Last Week on My Mac: The trouble with iCloud Drive

The more that I use iCloud Drive, the more impressed and frustrated I am by it. It impresses by its ease of use, despite Apple’s conflicted human interface which doesn’t work the same as any other volume, and frustrates by its often dreadful lack of performance.

Its human interface anomaly – the fact that, unlike other volumes, dragging moves rather than copies items to iCloud Drive – is easy to understand in terms of design obstinacy. Someone somewhere decided that iCloud Drive would pretend to be part of your startup volume, just another folder in your Home folder. However wrong that might appear to most users, it drives the behaviour.

If iCloud Drive were to behave in every other respect like just another folder, Apple might have got away with this approach. When it can take twenty, forty or more minutes to ‘move’ relatively small items to or from iCloud Drive, the illusion fails completely. Unless and until Apple fixes its performance, iCloud Drive behaves like another volume, not another folder, and its interface should reflect that.

There are problems with this illusion other than performance too. Although iCloud Drive presents itself as being identical to all Macs connected to the same account, the behaviour of individual files in it varies according to their origin, something its interface doesn’t reveal. The Mac which uploads a document to iCloud Drive retains access to all its versions; despite that file looking identical to another Mac, those versions are not shared with it. There are similar anomalies with the stripping of extended attributes which can render some documents useless as a result.

iCloud Drive’s performance problems seem to result from Apple’s uncertainty over what the iCloud service should deliver. Is it primarily a social platform which helps users share holiday snaps, or does it support professional users who are working on documents shared across their Macs and devices?

Currently, iCloud Drive seems engineered primarily to support casual exchange of holiday snaps rather than act as the substrate for Pro users.

Try moving files to or from iCloud Drive when downloading a large file such as a macOS update. Instead of the cloud transfer contending with the download on an equal footing, its task is put on the back burner. A few megabytes is shuffled slowly across over several, even many, minutes, as if iCloud is scared to compete with other internet traffic.

If all you’re transferring to/from iCloud are holiday snaps, that might be fine. When you’re waiting for that task to complete in order to get on with your work, you’ll get more pro quality performance from competing services such as Dropbox.

Once you have got your work on iCloud Drive, if your internet connection remains quite heavily loaded, other systems connected to your iCloud Drive can take absurdly long periods – an hour or more – before those new files show up. That’s more time wasted, and more incentive to abandon iCloud for another service.

These performance limitations appear to result from iCloud’s leisurely approach to its tasks. There’s no control by which you can up its priority – it has a single speed designed to minimise impact on other internet activity, and to minimise energy and resource use. That’s of no help when you’re itching to get on, but the document you put on your iCloud Drive over an hour ago still hasn’t propagated to all your other connected Macs and devices.

It doesn’t matter whether your iPad Pro and iMac Pro are running Apple’s (or any other) Pro apps, you get iCloud Lite performance. And that’s true whether you’re running macOS Sierra, or the very latest release of High Sierra, or iOS 11.3.

Backup is another particular concern to the pro user of cloud services. Although their vendors swear blind of the robustness of their storage, experience shows that keeping local backups of important items is more than merely prudent. Yet Time Machine coverage is confused, and Apple has produced no simple solution for those who need to back up several iCloud accounts.

Ask the key questiom, whether iCloud in its current state is ready for pro use, and the answer has to be no, not until Apple brings it up to scratch, and meets the needs of pro users for its performance, backup, and integration with other technologies. None of those are onerous demands, but only Apple can address them.