One problem with nearly all of the computing gadgets we use today is an abundance of friction. Several steps separate where we start and what we want to accomplish.
If I want to write and share an article, for example, I need to open an application, create the file, work in it, save it somewhere on my hard disk where I’ll easily find it again, attach the finished piece to an email message, and quit the application.
That’s assuming I’m working on just one computer, which is less likely for many people, who may have a laptop for traveling or an iPad part of the time. Moving a file between devices adds more complexity.
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Solutions exist, of course. I now save all of my active projects in a Dropbox folder, so they appear on all of my computers and are automatically backed up online.
But data today demand portability, and the less friction involved in accessing that data the better.
For owners of Macs and iOS devices, the frictionless solution is iCloud. The Apple service is free to anyone.
iCloud isn’t new, but it has finally evolved into something far more useful. I’ve used iCloud and its predecessor MobileMe to store and sync contacts and calendar items among devices, and for years that feature was enough to justify the cost of MobileMe. If I add an event to my calendar on my Mac, it appears within minutes (sometimes within seconds) on my iPhone and iPad.
Now, on Macs running OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion and devices running iOS 5 or iOS 6, I use the built-in Reminders app for tracking to-do items. In fact, I’m a little more sneaky than that: With the Omni Group’s OmniFocus app on my iPad and iPhone, I can dictate a task to Siri — “Remind me to call Glenn tomorrow at 2 o’clock” — and Reminders hands the item off to OmniFocus without me tapping a thing.
(OmniFocus actually uses its own cloud service, not iCloud, to host the data. But from the perspective of a person who just wants to save a task, that isn’t important.)
But let’s get back to documents. When I attended Apple’s iPad mini launch event two weeks ago, I flew to San Jose in the morning and returned to Seattle midafternoon of the same day. I wrote part of the article in the Pages application on my MacBook Pro in a coffee shop near the venue, and then grabbed a lift to the airport. (I used the impressive service Über, www.uber.com, which let me hail a town car using my iPhone, and handled the payment automatically).
At the airport I nearly finished the article, but it was more convenient for me to do it on my iPad. I didn’t need to fish a sync cable out of my bag, or even open up my laptop. My article was there in Pages on the iPad, right where I’d left off.
With just a couple of paragraphs left to write, I had to board the plane. Before putting the iPad away, I used the time I had to do as much as I could to wrap up the article and then email it (in Microsoft Word format, a one-button option during export) to my editor.
iCloud also proved useful when I received a new iPad mini. During the initial setup, I entered my Apple ID, and within minutes my information was on the device: calendar, contacts and iCloud email. It also set up iTunes Match, a $25 yearly service that gives me access to my music library; I can download songs to the iPad or stream them on my Mac.
The same now applies to books purchased in the iBookstore: You can download them in iBooks. (Amazon’s Kindle iOS app does the same thing with its own cloud network.)
iCloud simply removes a lot of friction to getting at your data.
But there’s one catch, and it can be a biggie. Because iCloud is hosted elsewhere, you’re completely at the mercy of Apple’s servers. If iTunes Match is experiencing a hiccup, there’s nothing you can do about it. And although I’ve had no problems in this area, if something goes screwy with your Apple ID, it can be a major pain to resolve.
For now, I’m still optimistic because Apple is investing heavily in the service and building it as a foundation of all its computing. And it’s easy to get accustomed to having your important information always at hand.