iCloud is a major weakness: will Apple ever fix it?

Apple iCloud syncing
Apple's iCloud document syncing

Those who are interested in the state of Apple as a company will know that online services are not its forte. Unlike Google, Amazon or Microsoft, Apple doesn't seem to be able to catch a break online, revamping the failed MobileMe into iCloud only to have it hacked and abused in several high-profile cases, and experience serious amounts of downtime, damaging the credibility of iCloud and the credibility of Apple itself.

Apple's cloud issues all started with MobileMe. First released in 2008, MobileMe was the precursor to iCloud focused more around the Mac and various desktop-based services, such as iWeb. The service cost £99 (around $150, AU$185) per year and was used by very few and worked even less of the time.

As iOS and OS X started to merge in 2010, Apple released iCloud and combined the features of MobileMe (minus some of the desktop-specific software) with more mobile-friendly software, such as location tracking for a phone. Email addresses, which were previously @me.com, were transitioned to @icloud.com and iMessage was introduced, offering a WhatsApp-like experience for texting exclusively for iPhones. Apple had, it appeared, turned over a new leaf when it came to online services.

But the problems didn't end there. Over the years iMessage has seen various outages, creating angry customers who had to rely on plain old SMS, eating into text plans as opposed to data plans with only Apple to blame. In the summer of 2014, iCloud got hacked, releasing high-profile celebrity nudes onto the internet. Other cases of identity theft from an iCloud account, allowing a hacker to gain access to the most sensitive of information, have also occurred.

Banished to the low ground

Popular web and iOS developer Marco Arment wrote recently that Apple had lost its "functional high ground" in terms of software quality and this is reflected in iCloud. Google and Microsoft produce world-class software products both online and offline, and have effectively claimed the "high ground," as Arment calls it, offering far more reliable services than Apple is able to.

In many ways, Steve Jobs' mantra of owning the "whole widget" is responsible for Apple's online faults. Instead of outsourcing the development of online technologies to a company that can handle it, Apple chose to develop them in-house and, as such, now has to develop hardware and software, both online and offline. A herculean feat that even Apple cannot manage.

The central premise of Arment's piece is that marketing has overtaken software in terms of importance at Apple, superseding the need for a quality product and replacing it with a need for a product to a deadline, which is usually just a year.

Speed is the priority

Arment argues that a value consensus has been reached within Apple that dictates speed is the most important factor when developing software, and for the software to improve Apple would need to uncouple software releases with hardware releases. And if overall software improves, it stands to reason that Apple's online services would improve.

Beyond reliability, many are clamouring for Apple to add more features to iCloud, the most notable of which is to open up the service to developers to work with, just as Google has done with Drive, or Dropbox does.

The "walled garden" approach works with devices and much of iOS, but having an online service exist in a vacuum is setting it up to fail, and Apple should be aware of this. Just as iOS has grown over the years to include third-party services at a system level – sharing on Facebook or Twitter, for example – iCloud needs to grow to allow other services to link in, expanding beyond what it is currently capable of on its own.

Many of these improvements would only affect developers who know what "API" stands for (Application Programme Interface) or are interested in the inner workings of iCloud, but they're also vitally important to consumers. Apple does not own the "whole widget" when it comes to the online experience and it is damaging the company's ability to integrate iPhone hardware and software.

Before iOS 8, Apple's mobile operating system was essentially closed and wouldn't even allow for seemingly elementary features such as sharing to third-party apps or a third-party keyboard, hallmarks of the Android user experience for many years. Post-iOS 8, the company seems far happier to integrate with third-parties and that integration is likely set to continue, opening up Apple's ecosystem to a larger group of developers, albeit at Apple's behest.

Crumbling credibility?

The primary problem with iCloud is that it doesn't "just work" and this creates problems for Apple's overall image. Just as Arment is arguing in his piece, each failure on Apple's part detracts from its credibility and image, eroding the loyalty of its customer base and damaging Cupertino's reputation in terms of reliability.

Whenever iMessage does down, Twitter and other social networks light up with angry users asking Apple to sort it out – and this negative response will be remembered. Developers are also becoming increasingly angry on a different level, railing against Apple's unwillingness to open up the service and watching the quality of software deteriorate simultaneously.

Apple still has a chance to fix the damage that its tardiness is causing – it is unlikely that consumers are going to boycott iPhones on a large-scale because iMessage occasionally goes down – but each little incident chips away at the company's credibility while its competitors, principally Google, increase their lead in the online space.

Max Slater-Robins has been writing about technology for nearly a decade at various outlets, covering the rise of the technology giants, trends in enterprise and SaaS companies, and much more besides. Originally from Suffolk, he currently lives in London and likes a good night out and walks in the countryside.