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iCloud (2)

My attitude towards Apple is distinctly ambivalent. In summary, it turned out that the internal hard disk in my 5 year-old desktop iMac was clapped out. When I eventually grasped that, fixing it proved bizarrely complicated. I was not impressed with the Genius Bar in the flagship Oxford Circus store in London.

Also the more I reflected on it, the less amused I was by the strategy of starting to push you increasingly hard to replace your hardware after a few years. I can see the financial advantage to Apple, but not to me.

On the other hand, I have been extremely impressed with the iPhone 4 which I got about 3 months ago after tangling with a variety of unsatisfactory Nokia and HTC smartphones. I am going to write a series of articles on Apple-related issues over the next month or so.

I thought I would start with iCloud. An earlier article, written before it was readily available, but giving some of the background is here.

I have been slowly installing more Apps on my iPhone. There are now about a hundred. The large majority were free, but I purchased a few including Apple’s own Pages and Numbers. That was mainly because they were said to be particularly good exemplars of App style and at the time I was thinking of writing some iPhone Apps myself. I have scarcely used them.

I had a variety of glitches with my iPhone which culminated in the Apple Store replacing it (without charge). That turned out to be a considerable nuisance, when combined with all my iMac woes, because for a while I could not synch it from the iMac. I cannot remember the precise ins and outs, but I ended up having to upgrade the iMac to Lion (the latest version of the OS X operating system) in order to be able to get a version of iTunes which would synch the iPhone.

For a while it looked as though I would never by able to synch the replacement iPhone, so I ended up manually inputting more than a hundred people’s contact details and downloading direct several dozen apps. When I finally got able to synch again, the software told me that it was going to wipe everything in the iPhone in order to give priority to some older data it had on the iMac. Sorting that out took hours. But eventually I got the iMac and replacement iPhone synched with the data and Apps that I wanted.

Except that the iPhone now indicated that Pages and Numbers still needed updating. But the Store refused to update them. Indeed it turned out that the Apps did not work. Apparently, I needed yet another new version of iTunes on the iMac to update them. I clicked to get that. The updater told me I also needed some large-looking security update. I clicked for that too. That turned out to be a mistake because the update process took well over an hour. The new iTunes then announced it wanted to update the operating system in my iPhone to iOS 5. I okayed that. It took about another hour. Apparently, it completely wiped the iPhone, installed the new OS and then reinstalled all the Apps and data from the iMac. That got Pages and Numbers working again.

The process was not quite perfect. I had to re-enter a few passwords, but soon I was being asked about setting up iCloud. I was somewhat doubtful about how this would work, so just opted for Photo Stream. The idea seemed to be that whenever I was connected by cable or maybe WiFi the phone would take the opportunity to upload any photos taken from the phone camera to my iCloud account.

Somewhere in the course of that I had to set up my iCloud account. It asked for my date of birth. Hmmm. Passwords, and more generally security, seem to be impossible for large organisations. Partly they never seem to have any employees with a real understanding of the issues, and partly they are faced with a substantial proportion of absolutely clueless customers. People constantly lock themselves out of their own accounts and then ring or email a helpline wanting to be let back in. So most large-scale systems effectively have two passwords – the regular password and a series of “security questions”. The idea is that the person on the helpline, or possibly the online software, will allow you to reset the regular password if you can answer one or two “security questions”.

These are aimed at people who have already lost or forgotten their password, so it is no good making these questions too obscure. The favourite choices are “mother’s maiden name” and “date of birth”. Sometimes they get a little more obscure with things like your pet’s name or the name of your first school. Of course, these are hopelessly insecure. In the sense that they are usually relatively easy for a hacker to discover. Most people, for example, put their date of birth on Facebook, so that their “friends” can wish them a Happy Birthday on their wall.

If you want to preserve some minimal security then you have to treat “security questions” as just more passwords and give suitably obscure replies (including upper and lower case and digits etc if they allow them). The snag is that you typically have to record somewhere not one back-up password, but up to half-a-dozen. Of course that wretched file, which has now grown to well over a hundred passwords itself has to be protected …

But I then noticed that my iMac was also pestering me to set up iCloud. Again images seemed safest, but apparently that meant I had to use iPhoto, which I ditched long ago because it seemed to insist on duplicating every image. Most of my images come from other applications, but instead of just using a link to those images, iPhoto used to insist on copying them to its own directory. That could soon chew up gigabytes of space, and anyway the application did not seem particularly useful, so I junked it. Maybe I will have to revisit that decision.

I was hesitant about Documents & Data, because I was completely unclear (despite having read Apple’s forums etc) what iCloud did about encryption. Are the files on the iCloud server encrypted? Where are they encrypted? What rights does Apple have to decrypt them? Can I easily beef up that encryption?

So I unticked that box and immediately got this:

Now what exactly does that mean? Is anything already stored on iCloud? So what is about to be deleted from the iMac? Anyway, I completely fail to see the logic. Why delete documents on my iMac if I decide not to get iCloud to back them up?

It makes me nervous, so I reticked it and hoped that nothing will happen. I urgently need to find out exactly how iCloud works.

Of course, that will just waste hours of my time to little good purpose. The Apple philosophy is not to give you any technical details. “Trust us, we do it right. Just accept our defaults.” is the Apple slogan.

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