iCloud on the iPad: Better Than Dropbox?

Although iCloud is launching in just a few months, there are still a lot of questions surrounding the service. How will it improve my workflow? Will it be better than MobileMe? Does it really replace current backup and sync services?

I can definitely sympathize with these concerns. MobileMe wasn’t exactly a smashing success, particularly since it cost about $100 per year too much. I use a free Dropbox account to sync both documents and data to and from my iPad. Since Dropbox is supported by many excellent apps, it can effectively serve as a cloud-based file system for your iPad—for free.

However, it looks like Apple has tried its best to address MobileMe’s faults with iCloud. A free account comes with 5 GB (about twice as much as Dropbox starts with), and boasts complete integration with Lion and iOS 5, elegant web apps for managing emails and calendars, and painless document and data syncing.

Given these improvements, can iCloud really change the way we use our iPads? Or is it just a flashy, not as full-featured alternative to Dropbox?

Documents & Data

In order to compare Dropbox and iCloud, I will focus on the major feature these two services have in common: document and data syncing.

The Dropbox Method

To sync files with Dropbox, you save them in your Dropbox folder from a PC or Mac, and then pick them up within the iPad Dropbox app. From there, you can open documents in an app that supports Dropbox, make changes, and then save or export the file back to your Dropbox folder.

I often access PDFs at school using Dropbox on my iPad.

I often access PDFs at school using Dropbox on my iPad.

This works for data too. For example, I have placed my 1Password keychain file in Dropbox, which is then picked up by the 1Password iPad app. This way, my passwords are automatically synced whenever they’re changed on my iPad or Mac.

There is admittedly not much support for syncing other forms of data (bookmarks, game saves, etc.) to the iPad using Dropbox, but it can be done. If there are other ways to sync data using Dropbox, I would love to know about them.

This is how I work on the iPad, and I can attest to the simplicity of the workflow, and the amount of time I save not having to email files to myself or employ clumsy Wifi or iTunes syncing procedures.

The Apple Way

But iCloud takes simplistic document & data syncing to a whole new level. Instead of manually placing and re-saving files to a network server, iCloud syncs them from within the apps themselves. So any changes you make to your resume in Pages for the iPad are applied in real-time across all your devices, including your Mac. All without bothering with file systems.

In iCloud, documents & data get synced among your devices from within apps.

In iCloud, documents & data get synced among your devices from within apps.

Head to Head

But wait, don’t some iPad apps automatically sync to Dropbox folders? Isn’t that effectively the same thing?

Well, not exactly. For one thing, there’s no need to define folders for files to sync to—it just happens as soon as you create a new file. But here’s an even more compelling distinction from an article on AppleInsider:

Each app that opts in to the iCloud Documents & Data feature is accorded a secure storage space of its own, just as iOS apps each live in their own secure sandbox, inaccessible from other apps. Using iCloud-aware apps therefore won’t eat up users’ free storage on iCloud, just as Photo Stream or iTunes’ media, apps and iBooks use won’t count against the free 5GB of storage every iCloud user gets.

That’s certainly better than Dropbox. And this feature has an unexpected benefit:

More importantly, a rogue app created to prey upon Mac users won’t be able to destroy or corrupt the documents or data stored by iCloud-savvy apps, adding a new level of security within the user realm of the computing model.

Now that’s pretty cool. Add in the fact that Apple has provided the opportunity for third party developers to integrate iCloud support into their own iPad apps—whether they be for gaming, list-making, or virtually any activity—and you’ve got a seriously powerful service.

Soon, the levels I've unlocked on my iPad will be on my iPhone too!

Soon, the levels I've unlocked on my iPad will be on my iPhone too!

For example, iCloud could automatically sync the Angry Birds levels you unlock on your iPad to your Mac and iPhone. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always wanted to do that.

Not All Unicorns & Rainbows

The catch, of course, is that all of this syncing will only happen once developers actually support iCloud. On launch, iCloud will only work with the iPad’s iWork apps. I personally use Pages on my Mac and iPad, so I will definitely be using iCloud day one. But iPad owners who don’t own iWork or—god forbid—have a PC will be out of luck.

And even when app developers do include iCloud support—and that is most certainly when, not if—many of the best iPad apps, even if they have an OS X counterpart, will rarely have a Windows version. In other words, a Mac seems to be a prerequisite for fully reaping the benefits of iCloud on an iPad. And if you don’t have an iPhone either, Dropbox will probably still be the best option for file syncing.

It Just Works?

But that’s not the only reason. Apple’s take on document and data syncing is certainly user-friendly—and quite ingenious—but it’s not ideal for more technologically oriented folk (re: techies and nerds) who would prefer to save their documents in particular folders.

In addition, having your documents sandboxed into several different apps may not be the best solution for iPad owners who like bouncing files from one app to another. For example, Dropbox allows me to pick up an article in GoodReader, send it to UPAD for highlighting, and then export it back to my Mac to view while I’m doing research.

Great in theory...but maybe not so great in practice.

Great in theory...but maybe not so great in practice.

I may be wrong, but this complex workflow doesn’t seem to be supported by iCloud. With Dropbox, you can work from the same set of files in multiple apps and send files among your apps. iCloud, on the other hand, depends on the sandboxed-app paradigm of iOS, providing dead-simple syncing of documents and data created within apps, but not providing a means of connection between apps.

Concluding Thoughts

So, is iCloud going to revolutionize the way you use your iPad? If you’re someone who has never tried syncing documents and data between you iPad and Mac/iPhone, and desire a simple way to do so, then yes. But if you require a consistent file system among different apps and are quite happy with a system such as Dropbox, then you won’t be as floored by iCloud.

However, iCloud obviously has a lot more to offer the iPad than just document syncing. It can also sync your email, contacts, calendars, photos, music, bookmarks, notes, and reminders, as well as allow you to find you iPad if it’s lost. And iCloud’s data syncing capabilities seem to be far superior to Dropbox’s, particularly when iCloud has widespread developer support.

iCloud can sync a wide variety of data (image courtesy of AppleInsider)

iCloud can sync a wide variety of data (image courtesy of AppleInsider)

Thus, the most important takeaway is that iCloud is not really meant to be a replacement for Dropbox. In fact, it can complement Dropbox quite effectively, syncing the data that Dropbox can’t handle while leaving more complex file workflows alone.

Setting aside my issues with iCloud’s document management, I can’t wait to play around with the service this Fall. And if you guys have ideas about how to use iCloud on your iPads, I would love to hear about them in the comments.