Dear Apple: Why can’t iCloud’s backup and restore be more like, well, Google’s?

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Dear Apple, 

The two of us are in a much better working relationship now. I appreciate that we’ve found common ground, so I’d like to discuss something that has been weighing on my mind: iCloud iOS restores from backups.

I just spent my entire evening helping my 76-year old father, over the phone, to restore his last iCloud backup to his new iPhone 13 Pro. 

It was immensely frustrating.

I wish it didn’t have to be. Most of your software and services just plain work — most of the time. But lately, iCloud restore has not been a great experience.

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Let me back up for a minute. This past weekend, my parents came over to my house, toting my dad’s working iPhone XR and his new iPhone 13 Pro in the box. My mom, with her iPhone 8, was going to inherit the XR. We made sure all of the phones had recent iCloud backups, and that our bandwidth and our WiFi network were sufficient to run a restore (I have a 1 gigabit fiber connection to AT&T, and I can usually achieve over 300Mbps over 802.11ac).

The transfer process from both phones seemed to work. All of my dad’s local data and account configuration from his XR were copied over to the 13 Pro. When we were sure everything was on the 13 Pro, we wiped the XR. My mother copied her data from the 8 to the XR; we moved her SIM card over and popped the phone into a brand new pink Otterbox case. She had nowhere near as many apps and photos as my dad did, so it happened pretty quickly. 

I sent them both home, feeling that I was a good son who did a good job.

This morning, I got a text from my dad: “I can’t open any of my apps, and it says there is still 128MB left of data to sync with iCloud.” I told him to reboot the phone and wait a few hours to see if it would resolve itself.

It did not.

It turns out this is a known issue with iOS and iCloud restores. We tried the various reported solutions to resolve it, such as turning off the Wi-Fi Assist and attempting the most recent iOS update (it wouldn’t let us).

The only way to resolve it was to do a full erase of the phone and a full iCloud restore from the last good backup. Well, we erased the phone. 

While doing the restore procedure, we had connectivity issues with iCloud; the phone froze up a few times, requiring reboots and re-attempts. To say my New York City-born retired Jewish dentist of a father living in East Boca Raton was not happy with this process is an understatement. Things he said in anger over the phone about Apple and my recommendation to upgrade to the iPhone 13 Pro were not particularly flattering.

Did we finally get it working? After multiple attempts — and spending well over an hour on the phone — yeah. Was this the painless, seamless phone migration experience we expected of Apple? It was not.

I wish I could say this was an isolated problem, but it isn’t. When I received my own iPhone 13 Pro Max during the initial launch shipments, I also had numerous connectivity problems with iCloud. In fact, many customers did, as they all tried to connect and transfer data from their old phones at once. The servers were overloaded; clearly, there was no plan for additional capacity or hot provisioning of resources with a hyperscale cloud provider like AWS or Azure.

I could not complete an iCloud restore for two days, and I also could not complete a phone-to-phone direct transfer.

How did I eventually resolve these issues? I gave up on my iCloud backups and started fresh. This was easy for me to do, as I could inventory the two dozen apps I regularly use on my iPad and install and sign into them fresh on the iPhone. Their data was already cloud-enabled. Fortunately, I’m primarily a Google Apps user because it is my work-issued productivity platform, and I’ve been using it personally for two decades. I keep my photos backed up on both iCloud Photostream and Google Photos. 

Apple, there are many things I don’t like about Google. But their cloud and their data restore process to their devices and apps works — flawlessly.

Did I have to sign in to all of my accounts again? Yes, manually. Did I lose all my phone app organization and personalization, also? Yes. But I dealt with it because I am a technologist, and I realize that this is a crazy time when everyone is very dependent on the cloud. Stuff happens, and cloud infrastructure strains during high-demand times.

But the bottom line is you, Apple, need a better solution for cloud availability issues for end-users like my dad. This is especially necessary if iCloud capacity is always going to be at a premium during these product launches and iOS and MacOS update windows.

Perhaps we need something akin to Time Machine for iOS. Yes, I know we have iTunes on Windows, but nobody likes it. I am not going to make my poor septuagenarian father deal with that; he only likes using his iPad these days. And I know we have a Mac backup facility, but he doesn’t use one. It’s not well-suited for multi-user scenarios like this anyway.

How hard would it be to have some flash device plug in with a USB-C to Lightning or a USB-C cable (for iPad Pro) — allowing us to dump the core of the device storage and personalization settings in an encrypted fashion — and do an offline restore? Or use another iOS device with sufficient storage capacity to act as a temporary host, like my iPad Pro? I could dump the user data and config, restore the data, and then grab the apps from iCloud when the network is available. 

It’s like the second Star Trek movie where Spock dumps his Katra consciousness into Dr. McCoy, saving the entire crew by sacrificing his life in the dilithium chamber. And then he was reborn in the next movie from a McCoy backup. Maybe that wasn’t the greatest restore procedure, but you get the idea.

It’s something to think about.




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