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iaWriter and iCloud, You Know, In The Cloud

If I don’t write about iOS editors every few months, then it’s harder for me to justify continuing to mess around with them…

The thing that’s changed my editor use in the last couple of months is iaWriter Mac and iOS adding iCloud support, even more deeply integrated than Apple’s own applications. iaWriter is the first writing program I use to move to the iCloud future (though there are some games and other programs that also sync via iCloud already).

At a technical level, the integration is fantastic. In iaWriter, iCloud shows up as a storage location, on par with internal iPad and Dropbox storage. If you are just using the iPad version then there is not much difference between iCloud and Dropbox. iCloud saves automatically, but Dropbox lets you use subfolders. (As a side note, iaWriter has improved its Dropbox sync from “show-stoppingly bad” to “works with a couple of annoyances”, the main annoyance being that it doesn’t remember your place in the Dropbox file hierarchy.)

Where the iCloud thing gets really cool is if you are running iaWriter on both iPad and Mac. On iaWriter Mac, you get a command in the file menu for iCloud, which has a sublisting of all the files iaWriter is managing in iCloud, along with commands to move the current file to or from iCloud.

When you make a change to an iCloud file (on the Mac side, an explicit save, on the iPad side an automatic local save), it is automatically sent to iCloud and pushed to the other site. No different from Dropbox, you say. True, except that the iCloud sync behaves much better if a file is simultaneously open in both apps. The changes just appear in the other app. You can put the iPad and Mac next to each other and go back and forth between the two with only a very slight pause while they sync up.

I haven’t quite gotten that level of integration from Dropbox. In particular, if a Lion-aware app has Dropbox change the file behind its back, the original Mac file continues to be displayed with a filename indicating that it is a deleted version. You then need to close the Mac file and reopen it. I’m not sure I’ve seen an iOS editor that polls Dropbox for changes, though one of the auto-sync ones (Elements, WriteRoom) might.

This may seem esoteric, but since I tend to have several blog posts on progress in open windows on my laptop, I do wind up regularly using the iPad to edit an open file. The iaWriter iCloud sync is noticeably less annoying.

It’s not all sweetness and light, especially if you are a really heavy creator of text files. There is no such thing as a folder in iCloud land, which will eventually become an organizational problem. Worse, there’s an implied lock-in to using iCloud that seems to miss the point of using text files in the first place.

When you move a file to iCloud from the Mac, it moves the file to the iCloud hidden directory, which I think is somewhere in the library directory. Although it doesn’t technically vanish from your hard drive – if you can find the file, you can open it in another application (for what it’s worth, the Alfred launcher can find the files), the clear intent is that the file is in a place not to be touched by applications other than iaWriter.

On the iPad side, the situation is worse. If a file is in iaWriter’s iCloud storage than no other iPad app can see it. (To be fair, it is relatively easy for iaWriter to move a file from iCloud to Dropbox from either device.) I don’t know if sharing files between applications will be possible when more applications support iCloud, or whether iCloud is strictly sandboxed.

And hey, for a lot of things, this limitation isn’t an issue. If you are using a tool with its own format, then it is less of an issue that other applications can’t see it. Even with something like text, if you aren’t the kind of crazy that needs to open a file in a gajillion different editors, you are probably okay. If you are using text specifically because it’s easy to move around between different programs, and you have a workflow where a file will commonly be touched by different apps, then iCloud is going to get in your way a little.

As for me, the iCloud support has made me use iaWriter more often for blogs and short notes. (Though I still use Textastic for more structured stuff on iPad.) I always liked iaWriter, but for a while it was just really bad at sync compared to other iOS editors. So, despite some quibbles about what happens in iCloud when I have dozens of files that I want to share among different apps, right now, the sync is good enough to make it valuable.

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