Space: The Missing Storage Frontier

January 6th, 2015

To my surprise, there have been pro and con comments about the recent class action lawsuit against Apple. This is the legal action that claims Apple deceived you about the available storage space on an iPhone and iPad, and, worse, is trying to persuade you to buy iCloud storage to compensate.

On the surface, the lawsuit is dumb. When a device is rated at 16GB storage, that’s the raw capacity, not what you are left with after the OS, bundled apps and overhead are accounted for. So the 16GB iPhone may leave you with anywhere from 12.2GB to 12.6GB of free space, according to recent estimates. Before you consider those amounts excessive, and they can be over 1GB more than iOS 7 used, other smartphones aren’t apt to do better, and usually do worse.

So a Google Nexus 5, a pure Android device free of third-party apps and other useless bloatware, gives you 12.28GB of available storage, a wee bit higher than an iPhone 5s. All other companies do worse, sometimes far worse. The Samsung Galaxy S4, for example, notorious for useless junk apps, leaves you with just 8.56GB of free storage when it’s first activated. Now that should really spark a lawsuit, but only Apple was so honored.

And don’t forget the humongous storage requirements of the bundled OS and apps on a 64GB Microsoft Surface Pro 3, leaving just 36% free space, or 23GB. And that’s before you add your own apps and documents. Talk about waste! Now remember that Microsoft is selling the Surface Pro 3 as a head-on competitor to the MacBook Air that comes with at least 128GB storage. Yes, some of that is lost to the OS and bundled apps, but Apple isn’t giving you Office, which is huge source of bloat.

Now not every commentator is calling the lawsuit dumb, or completely dumb, though it’s clearly misleading in what it hopes to resolve. For the lawsuit to be fair, it should include the entire industry, not just a key player, since we’re dealing with usual and customary practices here. Or maybe it’s about common sense, that people already understand — or should understand — that rated capacities do not include the default factory installation of the OS and other stuff.

One of the contrary viewpoints comes from commentator Kirk McElhearn, who suggests that Apple should have made an effort to explain to customers how much more space iOS 8 requires compared to iOS 7. According to Kirk, “The space problem is compounded as there are more and larger displays for iOS devices. Since apps you install contain all the graphics for all available devices, they are getting bigger and bigger. It would make sense for iTunes – or iOS devices – to only install the graphics that specific devices need. This said, I understand why Apple does not do this. If you download an app to an older iPhone, then transfer the purchase to iTunes to later use on a larger device, the transferred app won’t have all the elements the larger device needs. Nevertheless, Apple could fix this, with a system that downloads all the app’s assets after you transfer the purchase.”

In other words, a little more efficiency and more honesty in storage specs. While there are utilities available for OS X that allow you to strip out unneeded assets, such as the multiple language support you may never need, no developer will be allowed to deliver an app that will strip out unneeded app resources for iOS. But some intelligent installations would address this problem. Why have to have artwork that supports an iPhone 6 Plus, and it’s 5.5-inch display, on an iPhone 5s? Would it not make sense to copy a pointer to an app when you set up a new device, and download only the needed resources?

Yes, I realize that it won’t be long before minimum capacities increase to 32GB or even 64GB over the next year or two. But that will leave hundreds of millions of storage-starved devices in use.

While I’m at it, the fact that Apple has settled on flash storage for note-books, other than a lone traditional MacBook Pro with a mechanical hard drive, means you have to be cautious about how you fill it up. Perhaps Apple ought to offer a setting that will slim the OS and other apps of unneeded assets, while putting up a warning that you will have to download an expansion pack should you need it for overseas travel or any sort of multilingual use.

All this may seem complicated, but Apple can already deliver delta OS updates — just the content you need to install the update on your piece of hardware — and that’s a way to reduce bandwidth consumption, and make the installation faster and more efficient. So setting up apps downloads to only deliver what your device needs shouldn’t be so much harder. I suspect the tools to accomplish this could work automatically within the compiler, so developers wouldn’t have to cope with such matters.

At the end of the day, however, the “Storagegate” complaint is still foolish. But it does raise legitimate questions that tech companies ought to consider.

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