iOS 5: Documents in the Cloud

Of all the iOS 5/iCloud (s aapl) announcements made during this summer’s WWDC, the one that excited me the most was Documents in the Cloud. Unfortunately, it’s also turned into the one that disappointed me the most at launch.

Documents in the Cloud is a way to sync documents and data across your devices. While it may seem like it takes the place of iDisk, it doesn’t replace it. There is no Finder-like access to a file structure. Each app has its data sandboxed, so it’s app-specific. If you open the same file in Pages and GoodReader, and tell each to upload that file to iCloud, you will have two copies of the file up there.

Setting up Documents in the Cloud

The initial setup of Documents in the Cloud is very easy. On your iOS device go into Settings, then iCloud, and make sure Documents and Data is set to “On.” You can also tell it to not sync when only on cellular networks.

To use the iWork apps with Documents in the Cloud, you’ll need to be running the latest versions of Pages, Keynote, and Numbers. The first time you launch each of these apps, you’ll be asked if you want to use iCloud. If you choose to use iCloud, any local iWork documents you have will be uploaded to iCloud, so don’t worry about losing them. However, once you enable iCloud, you will no longer be able to use iTunes to add a document to an iWork app. Using “Open With” from an e-mail still works just fine.

Syncing between iOS devices

Right now, syncing between iOS devices is Documents in the Cloud’s strong suit. Changes made to a Pages document on my iPad show up within seconds on my iPhone. As a control, I performed a worst-case scenario for syncing: I deleted Pages from all my iOS devices and reinstalled it on my iPad. All my files were still there.

This service isn’t limited to just iWork, as games like Scribblenauts Remix will let you use iCloud to sync your saved games between devices. GoodReader for iPad also supports iCloud. The GoodReader for iPhone update is still in Apple’s review queue as of this writing.

Syncing between Windows and OS X

This is where Documents in the Cloud starts to fall down. While there is a Documents and Data checkbox in the iCloud Preference Pane in Lion, I can’t tell where the data is saved to. I also doubt it’s user-accessible.

The only way to get data from my Mac to iCloud right now is via the website. Unfortunately, the only apps that show up on the website are the three iWork apps. The good news is, you can upload and download either iWork or Microsoft Office (s msft) files from here. The bad news is, if you have PDFs (s adbe) on your Mac you want to get into GoodReader and iCloud, there isn’t an easy option outside of iTunes syncing (that still works for GoodReader).

There are APIs available for developers to use on Windows and OS X that hook into iCloud. My bet is in the long run developers that want to make it easy for users to put data into their apps. Omni Group has said the next version of OmniGraffle for iPad will support storing documents in iCloud, but I don’t see any mention of OmniGraffle for OS X and iCloud. Omni Group tends to be on the leading edge of development, so I’m curious how they will handle this.

Final thoughts

Buyer Beware

I had little faith in iCloud retaining my data during yesterday’s craziness. My tests on seeing if a changed document was properly updated on the web and iOS were successful. However, at least three times when I went back to look at something on the web interface, my documents were gone. I would either have a web page empty of documents or one prompting me to get iWork for iOS. The first time this happened was during the afternoon and I was having trouble updating the apps. I thought maybe one of the apps got rolled back and threw iCloud off. The second time I had noticed my iPhone wanted to download the update again (I think I had deleted it) and I thought maybe something had gotten wonky again. The third time I didn’t do anything. I went to the web page, saw no documents and opened up Pages for iPad and watched three documents delete themselves.

Problems are ongoing. When I create a new document in Pages on iOS, it prompts me to either create a document, or import one even though iCloud is specified in Pages’ settings. This is how Pages worked pre-iCloud, and turning iCloud on and off doesn’t fix the problem.. When this happens, both the iPhone and the iPad can’t see iCloud. At which point I thought to myself: Yep, these are the guys that brought me MobileMe. It’s possible it’s related to all the iCloud launch issues, but I’m very scared to trust it with my data.

These issues aside, until there’s an easy way to always update documents on a Mac or a PC, Documents in the Cloud is of limited use to me. I’m not optimistic this is going to happen any time soon. All of Apple’s promo videos that show iWork on iOS being used with iCloud never show a Mac as part of the chain (the Mac does feature prominently when they demonstrate photo stream). I also don’t like that third-party iCloud-enabled iOS apps can’t register themselves on the website so you can drag files to them.

I was really hoping I would be able to round-trip files from OS X to iOS without doing the download/upload two-step. It didn’t seem like a fantasy to work on a document on OS X Pages, close it, and head to diner and have it magically appear on my iPad. Until Apple and other developers use those OS X and Windows APIs, that fantasy won’t come true.