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Developers on Dropbox Datastore as an iCloud alternative

Lex Friedman | July 15, 2013
Developers would love to love iCloud. But many of them find Apple's syncing platform ineffective, unreliable, or worse. Some developers have even pointed to iCloud sync woes as a significant holdup in releasing new versions of their apps.

Developers would love to love iCloud. But many of them find Apple's syncing platform ineffective, unreliable, or worse. Some developers have even pointed to iCloud sync woes as a significant holdup in releasing new versions of their apps.

And now Dropbox, the beloved powerhouse of sync, has taken a direct shot across Apple's cloudy bow, with the announcement this week of its new Datastore API. Dropbox says that the Datastore API makes simple work of syncing structured data ("like contacts, to-do items, and game state") across devices—and even platforms: Unlike iCloud, the Dropbox Datastore API works across iOS, Android, and the Web.

Because of the way Dropbox works, it offers one other significant potential advantage over iCloud: Developers who are working with Datastore can actually peek directly at the syncing data on Dropbox's servers as they test and build their apps, a level of visibility that iCloud simply hasn't offered to date.

Macworld spoke with several developers to get their thoughts on Datastore as compared to iCloud. Expectations are mixed.

Seeing potential
Greg Pierce of Agile Tortoise—maker of sync-friendly apps like Drafts—is pleased by Dropbox's announcement. "I think it's exciting to see more players in this space." Though he's only played around with Datastore a bit, he said that "if it reliably delivers what it promises, then it's a potentially very useful API with some real advantages over other sync options right now."

Pierce said, however, that while "Datastore seems simple to implement," what it offers doesn't match directly what iCloud's Core Data sync does—or is meant to do. That iCloud feature, when it works, should allow apps to reliably sync changes to large, complex databases, without requiring that the full data set be uploaded to the server. Datastore's "scope is more limited," Pierce said. All that said, if it works consistently, "that may still make it an attractive option for many apps."

Charles Perry from Leaf Hut Software thinks Datastore shows promise, too: "Syncing is a notoriously hard problem ... Even Apple, with all its resources, couldn't pull it off. But Dropbox has a proven record in document syncing, so they may be able to succeed where others have failed."

Rainclouds on a cloudy day
Not everyone shares Pierce's cautious enthusiasm.

Tapbots's Paul Haddad told Macworld that he didn't even bother looking at the Datastore API. "I don't really care," he said. Because it's not core Apple functionality, Haddad said, "it doesn't run in the background," which makes it far less appealing to him. Even with iOS 7's improved background functionality, Haddad said, Dropbox won't be able to match the ubiquitous omnipresent syncing that iCloud affords.

 

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