Letting the iPhone and iPad Off the Leash

It’s the cable to the computer that’s holding Apple’s mobile devices back.  You still need to plug them into a computer for two (or three) reasons: to backup and to sync your music (and to sync your photos).

The iPad, in particular, is has huge potential (I’ll blog soon on my experiences with it) and for some people it could replace their computer altogether.  But the fact that you cannot add music without doing a lengthy sync, nor delete tunes to free up disk space when you are away from your computer is a major limiting factor.  I think Apple could resolve this with with two developments: one is the long rumoured iTunes cloud and the other is Time Machine for iOS.

The iTunes cloud would allow the various (now rather fragmented) iTunes apps concerned with the playback of music and videos, whether on PCs, Macs or iOS devices, do what Spotify already can and sync your music collection over the air.  The Spotify iPhone app lets you see all of your playlists, and you can stream them so long as you have n internet connection – but, crucially, you can also check a box next to each one that you want to be available when you do not have a connection.  When you do this, the music is synced over the air to your device – and if you’re on your home wifi network this can include music in your own collection that Spotify don’t offer.  There’s no reason why Apple shouldn’t offer something like this even if its only to access the music you already own (and a similar solution could be used for viewing your iPhoto collection, with thumbnails viewable over the air and high resolution images for those albums you have checked and synced).

The Apple Time Capsule is the other element that could free their iOS devices from subservience to a PC.  Building Time Machine into iOS would allow devices to do incremental backups – ideally to any AirDisk – and the Time Capsule/AirDisk could also host the storage of the music and photos synced over the air.

If tomorrow’s iTunes announcement (there’s a teaser right now at apple.com) really is The Cloud, then iPhone and iPad world domination won’t be far behind…

About Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See simonwood.info for more...

10 thoughts on “Letting the iPhone and iPad Off the Leash

  1. Very much agree Simon – the syncing of these mobile devices via iTunes is a huge bottleneck for iPhone/iPod and especially the iPad. A .mac account (now ‘Mobile Me’ – boke) goes some way to wireless sync, and of course some apps are already cloud-based, but as you say it’s very fragmented, and badly needs a more holistic solution. For example, in the process of trying to enable some .mac shared info for the first time I very nearly deleted my entire address book and calendar because of a stray sync setting in iTunes – it’s just a mess. In an analogy borrowed from the days of early digital synthesizers it’s like trying to wallpaper the hallway through the letterbox.

    I’d personally like to see iTunes out of the equation altogether (except of course for music management, which it does very well) and a fit-for-purpose file management system (wireless, cloud or otherwise). Time Machine sounds like a good candidate, and I like the idea of a shared archive on Airdisk or equivalent.

    On another note, I think that the addition of mic and cameras to the iPod, combined with its new processor and larger memory, make it a genuine contract-free alternative to the iPhone, or mini VOIP-capable iPad alternative. I’ve been weighing up the pros and cons in my latest blog post: http://www.jiscdigitalmedia.ac.uk/blog/entry/hd-video-on-the-touch/

    cheers, Gavin

    1. Thanks for the comment Gavin. I agree that iOS apps that are already cloud based seem pretty sorted. MobileMe does I nice job syncing my address book and calendar, I think, and I set up my sister’s phone with Gmail which does it equally well. The trouble starts when iTunes gets in on the act, and if you step back and think about what we’ve come to expect iTunes to do, is does seem pretty ludicrous. It’s not so much the fragmentation that bugs me, it’s the each App should have well defined responsibilities, and, crucially that the Apps responsible for syncing stuff to the phone should be on the phone (or iPad), not running on some other platform creating and unwanted dependency.

      I like iTunes as a music player, and even for videos but it’s a while since I had just one library. Apple seem to be pretty happy with the idea of people buying themselves multiple Macs but Home Sharing is very limited – there’s simply no way of even keeping two playlists in sync. So the problems its now having as a music player on the Mac (or PC) require the same solution as that for the phone – a separate, dedicated, always on library that is accessed ‘through the cloud’. I don’t see it as a specifically ‘file management’ problem though. I think Apple have done well to move away from thinking about files to thinking about ‘music’ and ‘photos’ and I certainly don’t want a whole new folder hierarchy (and when I have to think in terms of files, Goodreader serves well as the clearing station for sending and receiving to and from DropBox, MobileMe, email, work shared drive etc.)

      I saw your post on the iPod Touch, very useful to see you picking up on this as I’m hoping to get one at work together with a Flip and an audio recorder of some sort (any recommendations?) for academics to trial (possibly with students). I see them as serving slightly different needs in terms of affordance, functionality, ease of use, etc. and I think it will be useful to let people get “hands-on” with them. I’m not sure I see applications in terms of VOIP but in terms of capturing audio and/or video (and in the iPod’s case even editing and uploading it) there’s a lot of potential.

  2. if you’re looking at Flips and iPods/iPhones for audio and video Simon, then I’d recommend checking our the Blue Mikey in its various forms. A significant audio upgrade for all three machines, and the (free) Bluefire recording app which I’ve been using recently (although only with the built-in iPhone mic, rather than a Mikey sadly..) is very neat too:


    I love being able to browse and download recordings the phone with a web browser at home (on Mac) or work (on Windows) while the phone acts as local wireless server – schmoove!

    it’s really only a small step from there to fully fledged web-based file exchange anyway… get your point about folder-based heirarchical file structures, but as you say, iTunes is just bloated now – the centre cannot hold!! Time for a rethink…

    re VOIP, I know people already using skype on iPods with headphones and inline mics, so it is definitely coming IMO, especially with FaceTime on the iPod now. We just need more widespread wi-fi like in S Korea – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WiBro

    drop me a line at the JISC Digital Media Helpdesk – info at jiscdigitalmedia dot ac dot uk – if you’d like any advice on a recorder for your particular set-up

    cheers Gavin

    1. I’ll check out Mikey, it looks good – I didn’t realise that Flips could take an external mic (I’d been told they couldn’t) although I was told the built in audio is very good.

    1. Had a play with both the Kodak and the Flip at #estict at Bath. The Flip’s appeal is in its simplicity… I think a lot of users will rate usability over higher quality. But being able to compare is useful, maybe the gadget fund could stretch to both 😉

      1. I have both a Flip and a Zi8, and the Zi8 beats it hands down in almost every way. Picture quality in particular is much better, the fact that it takes SD cards, doesn’t try to use some silly proprietary software on the computer, has external mic support, replaceable battery, high speed mode (60fps in US models), and I don’t see that it’s any more complex to use than the Flip makes it my first choice of the two. You just turn it on and shoot, unless you want to get more complex.

        The one flaw: the rounded bottom on the Zi8 means you must have a tripod or some other base for the Zi8 to stand and shoot. The Fip’s flatter bottom is easier to balance on its own.

        Also, the video from Zi8 isn’t directly compatible with the iPad camera connection kit. The videos load and can be transferred off, but cannot be previewed on the iPad.

        I’d never tried the Flip with the iPad before this morning (Didn’t have the camera connection kit in Taiwan) but they are directly compatible with the iPad CCK, so that is one point in favor of the Flip.

        Kodak does, finally, I believe, have a newer replacement model for the Zi8 now.

        1. The Flip uses proprietary software? I thought you just copied the files over, as if it were an external disk… Interesting the Flip connects directly to the iPad – that suggests there’s no need for the proprietary software?

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