The Real Problem with Apple’s iCloud Storage Options (hint, it’s not price)

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 4 min read

The thing about iCloud storage | Beardy Guy Musings

Enough. If I can afford a $400 or $600 or $1,000 iOS device that also requires fees for monthly internet and apps to be useful, I can also afford a monthly .99 or 2.99 a month for added iCloud.

When we buy our wash machines we know that we also have to buy laundry soap and we don’t expect a certain amount of that to come with it. When we buy cars we know that we’ll need to get oil changes and buy gas.

As I’ve expressed time and time again, every single paid tier of iCloud storage gets you more bang for your buck than the competition. Despite what I hear from time to time, iCloud is a great deal if you’re looking for some online storage. I think Apple’s free tier (5GB) is totally reasonable for a file backup and sync service, and their paid options are pretty excellent.

But iCloud’s real problem is with how that storage is used.

I have a 64GB iPhone 8 Plus which is Apple’s entry level storage option. My backup, which is stored on iCloud, is 8.9GB. If I was on the free storage tier, I would not be able to back up my iPhone. I also have about 112GB of photos synced with Apple Photos which would also not be possible on the free storage tier.

We can argue about whether Apple should have a free photo sync/backup solution like Google Photos1, but the backups are the real killer. Being able to back up one’s phone is not a “premium feature” by any means, it’s basic functionality2. There are suggestions out there to do all sorts of crazy things with building up free storage depending on how many Apple devices you own and such, but I think that way lies madness.

I think the solution for Apple’s “iCloud is too expensive” problem is super simple: don’t count iPhone and iPad backups towards your iCloud storage, and offer a free, limited photo backup option.

By doing this, your backups would always work no matter how much storage you have. You could buy and sell your phones and tablets as you please and never worry about the math, it would “just work.” This would leave 5GB of space available entirely to your actual files, which might be enough for a bunch of light users. It would be great if Apple made this 10-20GB, but let’s take baby steps.

For Apple’s part, this would ease some of the grumpiness they are dealing with in terms of people feeling like Apple is nickel and diming them for basic functionality. Worse, some people feel like they’re holding their backups ransom, demanding they pay up or they will risk losing everything if they lose their phone.

The risk of Apple making backups not count as data would also be quite low. They have total control over how device backups work and it’s basically impossible for someone to game the system to try and sneak in information to that backup that Apple doesn’t allow (entire movie collections, for example). Also from an infrastructure perspective, this is so much easier than keeping track of which iCloud accounts own what devices, what to do when a device is sold from one person to another3.

When you look at just the “X dollars buys Y storage” then iCloud is a great deal. It’s how they use that storage that’s a problem. Again, we can talk about the photo backup options in another piece, but something as core to the experience as backups should not be something that people have to pay extra for.

Side note, as much as a really dislike Android for most things, Google has this part nailed down wonderfully. Backups count towards you Google Drive storage, but my Pixel 2 backup (also a 64GB phone) is less than 1MB in total. I know Apple and Google handle backups differently, but when I restore my Pixel 2 and my iPhone, it feels like the same amount of data is there and I need to log back into the same number of apps. It’s not like my iPhone backup is 10,000 times better than the Android backup despite being 10,000 times the size.

On the photos front, Google lets you back up all your photos and videos (up to 16MP images and 1080p videos) for free, and if you want to upload the full quality files you can have them count towards your Drive storage and pay for however much you need. The free option may not be for you, and I’ve heard for numerous people who say it’s not for them, but for a lot of people it’s exactly what they need.

Side note number 2, this argument has nothing to do with making Apple more money from services. I’d like to think that by making their customers happier they would make more of them spend more money, but I have not run any numbers on this4. This is simply a way to remove some friction from iOS users. As a certain CEO once said, it’s not all about the bloody ROI.

  1. Yes, I understand that the free option for Google Photos limits your uploads to 16MP and 1080p, but that’s how free tiers work, they have limitations. Your phone most likely shoots 12MP photos, so you’re not running into a blocker there, even. The video may be an issue for more people, but again, it’s free. If that’s important to you, you can choose to pay more for the option to upload full res everything. 
  2. Yes, one can back up by plugging into a PC and using iTunes, but come on, that’s basically legacy functionality in 2018. The phone can operate entirely independently from a PC and backups are no exception. 
  3. If I sell you my old iPhone, do I keep my storage boost I got when I bought this phone? Do you get a boost to your storage when you sign into it for the first time? Do we both get it? Do I lose it as soon as you get it? It gets complicated. 
  4. Nor could I, frankly, without working from inside Apple.