Ranking iCloud’s Services

Apple often gets a lot of flack for its cloud services, including by your’s truly. And a lot of it is deserved. MobileMe was a terrible service, to say nothing of its predecessors. It is not surprising that the most recent, iCloud, has also suffered a perception problem. But is it deserved?


Remember that iCloud was the last major initiative at Apple announced by Steve Jobs himself. The idea was to create a service that allowed all its increasingly numerous platforms to be equal when it comes to user data. No more home base, iCloud is now home base.

I think the biggest issue for iCloud has been the difficulty in defining it. Even among those of us who are in the know, there isn’t one thing you can point to that describes the service. It is more an umbrella term, encompassing numerous functions, some more successful than others.

What follows is my ranking of each service of iCloud from worst to best. My opinion of course, but it comes from both being a user and a support provider. I am including all the iCloud services currently available, as well as one discontinued but still in wide use. The only thing I am not including is the new iCloud Photo Library. It’s still too early in the beta life of this service to make a fair judgement.

With all that said, here is the list. Starting at the bottom.

17. Notes

I think the problem here is twofold. One, there are a myriad of note-taking apps in the App Store. Virtually all are better and Apple knows this, so why spend time on it. Two is the history of this feature. It started on the Mac in Mail. And it still works the same way. Notes syncs by making a draft email it stores in an IMAP account. You don’t need iCloud for this. But attempting to turn on notes sync in the iCloud settings will create an iCloud email address, even if you don’t want it. I wonder how many @icloud emails exist in the world solely to sync notes.

And then there is the joy of notes spread out among different IMAP accounts. Some are in iCloud, some in Gmail, some in Yahoo. Have fun consolidating those. It’s annoying on the Mac and near impossible on iOS. I don’t think I have ever met a user of Notes who has not been frustrated with missing notes, notes that don’t sync, devices out of sync, etc.

Couple that with the fact that the app itself is near featureless. I am sure that no one inside Apple has given this any thought for years. And they don’t intend to. Do yourself a favor and download Evernote, Simplenote, Vesper, pretty much anything else. It will be better.

16. Photo Stream

This would be the bottom of my list were it not for two things. One, this feature is probably going away when the new photo syncing service comes on line and two, it isn’t fundamentally broken like notes syncing is. It’s just confusing and limited and counterintuitive. Have you ever tried explaining this feature to someone? It usually goes something like this,

“It syncs your photos. Well the new ones you just took. Actually it will sync 1000 of them for 30 days. Then it deletes them. Not from the device though, just from the stream. Unless you didn’t take the photo on that device. Unless the device is a Mac then it will keep them. No you can’t access them online. Just the photo, no albums or edits.”

How many people have lost photos thinking this feature was a backup. It most certainly isn’t. This may be the biggest reason for iCloud’s bad reputation. Nearly everyone who has attempted to use photo stream has either contorted themselves into a pretzel to make it useful, thrown their hands up in frustration, or cursed its name while looking for a picture that isn’t there. When they finally do kill this feature off I will be at the funeral, smiling.

15. Documents and Data

This is the only service on this list that you can no longer use unless you still have not upgraded to iCloud Drive. And that’s because iCloud Drive works. Documents and Data was an attempt to be the anti-Dropbox. Rather than a bunch of folders that sync, Apple would obscure everything, siloing all data into individual apps. It turns out users would much rather folders that sync.

Then there was core data sync (that’s the “data” part). It just didn’t work. Not that it didn’t work well, it actually didn’t work. Maybe it would for a day or two, but give it time. It will fail. You know it’s bad when developers would rather write their own custom sync engine and pay for server space than use your sync service.

14. Back to my Mac

This is one of the holdover services from MobileMe. And it works better now. Unfortunately that wasn’t a high bar to clear. When it works it’s great. But it just doesn’t work reliably enough to be functionally useful. If I need to control my Mac remotely I will launch Screens which works flawlessly. Meanwhile I would still be waiting for my Mac to maybe appear in the Finder. Not to mention the lack of any iOS compatibility. Someone needs to tell Apple that mobile is big now.

