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iCloud and Metaphors

Web services are one of the only competencies in which Apple clearly lags its fellow superpowers (Amazon, Google, Microsoft). MobileMe was overpriced and under-featured to the point that it drove Steve Jobs insane. Ping was DOA. Siri is an even rarer bird: an explicitly “beta” Apple product. But those failures have been inconsequential, as all of them occurred in the context of Apple having to ramp-up and evolve rapidly in light of explosive growth in sales. Siri’s clumsiness in comparison to latecomer Google Now, for example, didn’t matter since it still helped differentiate the mostly iterative iPhone 4S from a sea of specced-out Android devices.

iCloud is a different matter. What is OS X Mountain Lion if not one giant iCloud client?Apple is betting the farm North Carolina on iCloud’s centrality to the Apple ecosystem, such that its shiny silver logo is emblazoned on every iPhone and iPad box. About that logo: isn’t it, well, odd? It looks like the neatly trimmed, rounded-off icon that we’ve come to associate with iOS (or OS X, increasingly) apps, which are discrete, sandboxed creations that are supposed to excel at specific tasks. iCloud is the total opposite of that – it isn’t an “app” at all, really, but a largely clandestine service that runs behind the scenes and allegedly ties all of your compliant apps together. Still, it’s cute that OS X superapp Alfred thinks that iCloud is actually something targetable and discrete on my Mac:

As much flak as Apple has gotten for its attachment to skeuomorphs, sandboxes and app-centric desktop metaphors, I’m wondering if they made a mistake in making iCloud so intangible. Certainly, some corners of Twitter have had difficulties grasping Cupertino’s cumulonimbus. Myself, I don’t find myself thinking much about iCloud, which is what I suspect Apple intended, that is, for iCloud to be unobtrusive yet something that “just worked.” Its unobtrusiveness, however, begins to be a drawback when it doesn’t just work.

iCloud is a relatively tough concept to explain to a normal person, especially when compared to Dropbox or Google Drive. It helps that the latter two have been presented as a submission box and a hard drive in the sky. Users can accordingly feel that they are actually controlling their data and putting it in a knowable place. This is invaluable mental peace of mind when it comes to common tasks like making backups or putting your class notes in a place in which you can reliably access them (the latter was the original inspiration behind Dropbox). Google’s fusion of Google Docs into the new Google Drive brand helped to reinforce this notion that its cloud service in particular was a place in which you let all of your work breathe and reside. Furthermore, Dropbox and Google Drive, although complex services on the backend, can still exist as simple standalone apps on some mobile devices. They’ve mastered the art of the metaphor, and they make sense on multiple levels to the savvy and unsavvy alike.

So what can be done to make iCloud better? On mobile, it likely needs its own configuration space, not unlike the iOS Settings app, which is a good example of how Apple transformed one of the worst nightmares of PC users (control panels, settings, configurations) into a simple one-stop, intuitive interface. It might not hurt to have this iCloud center on the Mac, too.

Also, iCloud email accounts need to be messaged better. When I answered user support tickets for a startup, I would sometimes suggest that users who were having problems sending out messages from their Yahoo or GMail accounts instead try to send one from their likely unused iCloud (icloud.com) email accounts. Bad move: they would then ask if iCloud were required to use the app at all, and why they couldn’t find any of the app’s data in iCloud (at the time, it didn’t support iCloud integration, but I’m not sure it would have made a difference for them). In general, these same users also almost never requested more iCloud-compliant features or compatability, and they certainly did not take an interest in its refinement like they did with any of our compatible cloud services (even SkyDrive and Box!).

I expect that Apple wanted to have it two ways with iCloud – a major, easily metaphorical selling point for iOS and cross-device functionality (hence the logo on every box), yet also an invisible hand allegedly guiding us through that very same attempt at establishing a working ecosystem. This aim might have worked if iCloud were truly a supercompetent invisible steward, but it isn’t, at least not yet.

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