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  • The iCloud Report: A Look at Apple’s 1%

    April 20th, 2012

    My encounters with Apple's attempts to deliver a reliable online service have been decidedly mixed. Although most of you probably believe that it all began with iTools, a free set of online features, including email, which debuted in 2000, Apple's shaky online service history goes back further.

    Indeed, the progenitor of MobileMe -- and now iCloud -- wasn't Apple's first attempt at taking their customers online. Back in the 1980s, Apple had an online service for dealers, AppleLink. A small startup company, Quantum Computer Services, made a deal with Apple to create a Personal Edition version of AppleLink, which would deliver a similar online service to consumers.

    When the deal fell apart, Quantum decided to roll their own, and rebranded the service America Online -- later renamed AOL when it expanded beyond the boundaries of the U.S. But they continued to follow the Apple mantra, which was to make the service easy for regular people to master and get online, at the expense of making it too simple according to some skeptics, who also complained about AOL's infamous walled garden.

    But AOL used a clever marketing scheme right out of the starting gate, sending millions of setup floppies to potential users. They also undercut the other players in the online business on price. AOL had a flat $4.00 per hour rate, which later morphed into a flat rate as other services began to try to beat them at their own game.

    In the 1990s, AOL and Apple got together for eWorld, which was basically a version of AOL with an Apple-inspired interface. It bombed, and Apple stayed out of the online business until iTools arrived. But the ups and downs of AOL aren't part of this story.

    Beginning with iTunes, Apple's resurrected online service has embarked upon a long and shaky journey, and the outcome may not at all be certain to this very day. Free became paid in 2002, and iTools was rebranded as MobileMe in 2008. But over the years, basic features remained flaky. There were periodic email outages, and other services didn't always work as planned. Indeed, the MobileMe launch was so bug-ridden that that Apple staffers were given a dressing down by Steve Jobs at a special corporate meeting.

    Segue to 2011, when MobileMe's end was announced. Henceforth there would be iCloud, basically a scheme to store your Apple-related stuff on their massive server networks. MobileMe fades out as of June 30, 2012, meaning that a few features will go away. But email and the ability to sync some of your stuff, such as contacts and bookmarks, will remain a part of iCloud, assuming the system works. Just this week, Apple began to offer free DVDs of OS X Snow Leopard to help entice more Mac users to upgrade to Lion, and set up iCloud.

    But that's where things get dicey, to put it mildly. The arrival of iCloud has involved a fair amount of glitches. As I write this story, some 1% of iCloud users, according to Apple, have encountered various email outages. My former MobileMe email was part of that list, though the situation has improved. Then again, Google's Gmail had an outage too this week, so let's not center all the blame on Apple. It's clear that cloud-based systems are still works in progress.

    That said, my personal experiences with iCloud haven't been so good even when you take email out of the picture. The same can be said about a related service, iTunes Match, which uses Apple's massive music library to allow you to put up to 25,000 of your songs in the cloud for a $24.99 annual fee.

    With iCloud, my biggest problem is syncing. I want my contacts to be the same on my Macs, an iPhone 4s, and a third generation iPad, but that remains an unfilled dream.

    On my main desktop computer, a late 2009 27-inch iMac, Address Book will often list a contact at least twice -- some users report over a dozen listings for some of their contacts. Worse, when I try to remove one of the duplicated contacts, it will, ghostlike, reappear just seconds later. I've kidded about the phenomenon on my tech show, since I also host a radio show about the paranormal. But it's obviously Apple's screw up to fix, and it's unfortunate that iCloud, although a key to Apple's future success, is so bug-ridden.

    Another problem, with iTunes Match, is the inability to properly match your own music library, ripped from regular CDs and elsewhere, with the corresponding tracks in Apple's library. I've reported about this problem before. Most tunes match, some don't, and it doesn't seem as if the ongoing updates to iTunes, which claim fixes to iTunes Match too, have addressed the fundamental problem, or that Apple will even admit to what's wrong.

    The problem for Apple now is that they don't have an awful lot of time to fix iCloud. Sure, Apple's products are amazingly popular, and you are thrust into the iCloud environment almost by default as you set up a new piece of equipment. At the same time, Microsoft and Google have their own fledgling cloud services, not to mention Amazon and other companies. Yes, there may be 100 million iCloud users, but it doesn't mean that they are going to tolerate ongoing email problems and various and sundry glitches for long before they log out forever. Since a great part of Apple's walled garden -- or integrated ecosystem -- depends on iCloud working reliably, I wonder how much time they really have to set things right.

