Apple may have its hands full with iOS 7′s redesign (and the almost forgotten OS X Mavericks upgrade and new Macs like the brand-new Mac Pro), but it still found time in its schedule to give their stable of iCloud web apps a solid upgrade. They’ve been beta testing a new version of iCloud’s web apps for some time now, and today, the new apps are ready for you to try out.
There’s the iWork for iCloud apps that we’ve already looked at, but there’s also fully redesigned Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Reminders, and Notes apps as well — plus a new launchpad that includes the iOS 7 animated blue background. And the apps don’t just look nice, but they also work very nice.
If you’ve never gotten into using the iCloud apps online, here’s why you should start using them today — if for no other reason than to give your Mac some of the update love before Mavericks comes out.
Native-Class Apps in the Browser
From the first time Apple unveiled the iCloud web apps (in early August 2011, though it was a bit longer before they opened the gates to the public), I’ve always been impressed at how much the web apps felt exactly like their iPad counterparts. Graphics heavy though they were, with their skeuomorphic leather designs that matched the iOS 5 and 6 native apps, they still felt slick and responsive in the browser. Every single part of the apps is custom, and if you could just take away the browser chrome, you could convince anyone that the apps weren’t web apps.
Then iOS 7 happened, and everything we knew about Apple’s design strategy was wrong. Rich leather and ripped paper were out, replaced not by a so-called “flat design”, but rather with a layered design that emphasized content, reduced UI to the minimum, and crisp, light typography. “Natural” elements like paper still crop up in the new designs, contrary to the popular notion — you’ll find a faint paper background in both Notes and Reminders, accompanied by letterpress-styled text. The difference is, this time, the UI is designed to fade to be background and emphasize your content, textured background aside. It’s supposed to be fluid, fast, and content first.
That sounds like the move web apps have made for years, except they’ve never made that content-first and UI-lite strategy look very nice. You’ve got heavily graphical web apps that look beautiful but can be sluggish, or the spartan plainness of Google’s apps. Microsoft’s Office Web Apps practically mirror their desktop app design on the web, but that’s far too heavy for something in a browser anyhow, especially with as few features as Microsoft included.
Then you have Apple. They’ve rebooted their web apps with the exact same design you’ll see in on your iPad as soon as you upgrade to iOS 7. It’s the same iCloud.com as before, with a launchpad of app icons and the normal bundled Apple apps you’d expect to see — Mail, Calendar, Contacts, Reminders, Notes, and Find my iPhone — combined with the beta icons for Apple’s new iWork for iCloud apps. The latter are absolutely great, and have almost everything you’d find in iWork on iPad — it’s definitely the nicest designed office suite on the web today.
Also, spoiler: I think the web apps show that Apple’s not redesigning iWork for iOS just yet, or they would have made the brand new web apps with the new UI — otherwise, Apple’s holding their cards on said UI overhaul so incredibly close that they duplicated effort on the iWork apps. I’d tend not think so.
The Nicest Designed Suite of Web Apps
If you actively use the iCloud web apps daily already, you’ll noticed that most of the features are exactly the same as before in the updated apps. Nothing’s really new there, by and large. What is totally new is the UI. You’ll find the iOS 7 trademark thin typography, silhouette icons, and light colors accented with transparent layers. They look really, really sharp – at least if you’re a fan of iOS 7′s redesign, which I happen to be. And, comically enough, they make the rest of your Mac’s UI look dated by comparison, even if you’re already running Mavericks, since OS X still generally looks the same as it has for the past few years.
For the geeky among us, you’ll be interested to know that the iCloud web apps include web fonts for all of the main fonts used in the apps — most notably Helvetica Neue Light, of course. That’s nice to see, since it means the apps will look just as nice on, say, a Windows PC or a Chromebook, both much more likely places to see the iCloud web apps used on a regular basis than a Mac (which already has its own native iCloud-synced apps). It’s an especially nice feature in the iWork apps, which boast a far larger catalog of high quality fonts than other online office apps.