13. iWork in the Cloud

Apple’s productivity suite has always been an odd beast. For the longest time Office was the be all end all of documents, spreadsheet, and presentation ecosystem. iWork for the Mac arose from the ashes of AppleWorks, not so much to challenge Office, but offer an alternative.

The suite first took to the cloud with iWork.com. It sat in beta for years, saw few updates, and was hardly ever used by anyone. I don’t think I can actually explain what it was supposed to be. I logged in once and never again.

In the meantime Google really started to pull users away with its free online suite. Docs is a powerful web app that offers real competition to Microsoft. Apple finally pulled the plug on iWork.com and introduced iWork in the Cloud. And it’s still in beta.

On the surface it’s a good move. And I like the apps, I just don’t love them. Aside from Keynote the Google apps are much better and far more mature. Pretty much every job I have ever had ultimately ended up using Google as their main productivity platform. iWork has not achieved anywhere near this mindshare. Part of this may be due to the fact that until recently you needed an Apple device to even log in and use the apps. But I think the biggest problem is that Google is just too far ahead, Microsoft is too entrenched, and Apple just isn’t going to invest the time to push this. It’s not a bad product, it’s just the perpetual third choice.

12. Photo Sharing

This usually gets clumped together with photo stream. But I am breaking it out on its own here because it’s not fair to bring this feature down due to the awfulness of photo stream.

The shared streams actually work pretty well. It’s a nice way to share photos with other Apple users in a non public way. It works and is relatively easy to understand.

I would rank it higher but the problem is that it doesn’t get used as often as it should. I think photo stream has to die first before anyone feels safe using this particular feature. It has too much baggage right now. And I understand why.

11. iTunes Match

iTunes Match is great when it works. It was the service I wanted. Take my music and make it available everywhere. I used to plug in my phone to the computer daily to sync. Between iTunes Match and podcast apps, I don’t need to do this anymore. I can’t remember the last time I plugged my phone in to the computer.

But we need to talk about that “when it works” part. Match has limitations that aren’t always obvious. If the song it too short, or the file too small, or it believes there to be a duplicate, it won’t upload. Matching is an inexact science. But the biggest problem is that when something goes wrong, the whole system collapses. And there is no way to see into it or troubleshoot anything. Want to reset and start over? Good luck with that. And if any service were crying out for a web app, it’s this one.

10. Keychain

Passwords suck. We all agree. The end result is that a large percentage of Internet users have horrible reused passwords that are begging to be stolen. An entire ecosystem of password managers has developed to help solve this problem. Apple recognized this and jumped in. The results are mixed.

On the one hand it’s great to finally have a password manager with syncing capabilities come preinstalled on all Apple products. And they did the security right. Keychain is harder to sync yes, and requires more authentication to turn on, but it makes it much less likely your passwords will be accidentally leaked.

Oh the other though, this is another case where the alternatives are much better. It is just too hard to see into the keychain. What if you need to retrieve your password without entering it directly into Safari? You can, but it won’t be pretty or obvious how. Keychain on the Mac is in desperate need of a facelift. I struggle to find the password I need in there sometimes, and I know what I am doing.

9. Email

Mail in iCloud works fine. It’s IMAP, which is good. I honestly don’t have a strong opinion on this one. Junk mail filtering can be better but otherwise it’s the second best free email option after Gmail.

It just doesn’t get used much. Apple was too late to the free email game. People have their email addresses now and don’t want to change. And those who do run into a problem with Apple IDs. Making an iCloud address on its own may forever split your Apple ID. Mail would be more compelling without the Apple ID shackles.

8. iCloud Drive

Sometimes Apple is wrong. This was one of those times. The previously mentioned Documents and Data feature was an attempt to not be Dropbox. But people like Dropbox, so Apple basically threw in the towel and gave us Dropbox. And we are better for it.

iCloud Drive is a massively better product. Finally iCloud supports files in a sane, browsable interface. The rollout was not great, with a month long delay between the iOS and Mac release, but getting past that particular growing pain it works well.