    Meantime, I'm happy to make a pitch once again for some way for Apple to allow you to combine your various Apple IDs. I've heard that they may already be doing this on occasion, and I really have only two names to merge, so maybe I'll see if I can get a favorable response. Maybe the answer is for every one of my readers -- and feel free to tweet the message -- and loads of other Apple customers to complain and request that Apple combine their Apple IDs to help ease the iCloud transition. Apple may even listen, even if they need a few million wakeup calls to show them the way.



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    6 Responses to “The iCloud Report: A Look at Apple’s 1%”

    1. dfs says:

      Yes, there seems to be a long-standing bug that generates duplicate contacts in Address Book (I suspect this somehow has to do with contamination of data stored remotely and data stored locally on an individual Mac during the synching process) and there’s a similar bug regarding Calendar entries. Then too, with Calendar there’s the problem of all those unwanted extra calendars that mysteriously get created. These are long-standing, conspicuous bugs that have survived the transition from MobileMe to iCloud unchanged and Apple shows no signs of taking them seriously, although they are a constant thorn in the side for everybody who uses these programs and relies on Apple’s cloud technology.

      But these are relatively minor reasons why I don’t really trust iCloud. A more basic reason is, as Gene notes, the various iterations through which Apple’s cloud technology has progressed over the past decade or so. Given this history, it’s probably reasonable to suspect that similar contortions will occur in the future. Because my wife owns an affected model, I am particularly disturbed about the royal screwing about to be administered to MobileMe account holders who can’t or won’t upgrade their Macs to Lion and so are scheduled to be shut out as of June 30. If Apple is so unconcerned about the fate of users who have bought (and I do mean “bought“) into their soon-to-be-obsolete system, given Apple’s track record in this department, what is to prevent us from thinking that in due time iCloud won’t suffer the same fate as MobileMe and iCloud account holders won’t receive the same shellacking from Apple? This refusal to provide an upgrade path for the benefit of Snow Leopard makes a striking and strange contrast with the way Apple bent over backwards to ease the transitions from Classic to OSX, and from the PowerPC to the Intel processor, a smart and highly sucessful corporate decision designed to as bring along as many people as possible in these transitions. At least in my mind, this raises questions whether Apple will not be capable of doing the same thing again in the future. So, as I see it, Apple’s implementation of cloud technology comes equipped with its own cloud of mistrust.

    2. Jon T says:

      It clearly isn't something that affects everyone, my experience to date of iCloud syncing - contacts, shared calendars, mail, notes has all been spot on perfect. Long may it continue, and may the unlucky ones find a fix soon...

    3. BrianM says:

      my email with MobileMe was more reliable for Push email, with iCloud I sometimes don't get email pushed, and have to check manually.

      As for problems with iCal or Addressbook and duplicates, decide which device/computer to use as a master (usually better if it is a Mac to do the backups) If you have any addresses or appointments that aren't showing up on the master computer, email them.
      do a backup, (exporting an archive or backup from each of the programs)
      remove the online accounts
      clean up any duplicates, backup again (export)
      Login and remove any entries if you can from what is stored in iCloud if there is anything. (I haven't had to do this in a while, and it was MobileMe then, but I'm pretty sure you could remove calendars through the website)
      Then setup the "Master" computer to sync again.

    4. dfs says:

      Thanks, Brian, that's a great exposition (but when you say "If you have any addresses or appointments that aren't showing up on the master computer, email them" could you be a little clearer what you mean about e-mailing?) I haven't thought about a "master" set this clearly, although I have made a vCard of all the contacts on my local Mac, erased all my iCloud contacts, and then put them back in iCloud via the iCloud web page (if you're going to do this you need to create separate vCards for your contact groups and repeat the process for them individually.

    5. ppgreat says:

      I have only run into issues with iCloud when device settings were incorrect, i.e., calendar events entered on an iPhone not appearing on an iMac, etc.

      However, it you take the time to go through the devices and make sure that settings, particularly under email, are listing under iCloud as opposed to On My Mac, you should be enjoying iCloud as it was intended.

      Perhaps a good tutorial is in order covering how you would set up your iPhone, iMac, Macbook, and iPad is in order?

      Gene Steinberg Reply:

      @ppgreat, Unfortunately, it's not happening that way for lots of people. I checked and rechecked the iCloud settings on the Mac, iPhone and iPad. They are correct, but syncing, particularly of contacts, remains unreliable. This is not an uncommon problem.

      Peace,
      Gene

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