“A lot of us have been working for 10 years to get rid of the file system so the user doesn’t have to learn about it.” – Steve Jobs (2011 WWDC)
Apple has a vision: in the future, users won’t have to know anything about those “pesky” computer files we’ve been struggling to deal with for so long. They plan to obscure files in their new iCloud service, a “free” online service that allows users to manage and store their information on Apple’s cloud computing servers, while pulling the information in real-time to their many Apple devices in order to work on them, share them, and so on.
The problem with that vision is that computer files are the “things” that contain all of our information. And you and I own that information. If you are like me, you will want that information to be accessible, secure, and portable.
Let’s say I own a MacBook (I do) and an iPad (I don’t), and let’s say I create a document on the Macbook. If I am an iCloud user that information will be uploaded to the cloud, and “synced” with my iPad, effectively making it available for editing or viewing on both devices. That means Apple’s new iCloud service will make my data highly portable, at least in one sense of the term (I’ll get to the other shortly). That’s a good thing. Having the data on an Apple-managed cloud will also make it secure, since I would no longer have to manage those files using a backup service. Getting at my files would be as easy as logging into the service, making the data accessible, at least in one sense (I’ll talk about the other shortly). All good things.
Anyone who has used an iPad knows how easy they are to navigate, partly because the iOS operating system that runs on it doesn’t contain the “clutter” of folders, files, windows, and those other things that make computers harder to use (they require understanding, which can be time-intensive). Apple seems to be moving toward that model for its Mac operating system (the new version is called Lion). As such, the model being adopted on all Mac products seems to be one that obscures file management tasks. It has its benefits.
But there’s a downside to all of this. For all the convenience that goes along with obscuring the filesystem and integrating Mac operating systems with the iCloud services, Apple is also creating potential problems for data access and portability, and raising serious questions about data ownership.
Cloud-based services are highly proprietary at the moment, meaning that one cloud service is NOT likely to be compatible with another. Depending on how thoroughly Apple decides to obscure the filesystem from the user, it might be the case that within a few years, the files become effectively “locked-in” to the Apple-iCloud system. That’s not to say that Apple won’t allow the user to move files from a Mac system to, say, a Windows system. It would be quite Machiavellian of Apple (and would be immediately rejected by users) to prevent users from moving documents from one system to another.
But Apple can make it increasingly difficult for users to move ALL of their data from a Mac system to, say, an Android system, in the event that a user wants to switch services wholesale.
Right now users work on a few files at a time on their iPads. The thought of moving that file to a Windows PC or an Android device isn’t particularly troublesome. Try moving your previous ten years of work from one to the other. The only way I can imagine doing that is by putting them all in a folder, copying that folder to some straightforward storage device, like an external drive or Dropbox, and copying it to my other system.
But notice how my strategy for switching systems relies on having access to file-level control of my information. In a world where users are discouraged from assuming that kind of control, the likelihood that they will switch services is diminished.
So it isn’t in Apple’s interest to make it too easy for users to move those files. And there’s the portability issue, in a nutshell.
However, it is ethically responsible for Apple to make it relatively painless for users to transfer all of their information from the iCloud if they so choose. After all, users own that data outright. For this reason users need to pressure Apple to provide for a mechanism that enables them to move ALL of their data from one proprietary system to another, if ever they choose to leave the iCloud.
These two issues are not new to cloud computing. But they have yet to be seriously addressed by companies who are rushing to offer cloud-based computing services to their user base. Before rushing into the iCloud (or any other cloud) I would seriously suggest thinking up an escape plan. The Apples of the world might not outlive you. If they die young, why let them take your data with them?