iOS needs background syncing to make iCloud ‘just work’

iCloud is a strong addition to iOS and will help the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV and future iOS devices stand out. But iOS has a major missing feature: background syncing.

This is one of the biggest features that iOS needs to add. It’s nice that my devices can sync with each other and keep documents, applications and data synced, but there is a flaw in the model. Outside of a few areas, I have to open each app for them to sync, and the syncing does not occur until an app is opened.

For instance, Pages, Apple’s Microsoft Word competitor, can sync documents between iPhones and iPads. I can start a document on my iPad, make changes on my iPhone to that document and then those changes will sync over to my iPad version. However, these changes don’t happen in the background and require user input on all devices for the changes to occur.

So, what happens if I make changes to the iPad version of the document and then go on a plane with my iPhone? I need to review and make changes to my Pages document before an important meeting, but alas I don’t have Internet on the plane and thus don’t have the latest version of the document on my iPhone. Worse, what happens if I make changes to the iPhone version of that document while I’m offline, after I’ve made changes to the iPad version?

Which version wins? With background syncing, this wouldn’t be an issue.

For those of you who use Dropbox on multiple computers, you know this isn’t an issue. Dropbox just works. It’s always running, always syncing.

That’s how iCloud should be. Dropbox will always be a geek tool that is wedded to the old way of doing things through folders and windows. But it works.

iCloud should be the Dropbox for everyone else. It should be the Dropbox for iOS users (Dropbox doesn’t really do syncing for mobile).

My iPhone could check the sync server at regular intervals like it does with email — say every 30 minutes (or sync could be pushed). With this method, my iPhone would have seen that I made changes to a Pages document on my iPad and then brought those changes over to my iPhone without me needing to do anything.

Shouldn’t syncing just happen in the background without any of my input? Of course. Here’s another example:

I use Omnifocus for task and project management. If I add a new project to my iPad — complete with due dates — it won’t automatically show up on my iPhone version of Omnifocus, unless I open up the app. Why is this an issue? One of the best parts of Omnifocus is push notifications. Omnifocus alerts me as to when I should start a task or project and to when something is due. Well, without background syncing, my iPhone version can’t send me these push notifications, unless I have made sure to open the iPhone version after using the iPad or OS X version (Omnifocus syncs with all three).

Certain applications do truly sync. Email obviously does. If you read, delete or respond to email, it shows up on all of your devices without the user needing to do anything. Same thing is true with Apple’s new iCloud calendars (or with Microsoft Exchange or Google’s calendars on iOS). If I add a new appointment on my iPhone, complete with a notification an hour before I need to be at that appointment, it will automatically appear on my iPad and computers. I don’t have to open calendar to get this syncing to work, which is important since notifications are an important part of how calendaring apps work.

I have two guesses as to why we haven’t seen more background syncing in iOS yet:

  1. There are battery concerns. It’s easy to sync calendars and email in the background. Neither take a long time to do and people expect this to happen. The iPhone couldn’t compete with other phones in business environments if it couldn’t sync these in the background. Syncing Omnifocus wouldn’t take much time or data either. Some apps, however, would require a lot more time and data to sync. How do you handle a big Pages or Numbers document? Should that only sync over wifi? Or should users be able to select when something syncs. For instance, if I’m a business user, and going over my data plan isn’t a big concern, I’d tell my iPhone to sync over 3G and wifi. Just make sure everything is synced. Maybe you’re just a casual user and you don’t have any interest in going over your data allotment if that were to happen. you’d tell your iPhone to just background sync over wifi. Having syncing pushed to your phone would use up more battery, even if the syncs weren’t big. There is no denying this. Apple believes that battery life is king in mobile devices, and I agree. However, syncing isn’t nearly as powerful as it could be if it doesn’t happen automatically in the background. Just like with multitasking, Apple could develop a solution that covers the most important background syncing needs without killing battery life. Apple has already begun rolling this selective background syncing with mail, calendar, contacts, music, apps and magazines/newspaper. More on that in a second.
  2. Apple hasn’t had time to roll out a good background syncing solution. iOS 5.0 is arguably the biggest leap over a previous generation of iOS ever. It has a ton of new features, including some such as Notifications, that are deeply embedded in the OS. Apple may have simply run out of time, and so while they would love to have background syncing, they simply didn’t have time to roll out a high quality system. My best guess is that when Apple does roll out background syncing, it will be like multitasking with specific use cases supported. Apps such as Omnifocus are no brainers to offer background syncing. Same with word processing, spreadsheet and presentation applications. But what about photo and video applications? Would that be too much out of the gate? Apple doesn’t allow desktop-computing class multitasking. I would doubt that they would allow background syncing to be a complete free-for-all either.

Apple has brought background downloads to music and application downloads and to Newsstand, Apple’s app for managing magazines and newspapers. This gives me hope. Now if I subscribe to a bunch of magazines and newspapers on my iPhone or iPad, new editions are automatically downloaded in the background. Some of these issues are big too, and they still download in the background.

These leads me to support the second theory: Apple just hasn’t had time to roll out more background syncing and downloading yet. Certain parts of iOS already support this, and we should see more of it in iOS 6. To me, this should be one of the top priorities for the next version of iOS or even for a iOS 5.5 release. iCloud can’t reach its potential without background syncing and background downloads are the first step towards true background syncing.

Without background syncing, people will run into issues where documents are out of sync, or where they accidentally erase changes made to a document by making changes on another device before syncing occurs. This is bad for users and frankly un-Appple like. This could genuinely give users a worse experience than if they had no syncing at all.

Syncing should just work. Syncing and iCloud currently doesn’t just work.

This will change.