But again, troubleshooting when something goes wrong is frustrating. There is no way to see sync status or force a sync if it isn’t happening. Apple needs to move past “It just works”. Sometimes it doesn’t and it needs help.

7. Backup

Backup is important. Hugely important. I cannot overemphasis how important it is. And yet people don’t do it. Adding a free, automatic, easy, offsite backup to iCloud was a huge boon for users. And it works really well. It has saved me more than once.

This may have been up at the top of my list but for one problem. The 5GB limit. It is just too small now. Way too small. With devices now at 128GB it is way too easy to run right past this limit. Yes you can buy more storage, but few people ever do this. I have seen people spend days painstakingly deleting things file by file to get back under the limit. Most users though just ignore it for long stretches of time, rendering the feature useless. The limit needs to be raised, and it needs to be proportional to the hardware you own.

6. Reminders

Yes this is another place where third party apps are better but Reminders probably suits most users just fine. It sync reliably, is easy to navigate, and for the most part plays well with other apps. I use Siri for this task more than any other. Reminders often gets lumped in with Notes but that is not fair. Reminders is actually good.

5. iTunes in the Cloud

If you bought iTunes music back in the pre-cloud era you probably remember the dire warning that you must backup your purchases or else you will be charged again to redownload. Despite Apple knowing for sure that you bought it, licensing prevented you from downloading a track more than once. This was incredibly annoying, especially if you just suffered data loss.

This feature probably gets overlooked but it has been one of the biggest in terms of convenience. Need that song on your new computer? Just click download. Done. Much better.

4. Find my Friends

This feature definitely has the opportunity to become creepy, but Apple was smart with how they implemented it. It’s a great idea. Since our phones have GPS anyway, let’s use it to allow those who opt in to see where we are. The key here is how you use it.

No you probably shouldn’t have your entire address book tracking your every move. But for families it has been extremely useful, in addition trying to find friends at an event. Rather than screaming “where are you” into the microphone, just follow the blue beacon.

This feature is one where Apple’s lack of advertising plays to its advantage. I don’t think I would have trusted just anyone with this kind of data.

3. Calendars

I should start by saying I really don’t use his feature, mainly because my life is so tied up in Google Apps accounts, and Google Calendar is so good. But iCloud calendar works extremely well. And it should, given that it is basically a CalDAV service. I like when Apple uses standards. It makes it work well with others. Not much else to say here. It’s good.

2. Contacts

Unlike with Calendar, I do not use Google as my contact manager because their contact product is really terrible. The web interface is bad, it is too tied to other Google services, which leads to a lot of junk building up. But mostly it doesn’t work well with features of the iPhone such as Siri. No matter how many times I tell it who my mother it, it never remembers.

iCloud contacts works very well. My one complaint is that you cannot manage groups on iOS. This seems like an odd limitation. But otherwise syncing works fine. Again it’s a standards based CardDAV service so this isn’t surprising. Standards are great aren’t they?

1. Find my iPhone

When you think about technology that has made an impact, there isn’t a lot better you can do than help lower crime. Thefts of phones were reaching epidemic levels. Combine that with less violent means of separation – like, I don’t know, leaving your phone in a bar – and you have a lot of phones that are missing from their owners’ hands.

From that came what is easily the most impactful feature of iCloud, if not the most used. Find my iPhone started as a way to locate your lost device, and has since expanded to a full activation lock. Suddenly stolen iPhones were no longer as valuable. This feature has been such a big deal that some states are now passing laws requiring it.

Even backing away from the lost aspect here, I have used Find my iPhone to locate it when I put it down somewhere in my apartment. If you ever misplaced a phone on vibrate you probably understand how great this feature is. It works consistently, reliably, and provides an invaluable service to users. What more can you ask the cloud for?

Ranking iCloud’s Services was last updated March 8th, 2015 by Michael Truskowski