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iCloudy with a Chance of Intermittence

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.

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