On iCloud vs. Dropbox

icloudA lot is being said about Apple’s much-hyped and now disappointing iCloud with respect to data and file syncing, and comparisons with a lot of file-sharing services—mostly Dropbox—are being made, and rightly so.

Gruber says Dropbox is better, Ben Brooks maintains that iCloud is what the future is, and that filesystems are a thing of the past.

At the risk of sounding like a guy stuck in the past, I’d say that filesystem access is a good thing to have. Not for the complexities it brings along with it, but solely for the openness and portability of data it facilitates. A file can be moved anywhere, to your USB stick, an external drive or even a remote server. Anywhere. Moreover open fileformats (best example: Markdown) can be read and edited by a wide variety of apps.

With iCloud? Good luck trying to edit that note you made in an iOS app, which doesn’t have a desktop counterpart, on your PC or Mac.

The lack of an option to port iCloud documents between apps and to export iCloud data is being called a “power user” feature by many folks, including Ben Brooks who says:

Dropbox is a power user tool/service/feature — a damned good one — just not something the average user is going to leverage in the way that others do. iCloud is a consumer level feature. It’s good enough for power users if they are willing to relinquish control and trust Apple, but mostly it’s a drop-dead simple solution for everyone.

Except that it’s not just trusting Apple, it’s trusting the app developer as well. And trusting Apple with apps has its issues as well: What if Apple, at some point in the future decides to remove an app from the App Store? Your iCloud data is stuck, without any way to retrieve it.

More importantly, I don’t understand why privacy and openness advocates are not calling out Apple for the lack of an export option in iCloud or the lack of data portability between iOS apps? If the same thing were done by Google or Facebook, all hell would break loose, with everyone up in arms against the “evil” services, and understandably so. (It’s not like iCloud is some small little service with an insignificant userbase, hundreds of millions of people already use it and the number will only go higher.)

Coming back to how iCloud could improve, Ben Brooks writes:

I think the easiest way for Apple to appease those less than impressed with iCloud is to add the “Open in…” dialog to all iCloud apps and finally allow users to “share” iCloud documents between apps.

While adding an “open in” dialog, already being used in a lot of iOS apps for local files, would be a great addition, Brooks believes that this feature would make iCloud better than Dropbox. In making such an assumption, Brooks completely ignores the possibilty of Dropbox improving its service as well. After all, it won’t take Dropbox a lot of time to replicate the much applauded feature of iCloud—filesystem abstraction.

dropbox-appsIt’s already doing that to a certain extent even now, with its API. Try connecting an app like Drafts to your Dropbox account, and what the service will do is create a folder named “Drafts” in your Dropbox. From then on, you can save documents to the service without having to enocunter those annoying prompts to name your document or to say where to save it, while still giving advanced users the choices to do so, in case they want to.

Dropbox could easliy become more iCloud-like, while Apple would have a lot of major decisions to take to improve their service. As of now Dropbox is the filesystem iOS never had, and iCloud is simply a service to sync app specific preferences accross multiple devices.

Maybe Apple is indeed thinking about adding more functionality to iCloud. Maybe iCloud is also a part of the apparent emphasis being made on inter-app sharing in iOS 7. We’ll have to see. I think Apple could address the complaints of a lot of users by simply making a framework to share iCloud documents between apps, but a way to peek inside iCloud to know what’s stored would be a nice feature to have. (Also, improvements to iCloud Documents would be at a much lower priority as compared to iCloud’s infrastructure itself, which seems to go down every now and then.)

Also see: How to get started with Dropbox on iOS