With the release of OS X Mountain Lion, iCloud has gone from being a technology preview functionality in OS X Lion to a fully fledged function of the new operating system.
The question that I have been asking myself since OS X Mountain Lion was announced in February 2012 is whether I could benefit from documents in iCloud.
Documents stored on iCloud are now standard in many OS X applications, which means that we should be able to work seamlessly on the same files from different devices.
Over the weekend I read a post on the iA Writer blog about the flat organizational file system that iCloud forces us to use. I invite you to read it because it gives you a new way to look at how people manage their documents and how iCloud might solve a certain number of problems.
The author, Oliver Reichenstein, makes a compelling case against the folder/subfolder structure that all of us have been using for years:
Folders tend to grow deeper and deeper. As soon as we have more than a handful of notions, or (beware!) more than one hierarchical level of notions, it gets hard for most brains to build a mental model of that information architecture.
This is absolutely true. Throughout the years, I’ve created some very complex folder structures only to make my life difficult when I want to move a document in one of the folders. My typical problem is whether I should move say a pension statement to the folder General Papers or the one called 2011/Investments or something else. I could give you dozens of examples like this.
When it comes to create a folder structure, my doubts always revolve around whether I should file all my bills in a single massive Bills directory or split them by year, or even better by year and type of bill (2012/Gas Bills, 2011/Internet, …)? As you can see there are so many different ways to achieve the same result.
Oliver also writes:
The more experience you have dealing with notional systems, the more you know that there is no perfect information architecture, but only better or worse compromises. And making compromises is tiring.
The truth is, the more you tweak the folder structure, the more you end up working. It’s an endless game. You can achieve the same level of efficiency – or chaos, depending from the point of view – by organizing your folders in so many different ways.
As usual when it comes to making choices the more options you have, the less effective your decision is.
The author goes on to admit of seeing the light when Apple introduced default folders is OS X such as Music, Documents, Photos etc. These directories helped him to make a drastic decision which was to dump all files in Documents without following any type of subfolder structure. The combined efficiency of search and sort (like iTunes so to speak) turned out to be the best choice for him.
With the introduction of iCloud and app sandboxing, it’s as if Apple has decided to step in and solve the document filing problem once and for all. Gone are the complex folder structures more than one level deep. iCloud in fact allows you only one level of subfolders:
Using iCloud documents, the author states that:
- I don’t need to type file extensions into Spotlight any more. In general, documents belong to an app. While there are often several apps that can use the same document, we usually have a preferred app for each document type.
- I don’t need to drag documents into the app. I can navigate from app to app, and handle the documents right there.
- I don’t need to put files away. The OS does it all for me, and my documents are always at hand in the app that they belong to.
Which is entirely true. I also totally agree with Oliver’s conclusion:
The iCloud Document Library folders, restricted to one level, guide us to use a simple hierarchical system that mirrors our mental model. This makes them easy to understand, gives us peace of mind that the files are in the right place, and relieves us from our OCD compulsion to over-organize.
iA Writer achieves this very easily. As far as I know it’s the first text editor that allows you to manage iCloud folders on both OS X and iOS (Byword in contrast manages folders only in OS X. Their support was not that helpful when I contacted them on whether the iOS version will have the same features. The answer was a generic yes but without much more information).
I would really like to embrace Apple’s vision of document organization but I have two problems with it:
- I don’t want to link my documents to a particular application.
- None of Apple standard applications allow me to share files between iOS and OS X.
In fact, both Preview.app and TextEdit.app in OS X Mountain Lion make use of iCloud documents. They even go beyond that by displaying the iCloud storage as the default location the first time you launch them.
I find it funny that there isn’t an equivalent app in iOS that allows me to read a text file created in TextEdit and saved in iCloud.
How about if you want to have a single iCloud location for your PDF files? Apple doesn’t give you any solution to achieve that. Preview.app doesn’t have an equivalent in iOS. Actually, iOS uses iBooks as a repository for PDF files. Guess what though? Because of sandboxing the two apps cannot share the same iCloud pool of documents. This is inconsistency at the highest level.
If you want to share PDF files seamlessly between iOS and OS X you can buy PDFPen for iOS and OS X that let you store all your PDF on iCloud. My question is why I need to use 3rd party software when both iOS and OS X are able to manage PDF files quite well?
As you can see from these examples, iCloud has been marketed as one of the big features of OS X Mountain Lion but the truth is that it still remains a work in progress. I hope that iOS 6, due to be released sometime this autumn, will improve things but I am not that optimistic.
Apple has embarked in a long journey with iCloud. One day it will likely supersede Finder. For the time being though, I cannot see how users can fully embrace the new technology without making huge compromises that ultimately affect their productivity.
After using OS X Mountain Lion for five days I can tell that one day I might extensively use iCloud documents. For now that functionality remains a grey area for me. An area that I’d like to explore but that Apple doesn’t give me the tools to leverage it. Until that moment I think that Dropbox will remain the solution for my needs.