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iCloud is the new Apple service which lets you easily synchronize files between IPad / iPhone and desktop computers, here’s how it works.
Did we say ‘easily’? More correct to say ‘a bit easier’. iCloud is a slightly better way to get documents between a desktop and Apple devices but it’s far from being elegant or straightforward, especially for Windows or Office users.
We’ve looked at iCloud’s calendar/contacts/tasks synchronization (such as it is) separately.
iCloud for documents
Documents saved by iCloud enabled programs on Apple portable devices will be automatically copied to online storage and to any other linked devices. This means a document saved on your iPad will appear on your iPhone/iPad automatically or vice-versa.
It appears that most synchronization will only occur when you have a Wifi connection. (Apple’s documentation on iCloud is very limited).
Macintosh computers can also be synchronized with iCloud documents however Windows computers cannot.
There are other services that do this like DropBox however iCloud is more tightly integrated with Apple devices and software. This is both a good and bad thing for customers.
Saving from a device
Once iCloud is enabled on an Apple device, any documents are automatically saved to the online storage as soon as a WiFi connection is available.
The applications on the device have to be iCloud capable. At the moment that’s only the three Apple-made programs (Keynote, Pages and Numbers) since third-party app makers could only submit their iCloud apps for approval a week before iOS v5 was released.
Over time you can expect other iOS apps to become iCloud enabled, watch the App Store for updates.
You need the new iOS v5 which is a free update for iPhone (3GS, 4 and 4S), iPod touch (3rd or 4th generation) plus all iPads (1st or 2nd generation). It’s installed via iTunes and may take an hour or more to complete.
For iCloud connections, Windows users need Vista SP2 or Windows 7. Apple Mac users need OS X Lion 10.7.2 or above. See http://Apple.com/ios for more details.
During the device setup for iOS 5, turn on the iCloud option when prompted, or go to Settings and customize it at any time. For the purposes of this article you’ll need the ‘ Documents and Data ’ option ON.
On Mac OS X Lion, go to System Preferences | iCloud for similar choices.
iCloud for Windows
For Windows Vista SP2 and Windows 7 users only there is an iCloud Control Panel free download available.
This gives you some access to some iCloud features like mail, calendar and contact sync. This requires Outlook and we’ll look at that separately.
Photo Stream will automatically get photos from your Apple devices (ie. the Camera Roll on iPad) and save them to your computer. Photos copied to an Upload folder will be replicated to devices. By default these folders are in \My Documents\My Pictures\Photo Stream .
All this is controlled from an iCloud item in the Windows Control Panel.
Notice what’s missing from the Windows version of iCloud? There is no ‘Documents and Data’ option!
Windows users cannot directly sync their documents with their iPhone or iPad! The only option is clumsy … you have to manually upload and download documents via the iCloud web interface.
iCloud Web Interface
You can see the documents saved in the iCloud online storage from any web browser. Go to icloud.com and login using your Apple ID.
These are the default icons which appear whether you have those parts of iCloud enabled or not.
In our tests for this article we only enabled ‘Documents and Data’, ‘Find my iPhone’ and ‘Photo Stream. Mail, Contacts and Calendar appear even though they have no data and aren’t enabled on any linked device. Photo Stream is missing because there’s no web/cloud access to photos.
Click on the ‘iWork’ icon to see available documents synchronized with devices. They are separated according to the Apple applications; Keynote (Apple’s version of PowerPoint), Pages (Word) and Numbers (Excel).
You may get a one-time prompt to install an ‘iCloud Web App Plugin’ into your browser.
Tip: you can jump straight to your iCloud documents by going to https://www.icloud.com/
To edit a document in Office you have to download it to your computer then open it in Office.
Click on the document, then the Download button to see your download options. You can get the file in one of three formats:
- Pages ’09, Keynote or Numbers file (effectively useless for Windows Office users)
- PDF - for ‘read only’ purposes
- Word / Excel / PowerPoint
Obviously, Office users will choose the Word / Excel / PowerPoint option.
The document will be downloaded to you just like any other web download. Depending on how your browser is setup, you’ll get a prompt to save or it’ll be copied to a default download folder.
The Office document options are saved in the ‘old’ Office 97-2003 formats (.doc .xls .ppt) which means the downloads will be larger than if Apple had used the newer Office 2007/2010 formats.
You can open the downloaded document and work on it just like any other document.
To upload a document, drag it from explorer over the iCloud browser area.
For uploading iCloud will accept both old and new Office formats (.doc and .docx etc).
It’s not clear exactly what formats are accepted for iCloud uploads. Apple itself doesn’t make things clear by only saying that "Supported Formats include Pages ’09, Word and text files"
Our tests showed that .txt files can be uploaded. Rich Text Files (RTF) files are uploaded without an error message but don’t show up in the iCloud document list – a bug to be fixed there.
iCloud only considers the name of a document to be significant, not the extension. If you try to upload two documents with the same name but different extensions (Dagg.doc and Dagg.docx) the second upload will overwrite the existing file. This usually should not be a problem but it’s worth keeping in mind.
iCloud has no document conflict resolution between uploaded documents and those edited on a device. This could lead to a loss of data if you’re not careful. If you edit a document in Pages and upload another version of the same document at around the same time, iCloud seems to accept the most recent one and replicate that. Unlike Microsoft’s cloud services which would warn you about the conflict and give you choices for resolving or merging the documents.
Deleting and Copying
Right-click on a document in the iCloud browser interface and you’ll see options to Delete, Duplicate or Download the document.
Obviously, there should be document integration for Windows users. You have to download/upload documents from your local machine to the iCloud via a browser with no automatic synchronization.
With iCloud it’s all or nothing. On a device there’s no choice to save a document but not have it copied elsewhere. If you have a particularly sensitive document you might not want to have it copied around. Apple gives you no choice.
There is no provision for simple groups, allowing a small number of people (a family, club etc) to share some documents.
The ‘Photo Stream’ is limited to the most recent 1,000 or 30 days old photos. It seems that photos replicated to Mac or Windows computers are saved beyond that limit , however the documentation is unclear. Photo Stream images are not stored in the iCloud and therefore not part of the 5GB storage limit nor are they available for viewing from a browser.
There is no ‘offline’ storage for Windows users. If you want to edit iCloud documents from a Windows laptop while offline you’ll need to explicitly download each one before going offline.
The iCloud browser interface doesn’t allow multiple file actions. You have to download each document separately with no option to select some or all documents in one action.
iCloud is clearly limited by Apple’s desire to push people to buy ‘All Apple’ – using Cupertino approved hardware and software. This might work for some people but is likely to face resistance from many more. Microsoft has the same problem in their repeated, vain attempts to get people to buy ‘All Microsoft’ - Live Mesh does a better job of syncronizing files but it'll be a cold day in hell before we get an Apple or Android version of it.
If you have a typical ‘mixed’ environment (ie a mix of Apple, Microsoft and Google Android etc devices and computers) then an option like DropBox or even Evernote might be more suitable than iCloud. Both of these products are ‘agnostic’ and work just as well across various platforms.
Article posted: Sunday, 16 October 2011
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