in the file system would automatically be synchronized with the cloud, so that all devices would have this same folder available?
Problem: Multitasking rules prevent applications from retrieving updated content from the web without the application launching.
Apps like The Daily, Reeder, Instapaper, and any number of magazines expect that you’ll have internet access wherever you prefer to do your reading. They then all go through a process to download the latest issue, which a user must wait for. What if iCloud had a dropbox-like folder that also had a server-side API so that magazines could write the latest issue to it as it’s released, and then leave it to be synchronized to the devices by Apple? An app not launched for days could still have this morning’s issue ready for you.
Problem: Downloading large files over 3G strains networks and costs users money.
I imagine we will see a limit on the size of files that can be synchronized to iCloud over 3G. Assuming my drobox-like sync is correct, you can imagine to folders: one that can be transferred while on 3G, another that has to transfer using WiFi. By setting a limit on the 3G size, Apple can allow a small settings file to be synched while on the go, but force hundred-megabyte magazine issues to be downloaded over WiFi. I’d expect the same rules to be in effect for iTunes content: perhaps smaller files like mp3’s will stream over 3G, but movies will require WiFi.
Problem: Downloading large files kills battery.
Apple is very proud of it’s 10 hours of true battery life it gets from the iPad, and all-day battery usage on the iPhone. It’s not going to sacrifice those for anything. So if the above is true, expect the device to have some sort of “dock” mode, when it’s connected to power. This means that when you plug your iPhone or iPad in at night in your home connected to local WiFi, it will only then go retrieve the large files waiting to be downloaded to it. Since most users do this regularly (nightly for iPhones), it shouldn’t become much of a problem. Expect this to be when apps auto-update, so that any large apps don’t harm battery life.
Just imagine: you pop into the subway for your morning commute, and the paper has already been delivered to your iPad (overnight, while charging) via the iCloud API. You then open your favorite To-Do list app and add a task, which will be queued to be sent to iCloud. Since it’s small, the update gets sent out the moment you walk out of the subway. iCloud then distributes this change back down to your iPhone and Mac clients, and allows the developer access to that task via an API (to allow the developer’s website to show the task).
You then want to listen to some music, so you open up the iPod app to find your entire 50GB library available on your iPhone. Only 5GB is available for offline listening, but all the rest is available for streaming. Rather than synching via iTunes on the Mac, you use the iPod app to select which music and videos you want on your device. If the changes are small (downloading a track or album), the data is synched before your eyes, ready to be accessed offline. If it’s large, an alert notifies you that your changes will be made the next time you are on WiFi and charging.
Upon returning home, you plug in your iPad, iPhone, and drift off to sleep. Your devices then back up their data to your local Time Capsule as you sleep (maybe they’ll call it Time Machine for iOS?). They will also fetch the next day’s paper and sync your music choices.
If Apple pulls off these features correctly, they’ll be miles ahead of the competition, especially if the service is free. I think the key is allowing app developers access to all of this stuff so that we can make use of it. If Apple makes it really easy to do something that was once quite tricky, it raises the bar for all iOS apps. That bar is already much higher than that of other platforms. To users, it will just work.