Why iCloud makes the Apple retail store experience a total mess

Apple's consumer cloud storage doesn't just make backing up your device inconvenient. It also makes for a very negative in-store experience.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Towards the end of the day yesterday, I saw my colleague Adrian Kingsley-Hughes' piece about how Apple is heavily discounting the iPhone XR due to lower than anticipated demand.

Apparently, depending on the existing phone you have, you can get up to $300 credit if you buy a new iPhone XR.

I remembered immediately that my wife was complaining that her iPhone 7 Plus was getting clunky and slow. Look, I know that I probably could have just cleaned the darn thing up and done a software reset, but as it was Hanukkah, I figured I could score a few points.

"Honey, would you like a new iPhone XR? It's a really nice phone. Apple will give you $300 for your old phone, right now."

The answer, of course, was "whatever you think, honey." So after picking out a coral iPhone XR 128GB (orange! She wanted orange?) on the Apple Store website, I elected to pick up the phone at the Apple retail location at the Boca Town Center Mall. And then we would go get some dinner.

"What about all my pictures?" she asked. "Don't worry, you have Google Photos, you have OneDrive, and you also have Acronis. You use Google Calendar and Gmail. You have more cloud backup than an average enterprise does. You're fine. Just don't reset the thing until we get there and they take it back. They can transfer anything else."

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So we get to the store. Being early December it is crazy busy. But the expediters are fast. A Genius came up right to the front of the store, checked us in and got Rachel's new phone. She handed it over.

The staff at Apple retail locations are amazing. I love them. They are the unsung heroes of the tech support world. And they should probably be paid a lot better given the irate people they have to put up with.

"We have an old one to give back as part of the trade. I backed up her photos to Google. Can we transfer whatever else is needed for the new phone?

"Sure, let's sit down over there."

So we go sit down at the bench. This is the part where interactions with wonderful people and a positive store experience get completely wrecked by Apple being Apple.

First, the Genius checks to see if the phone had been backed up. Apparently, it hadn't. The reason why it hadn't is that my wife saves all her photos to three different cloud services, all her major applications are cloud-based, and I saw zero reasons to purchase additional iCloud storage when we own more cloud storage than we can ever possibly use from the above named third parties.

Her locally stored photos get cleaned out every month, and she can search and get everything she wants out of Google Photos and OneDrive. Zero worries. It was also the principle of the thing. $1 extra a month for 50GB of iCloud when I am already backing up her stuff at least three other ways? Ridiculous. I already spent over $3000 in the last year (figuring Upgrade Program lease payments over the next few years) on Apple toys between my iPhone XS Max, my iPad Pro 12.9 and an Apple Watch Series 4.

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Now I gotta give them like $1 extra per device? Or go with the Family Plan? Nuts.

She did have 5GB of free iCloud storage. The problem was, according to what we observed at the store, that her text messages and a bunch of other random unimportant apps used up about 6GB of space on that phone. She doesn't use her phone for storing music; the actual apps do not get backed up to iCloud, only the user data does. Apps are restored directly from the App Store.

But you cannot just selectively decide to back up just the text messages and omit the apps she didn't care about, the way iCloud backup is designed. The Genius just said we could back the entire thing up, or not back it up.

[Edit: Genius was wrong. It is possible to select app data and it works universally for all apps but the setting to do this is buried. Settings > [your name] > iCloud > Manage Storage > Backups > [Device name]. You can exclude here whatever you want.]

So I made an executive decision. "Fine. Buy the upgraded iCloud storage to 50GB per month so we can get out of here. I am getting hungry."

So the Genius begins the backup process using the in-store Wi-Fi. The old iPhone says it's going to take 30 minutes.

30 minutes in, it says it's going to take another 37 minutes. We both look at each other. My wife says "I'm hungry" with that look on her face which I know is a warning sign. At this point, I am beyond hungry, I'm feeling hangry as well. We need to go eat. Soon. So I jump on the Wi-Fi with my own iPhone and do a SpeedTest.

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It turns out the Boca Raton Apple store has a shared 100 megabit connection with asynchronous 14 megabit uploads. And the store was absolutely filled with people trying to do the same thing competing for that bandwidth. It was iPhone XR Upgrade Day.

I did the math in my head. This was not good. "We're gonna be stuck in here for hours," I said to my wife. At home, I have a 1-gigabit symmetrical AT&T Fiber connection and estimated it would take ten minutes, tops.

We ended up leaving and getting dinner. At home, it took a whole three minutes to do the job. And my wife is bringing the old phone back to the store today for the credit -- although we could have just waited for the return kit in the mail. However, I didn't want to accept the risk of keeping the old phone in the house, should it get dropped or damaged in any way. I wanted it to be Apple's responsibility, and to trade it in at the time of purchase.

There are a few ways this insanity could have been avoided. One is that Apple should give every single iOS device as much free cloud storage as it needs to carry its local storage load. If that was the case I would have never set up third-party storage, because it was the nickel and diming that pissed me off in the first place.

If you have a 128GB device, you should get 128GB of iCloud for that device, or if you have multiple iOS devices, you should have enough cloud storage to aggregate across what you own unless you downgrade and there is some kind of deficit.

But it's not like a terabyte per family is a ton either. Storage like that in the cloud isn't thick provisioned and companies like Google are able to offer unlimited photo storage because of that.

Just as Google does today, there are intelligent ways Apple can manage the data and prioritize backups, given that iTunes songs and content (and the apps themselves) do not have to be backed up on the device since copies of it are deduplicated on the cloud -- only the inventory and other personalized metadata needs to be accounted for. Music and video content bought outside of iTunes should be the end user's responsibility -- and for the most part, that stuff is also cloud stored as well.

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It's not a huge expense for Apple to carry, and if they don't want to build out their own datacenters for this, they should partner with someone like Microsoft that knows what the hell they are doing in that space.

In lieu of that, Apple needs to have storage neutral backups. No, not freaking iTunes as your backup option, because that solution is horrible. Just as you can do third-party compressed file backups with Android that can back up your entire phone to whatever networked storage you have, you should be able to export the entire iOS data store to an encrypted, compressed file which any cloud service can use.

And there has to be better granularity over what can be exported by the Backup application, whether it is to iCloud or to another service. There isn't a ton of visibility into the local data now.

Then there is the issue of the retail stores themselves. You're telling me with Apple's market cap and the sheer amount of business that moves through each one of those stores they cannot put at least a gigabit connection in each retail store location? I have to imagine that a large portion of the customer satisfaction issues have to be related to data transfer issues and having people sit in there and wait for their phones to get data moved from one device to another for hours at a time.

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If the objective is to expedite, then get technology in there and infrastructure that enables the expediting. The people at the store are great. Apple's store infrastructure sucks.

The stores do not appear to have any facility for doing local iTunes backups and restores, they used to do this years ago on a per-customer basis and did not offer it when we arrived. It appears to be a practice they have abandoned because it was a bad experience -- because iTunes is garbage and they don't have an easy way to set up a kiosk for this purpose and to cleanse the data between each transfer. They need to develop some sort of toolset for this purpose if yearly upgrades become a more common practice.

C'mon Apple. You can do way better when it comes to backup technology, iCloud, and in-store support technology.

Have you had similar experiences when having to transfer iOS data and trading in devices in an Apple Store? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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