iCloud could potentially do wonders for sync

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All we know for certain about iCloud so far is that Steve Jobs will tell us all just what the heck it is at next week’s Worldwide Developer Conference. For now, only a few folks in Cupertino know precisely what iCloud will be. But plenty of us have an idea of what it could be.

For some, like my Macworld colleague Christopher Breen, that means possibilities for streaming media. But my hopes for iCloud don’t focus on iTunes at all. Rather, I’m more interested in how the service could theoretically improve my cross-device productivity.

Right now, iPad file management requires a combination of several kludgey methods. Search the Web—including this very site—and you’ll find plenty about the awesomeness of Dropbox, but not every iOS app supports it (including any of Apple’s). The apps that do support Dropbox each rely upon their own implementation. All this is true of Apple’s own iDisk, too, except that we haven’t spent much ink extolling that service’s virtues. (I don’t use iDisk anymore. I found it slow and occasionally hungry for eating up my files.)

Sure, Dropbox is great. But if iCloud means we can stop relying on sending files between apps, we'll be thrilled.

Thus, my wish for iCloud is that it includes Dropbox-esque live document sharing and synchronization between Macs and iOS devices. I want it to be built in such a way that developers can include it in their apps as easily as they can embed an Open dialog box (on the Mac) or call up the virtual keyboard (on iOS). All the work—the syncing, the interface itself—should fall under Apple’s purview, so that the experience is constant and equally available to all developers.

As I imagine it, I could create a document in Pages on my Mac and save it to iCloud. When I go to my iPad, I can open the same document there from iCloud within the mobile Pages app. And as with Google Docs, if I leave the document open on multiple devices at the same time, each of them automatically updates on-the-fly to remain current with whichever version I’m actually editing at that moment.

Now that Apple’s iWork suite is available for the iPhone (and not just the iPad), the lack of such an Apple-endorsed syncing service is even more palpable than it was before—and trust me, it was already palpable to the point of causing would-be syncers heart palpitations. At best, working on a file between your Mac, your iPad, and your iPhone today requires downloading copies from and then sending updates back to MobileMe, in an awkward, unintuitive, and very non-Apple-like file management dance. At worst, it involves e-mailing yourself lots of copies of the same file with each new revision you make.

If iCloud merely simplifies that process with Dropbox-style syncing that’s baked into the core of both Lion and iOS 5, I’ll be on cloud nine. But if Apple wants to send my joyousness levels into the stratosphere—and really, why wouldn’t the company share that goal?—the process of saving files to and from iCloud will be seamless and nearly invisible. Unless you really muck about with it, Dropbox only syncs those files you tuck away in your Dropbox folder. I don’t know precisely how it should work, but I envision that iCloud should be an underlying technology more than a “service” in the truest sense; you save your files wherever you want on your Mac, and behind-the-scenes, iCloud takes care of the syncing.

There are two other broad areas I hope and expect iCloud touches upon. First, I want iCloud to embrace Google-style calendar and contacts syncing. Sure, Macworld can help you slog through the mess of unnecessary duplicates that MobileMe syncing can cause, but I’ve never run into those issues using Google’s Exchange server functionality to sync. Though I love Google Calendar, I prefer iCal overall, and iCal’s Google Calendar support is weak. So if iCloud can offer better, maintenance-free calendar and contact syncing, I can abandon Google’s offerings and let Apple’s baked-in solutions manage my life instead.

Finally, I’m optimistic that the broader iCloud service—when coupled with recent rumors regarding Apple and the voice recognition company Nuance—could mean system-wide voice transcription on iOS. For years, Android phones have supported voice transcription in various text input fields. Now, in truth, I’ve never seen a single Android-using friend take advantage of the feature, and that’s telling. But even the best virtual touch typists can talk faster than they can tap. If Apple and Nuance can get this right, and a cloud-based service can dramatically simplify certain kinds of text input on my iPhone, then I am very excited.

Which isn’t to say that it will happen. For all I know, iCloud will be entirely focused on media storage. (And the company has patented a clever approach for storing the first part of a song, and streaming the rest.) But I hope that’s only half the story. If iCloud also makes it easier to keep my files (and other data) in sync, and can make me more productive overall, I’ll be as happy as, well, a developer at WWDC.

[Lex Friedman is a staff writer at Macworld.]

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