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Digital Hub

Rewind your clock five to ten years and go buy a Mac. What you get is a beautiful machine with tightly integrated hardware and software. The infrared sensor on the front controls your media experience, your text editor can directly read your photo library, and iTunes is a fast and reliable piece of software that allows you to sync all your media and data to your iPod.
It’s the era of the Digital Hub, where your iMac is the center of everything.

iCloud

Fast forward a years and look at that same ecosystem. Your photos live partially in the cloud and mostly in a camera roll, music is synced via iTunes Match and you’re never sure if you’ll have music cached on your device, and your files probably live in Dropbox so you can access them on your iPhone and your Mac. Apple tried solving this issue with MobileMe, and later with iCloud v1. But document syncing is still a mess, and Photo Stream doesn’t really solve anything. In short, Apple’s digital hub is dead, and Apple’s online solution is cloudy to say the least (sorry, bad pun).

This, slightly exaggerated, is how I view the Apple ecosystem in the last 5 years. An ecosystem that lives between desktop and cloud. Where “It Just Works” was once the core of Apple’s system, it was, for a few years, more a sarcastic remark that looked back at better times.

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But now, 6 years after Apple first released their Digital Hub, things are back where they used to be, and probably better than ever. My photos sync flawlessly between devices, Apple Music has the promise of doing the same for music, and iCloud Drive is an integrated document syncing solution across devices.

Two weeks ago I wrote about what I call iCloud 2.0, the platform Apple relaunched with iOS 8. This new platform seems a lot more stable, and —finally— delivers on the promise of iCloud:

iCloud stores your content, and wirelessly pushes it to all your devices.
iCloud is integrated into your apps, so everything happens automatically. – WWDC 2011

There and back again

Early 2000 – iPhoto, iWork, iTunes

Ten years ago my Mac ran iTunes, iWork and iPhoto and all data lived locally on my hard drive. Sync, aside from my iPod, wasn’t really on my mind. I lived in Apple’s ecosystem and iLife and iWork more than fulfilled my digital needs.

2010 – Dropbox, Spotify, Evernote

But gradually, and then suddenly with the arrival of the iPhone, sync came into the picture, and wireless sync even more. Apple’s solutions weren’t really comparable to what third parties offered. Apple’s own apps, unbound by App Store rules, were somehow, and inexplicably, more limited than third party offerings.

I started using Dropbox to sync my files, and I moved all my photos from the offline iPhoto to Dropbox and Carousel.
When Spotify launched their streaming service I abandoned iTunes for a library that was limitless and always available on any device.
And Evernote became my platform of choice for all my notes.

Somehow the iPhone, Apple’s biggest hit product, had pushed me farther away from their own core apps which often are limited (notes), buggy (iCloud), or confusing (Photostream).
It always bothered me that the first thing I did after getting a new iPhone was moving dozens of first party apps to a Junk-folder and replacing them with a lot of third party apps.
The idea of buying an Apple device, logging in with iCloud and (no step three) seems what “It Just Works” should entail, but Apple failed to deliver.

2015 – Apple Music. iCloud Photos. iCloud Drive. Notes.

Since iOS 8 Apple has gradually improved each of their core apps. And with each revision, their services became interesting and useful once again. I moved my photos back to Apple with iCloud Photo Library, started using iCloud Drive more and more thanks to their auto-save function, and I’ve migrated my music from Spotify to Apple Music. (@Apple: thanks for the easy migration. Not)

Intermezzo: iCloud Drive
For the last two weeks all my files have lived in iCloud Drive exclusively. Syncing is super-fast, files (and changes) are available on other devices almost instantly, and I haven’t lost any data. Being able to add an iCloud file as an extension in Mail is useful, and having the ability to cache all your files on your devices is convenient.

I miss a few things though: I can’t save from Safari to iCloud without using a third party app, I can’t add iCloud Drive to my Mac’s dock, and I’m still not sure how my 64GB iPad will handle syncing 250GB of iCloud Documents.

Living within Apple’s own ecosystem feels good, and it allowed me to cut down some expenses. I used to pay around 30$ a month for Spotify, Dropbox, and Evernote. Now I pay less than 20$ a month to Apple.

Cleaning Up

Now that I’ve moved the bulk of my data back to Apple, I’m on a hunt to see what else I can move to Apple. I’ve replaced 1Password Dropbox sync with iCloud Sync (after making an offline backup!), and I’m in doubt about either buying TextExpander 5 and sync that service via iCloud, or just remove the app and start using Apple’s build in solution.

There are still a few apps that I replace with third party apps though:

  • OmniFocus instead of Reminders: Reminders is just too limited if you want to manage both home & work in one todo app. But adding tasks via Siri and using OmniFocus’ reminders’ import is something I use everyday.
  • 1Password combined with iCloud Keychain: Although I use iCloud Keychain, I prefer the interface of 1Password, and the fact that it syncs WAY more than just passwords.
  • Pocket instead of Safari Reader: Add to Reading List is a system wide extension, and Reader View is convenient, but I prefer my read it later list to live in its own dedicated app.

Conclusion

In the end I’ll hopefully have the ability to buy a new iOS device, start fresh, and have all my personal data available without authenticating to multiple services. After years of complex setups and different services interlinking, it feels free to answer the question: what do you use to sync X?
I use Apple.