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iCloudy with a Chance of Intermittence

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I hate intermittent tech problems. They are hard to reproduce reliably (duh, intermittency!), and so are particularly hard to solve. Here are a few that I’ve experienced when using various features of Apple’s collection of data services known as iCloud. In each case I can make the problem go away for a time, but sooner or later the problem returns. I want to share these annoyances partly in the hope that someone will have a solution, but also so anyone else experiencing similar problems knows they’re not alone, and as a quiet warning that Apple needs to improve iCloud’s reliability.

The first intermittent problem is iCloud email push deafness. This one can afflict any one of my three iOS devices (an iPhone 4, an iPad 2, and a third-generation iPad, for those keeping score). When it manifests itself, the device simply stops notifying me of new mail from my iCloud mail account. If I open the Mail app during these silent periods, Mail connects with the iCloud server and the new mail appears in my Inbox, so it’s not as if I’m losing mail, I just don’t get notified when it arrives. To cure the push deafness temporarily, I reset the iOS device (hold down Home and Sleep/Wake buttons past when the “Slide to power off” slider appears, until the device restarts). After that, push mail notifications work on that device again. Until the next time they stop working.

The second problem is Photo Stream amnesia in iPhoto. This is not the sort of amnesia where iPhoto on my iMac forgets Photo Stream images; it’s the sort of amnesia where iPhoto forgets that Photo Stream is enabled: when I open iPhoto, the main iPhoto pane presents an invitation to enable Photo Stream. Once I enable Photo Stream, it stays enabled in iPhoto — for a while. However, sooner or later I’ll launch iPhoto and it will ask me to enable Photo Stream again.

The third problem also relates to Photo Stream, and it can occur on any of my iOS devices, though I most commonly see it on my iPhone, because I use its camera more than the ones on my iPads. This is the dropped photo problem: when it occurs, some, but not all, photos that I’ve taken while out of range of an Internet-connected Wi-Fi network don’t sync to my Photo Stream (Photo Stream syncs photos only when an iOS device is connected to the Internet via a Wi-Fi network). It’s not that the device stops syncing photos to Photo Stream entirely, but that it syncs only some photos: sometimes the first few from a session, sometimes the last few, and, most irritatingly, sometimes random photos from a session. Again, an iOS device reset seems to solve the problem for a while, but not permanently. Maddeningly, the resetting does not add any missed photos to the stream: if I want them to end up in my iMac’s iPhoto library, I have to import them manually from the Camera Roll on the device.

As problems go, these are all trivial. But they are also discouraging. If, as Tim Cook has said, iCloud is Apple’s “strategy for the next decade,” then they are also significant trivial problems. iCloud, unlike your Mac or iOS device, does not lend itself to user-level debugging: you can connect to it, but you can’t run any diagnostics on it or control it in any way. On your Mac, you can use disk utilities and other applications to see much of what is going on with your data; with the right software tools you can even get some insight into what’s going on inside the little silicon brains of your iOS devices. But the cloud? It’s just out there, untouchable, unknowable.

If I am going to cede custody of my data to a set of remote, undiagnosable services like those that constitute iCloud, those services have to be reliable. If Tim Cook wants iCloud to be the key to Apple’s next decade, its services really have to be reliable. When viewed from that perspective, even trivial little problems like those I’ve described here loom large.

Check out the Take Control ebooks that expand on the topic in this article:

Learn to configure your iCloud life optimally so you can view media on different devices, save and share photos, sync and access passwords and data, sync documents between multiple devices, find a missing device, and more. iCloud sounds simple, but can become complex quickly, and this book has the advice you need to avoid problems and get the most out of iCloud.

 

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Comments about iCloudy with a Chance of Intermittence

Phyllis Evans  2012-07-22 16:35
I've been seeing the same Photo Stream problems. The failure for all new photos to transfer always manages to happen when I've added photos to my iPad that I really need on my MacBook. PITA.

The worse problem I see is the inability to access iCloud from a browser on the iPad. Why can it be done on any computer, any OS, but not on the iPad?
You should be able to access iCloud using the Atomic web browser on the iPad. Set it to identify itself as Safari Desktop.
Adam Bell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2012-07-22 18:51
None of Apple's cloud services have ever worked reliably for me. I've tried them all and now simply use Dropbox and other tools to synchronize.

I'm reminded of the famous exchange with the MobileMe team:

"According to a participant in the meeting, Jobs walked in, clad in his trademark black mock turtleneck and blue jeans, clasped his hands together, and asked a simple question: "Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?" Having received a satisfactory answer, he continued, "So why the f**k doesn't it do that?"
M. Perry  2012-07-22 23:51
You've described precisely why, given a choice between iCloud and Dropbox, I opt for the latter. Aside from an occasional slow synch when I start up, Dropbox gives me no problems. And if something were to go wrong with it, from my perspective, it's a file system with incremental backups.

On the other hand, when iCloud doesn't seem to be syncing my iCal events, I don't have the slightest idea how to fix it. Sometimes Apple hides too much when it makes something easy to use.
uhuznaa  2012-07-23 08:20
I've gone to using Google Apps for Calendar and Contact syncing and Dropbox for files. If I wouldn't have my own email server setup anyway I surely would use Google and not iCloud for that.

Apple was *never* able to get anything right with all kinds of networking things. This has been true for decades now. Everything that doesn't concern just the individual user and his device is totally foreign to Apple for some reason.
Derek Currie  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2012-07-24 01:06
I have to agree. Apple's reputation for supporting Windows networking over the course of the evolution of Mac OS X has been deplorable. Many of us have thanked the godz for apps like DAVE. Having recently beta tested [an OS version not yet released] over the past few months, I was disillusioned to find that debugging networking problems was left until last. I get the idea that networking systems are as difficult to code as they are to comprehend. Keep in mind that Microsoft were so incredibly lazy that they never updated their original, buggy, implementation of AppleTalk on Windows. Then MS blamed Apple for the problems, despite the fact that Apple has solved and provided solution APIs for the problems YEARS previously. IOW: It's not just an Apple problem. I doubt many coders enjoy dealing with networking code.
Derek Currie  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2012-07-24 00:57
Over the last week I have had to delete then re-add my iCloud email account to both my Lion installation and my [not yet released OS version] installation specifically because of a fault that occurred over on the server end of the service. That's really bad. Thankfully, the delete and re-add process is quick and easy, but so annoying.
I haven't done any serious testing but have noticed 2 issues with Push here in France via Orange (France's largest telecom).

1/ Push doesn't 'kick in' automatically after turning off Airplane Mode. You have to go to Mail and collect manually. After that it works, until the next morning.

2/ Push really doesn't like it when you move from WiFi to cellular and then move a long way on cellular. If you leave WiFi and stay local, it's fine, but drive 50 miles down the autoroute and Push starts to fail, as does web-access, with the message returned : 'You are not connected to the internet'. A restart fixes it.

So, when leaving town, I now systematically turn off WiFi, then restart the phone to force it to use 3G. It then 'Pushes' just fine.

A couple of bugs that it would be nice to see fixed.
Rob Gendreau  2012-07-24 13:01
It just doesn't work reliably.

And sealing off the ability to tweak it or manage the details doesn't inspire confidence. No one, of course, is using Apple cloud products for business, but it reflects badly on their products when they can't even get a lightweight consumer service running reliably and in the open.

Fortunately Google and others have better email and calendaring offerings. And Fruux is definitely worth a look-see as an alternative.