Where's Apple's cloud strategy, already?

Synchronizing data between iOS devices, especially for games, has become a nightmare - a nightmare that it's up to Apple to straighten out.
Written by Peter Cohen, Inactive

Apple has convinced many of us we can't live without iOS devices, whether they be iPhones, iPod touches or iPads - so much so that some of us have multiple devices. But synchronizing data between iOS devices, especially for games, has become a nightmare - a nightmare that it's up to Apple to straighten out.

I have two iOS devices I use regularly - my iPhone 4, which rarely leaves my side, and my iPad 2, which I use around the house when the laptop isn't available, and which I take with me when I go out for short periods where I know I'll be waiting around - doctor's appointments, for example.

Synchronizing contact and calendar data is a no-brainer, especially if you subscribe (as I do) to Apple's MobileMe service. Tell the iOS device to check your MobileMe account and you'll stay synchronized in the cloud, even with your computer.

It's elegant, invisible, graceful and works quite effectively. Which is the polar opposite of what happens when you try to synchronize data or settings in individual apps. There it's catch as catch can, and most of the time Apple leaves the developer and the user up the creek without a paddle.

There are a few exceptions, of course - Apple's iWork apps for iPad let you synchronize data on the desktop, through iDisk and your own WebDAV server. Bento, the database made by Apple subsidiary FileMaker, also has synchronization functions. A few third-party apps do, but again, it's really catch as catch can.

This leads us to the problem with games. If I'm playing, say, Rovio's ubiquitous casual game Angry Birds on my iPhone, there's absolutely no reason why I shouldn't be able to just pick up where I left off on my iPad (or, now that it's available through the Mac App Store, on my Mac). If I'm playing Chair Entertainment's Infinity Blade, should I be required to have to hack and slash my way through each champion over and over again to face the God King, just because I sometimes like to play on my iPad instead of my iPhone?

The answer is plainly no, but right now, Apple hasn't really developed a good mechanism for developers to use to manage that. But the answer is staring us right in the face - Apple's grossly underutilized "Game Center" software.

Game Center, which was introduced with iOS 4.1, is a social network of sorts for iOS gamers. It lets you connect with other gamers, keep track of your games, and see how they're doing. It also gives you the ability to coordinate multiplayer games. Leaderboards, achievements, lots of stuff.

But no game-to-game synchronization for the growing number of us that carry more than one iOS device.

Really, this isn't unique to games. Apple's cloud strategy for iOS, at least compared to Google's for Android, is next to non-existent. It's a disjointed patchwork of subscription-based service like MobileMe with half-hearted connectivity in individual apps and whatever individual developers can muster as part of their development plans.

What's worse, MobileMe is subscription-based. Apple has been charging users $99 a year for service that is, by most measures, much less useful than what Google users can get for free.

Apple needs to completely rethink MobileMe, sooner rather than later. There are some indications that it's doing that, perhaps as part of its enormous North Carolina data center build-out, but so far the company's remained mum. I, for one, agree with Andrew Nusca - dropping the fee (while enhancing service enough to make MobileMe a "must have" for potential iOS and Mac OS X converts) seems like a smart move.

I'm really hoping for something better. Because for a company that prides itself on the user experience - what Steve Jobs likes to refer to as "the intersection of technology and liberal arts" - this is one area where Apple really doesn't show that it has much of a clue at all.

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