Something else interesting: many of the files that make up the iCloud web apps are stored in iCloud.com/system/cloudos/ — could Apple have more plans for the web interface going forward? Because it sure would be awesome if they opened up an iCloud powered web app platform for 3rd party developers. Imagine all of your apps on iOS, available in any browser at iCloud.com.
But I digress: the important thing is how the apps work. And on that front, you’ve got nothing to fear. The web apps load essentially as fast as Gmail, in my experience, but then, once they’re loaded, you can switch between them instantly. Seriously: visit the Mail app, then open Contacts. Now click the drop-down menu in the top left, and select Mail again — and it’ll just fade into view instantly. Nifty, no?
You’ll find the same responsiveness in syncing, where emails are pushed in faster than they’ll show up in Mail.app, and reminders and note edits are synced with their Mac counterparts in nearly real-time. The apps simply don’t feel like web apps — they just run like great apps on their own. It’s really impressive, something you’ll need to try out and experience for yourself if you’ve been burn by slow and clunky web apps over the years. You’ll find most of the features you’d expect – yup, keyboard shortcuts in Notes work fine, as does dragging-and-dropping appointments in Calendar to reschedule them – in what’s at the very least the most unique UI for web apps online today.
Honestly, if Apple would just let you use your own domain with iCloud email, I’d switch to iCloud from Google Apps in a heartbeat, if just for the web apps and speed. If the native apps on your Mac and iOS devices weren’t a strong enough sale, the web apps should make the case.
Why Web Apps?
Now here’s the million dollar question: why on earth would Apple spend the time and money to make best-in-class web apps? They own two of the most popular computing platforms today – OS X and iOS – and bundling native apps with them makes perfect sense, as does supplying those apps with top-notch syncing services. But the iCloud web apps only duplicate that effort at best, and at worst make it easier for an iPad user to stick with their PC.
Steve Jobs once quipped that iTunes on Windows was like giving a glass of ice water to someone in hell, and I happen to think that iCloud.com is supposed to be exactly that. It’s a trojan horse of sorts that shows off Apple’s design prowess with beautiful apps that work great, and subtilely remind you that on a PC, the web is about the only place with exciting new apps. Just look at the promo page for iWork for iCloud beta — the only image of the web apps is on a Windows 8 laptop, since the Mac and iPhone both are running native versions of the demoed apps.
Then, they provide a bit of security for users. I’ve heard far too many people tell me they didn’t want to switch to iWork since they needed to use “real Office” on their PC. Now, that argument is moot. The same year that Microsoft decided to charge $10/month for Office, Apple gives you most of the features of Office that regular home users need for free in a browser on any computer — and then threw the same apps in for free on your iPad and iPhone. It’s not like you’ll have to stick with the likes of OpenOffice if don’t pay for Office; now, you can get the nicest designed office suite for free, and it works everywhere even if you don’t have a Mac. Suddenly, having .pages files laying around doesn’t sound so scary, since you can open them anywhere.
I think it’s a smart marketing move on both sides: showing PC users Apple’s design prowess, and helping everyone feel more confident in relying on iWork and the other iCloud apps.
But Will Anyone Really Use Them?
There’s more reason than ever to use iCloud’s web apps — but then, I have to wonder just how much they really get used. As much as I love the iCloud web apps, I’ll always opt for my Mac or iOS devices’ native apps first. Perhaps if I was on a PC more often, I’d use them — I know I’ll be recommending them to PC+iPad using relatives. So I’d love to know if you’ve ever relied on the iCloud web apps, and if the redesigns will make you more likely to do so. Or, do they just represent one of Apple’s most puzzling projects, that of porting their apps to the web?
One thing’s for sure: they’re sure good at porting apps to the web. If these apps were from a indie web app startup, they’d be getting some serious attention about now.