My biggest WWDC disappointment: iCloud free tier is still 5GB

The WWDC keynote has come and gone. Apple announced a lot of exciting changes to iOS, macOS, tvOS, and watchOS. I can’t wait to see what developers can do with all of the new APIs, and how these products are refined ahead of their fall releases. Be sure to stay on 9to5mac.com this summer to follow along with all of the changes.

There was one major disappointment for me, though. iCloud’s free storage tier remains unchanged at 5GB. When Apple debuted iCloud in 2011, they said this:

Users get up to 5GB of free storage for their mail, documents and backup—which is more amazing since the storage for music, apps and books purchased from Apple, and the storage required by Photo Stream doesn’t count towards this 5GB total. Users will be able to buy even more storage, with details announced when iCloud ships this fall.

iCloud, reborn from the ashes of MobileMe and its $99/year subscription, was built to become the center of the digital hub. By moving the Mac into parity with iPad and iPhone, iCloud would be the center of your computing life.

When the 5GB for free was announced, Steve Jobs made mention that purchased content (with the ability to re-download it) didn’t count against your quota. The 5GB was for iCloud mail storage, documents, and iOS backups. Photo Stream, which was a way to move your most recent iPhone photos to your Mac, also didn’t count.

Since then, iCloud Photo Library has been released, and it’s become one of Apple’s core product features. As the iPhone camera has gotten better at a relentless pace (compare an iPhone 5 photo to an iPhone X in Portrait mode if you have forgotten), Apple is still offering the same free space. They have certainly some great paid offerings:

  • 50GB: $0.99/month
  • 200GB: $2.99/month
  • 2TB: $9.99/month

Especially when you compare it to the original plans:

  • 10GB: $20/year
  • 20GB: $40/year
  • 50GB: $100/year

I am certainly not questioning the top tiers of Apple’s iCloud storage offering, as 2TB of storage for $10/month is a great deal. Even 200GB for $3/month is not a bad deal. I am questioning the fact that 50GB (the original top plan and now the bottom plan) is 88% cheaper today than it was in 2011. If the price for storage has fallen that much, why hasn’t the free storage gone up at all?

I’m going to make a potentially unpopular opinion: iCloud’s free storage tier makes Apple products dramatically worse. Let’s run through a potential scenario, someone goes out and buys a $329 iPad, $1,000 iPhone X, and $1299 MacBook all at once. They would have spent $2,628 on Apple products, and as soon as they started using them to their fullest (taking photos, editing photos, management of documents, etc), Apple would begin to alert them their iOS devices cannot be backed up or that iCloud Photo Library can’t sync because they are out of storage.

By design, iCloud has become an essential part of the iOS and Mac experience. I love iCloud. I love the simplicity it brings. I think iCloud Drive is really well done (sans a few missing features). I love iCloud Photo Library. I love how the Notes app syncs to all my devices. In the last couple of software revisions, iCloud is finally to a place where I trust it enough for myself and to recommend to anyone that asks. When someone complains to me about iCloud nagging them for storage, I just can’t come up with a good reason why 5GB is all they offer for free outside of Apple wanting your $1/month. If someone just spent $1,000 on an iPhone, it’s hard to explain why Apple now wants $1/month for remotely useable online storage.

I know some of the comments I am about to get, so I want to work through them with my responses.

I am not asking it to be free. I am asking for a usable amount of free storage. Apple sells hardware at a premium price. iPhone ASP as risen in the past few years (thanks to the Plus and X models), Mac laptops are still at premium prices, and iPads are still more expensive than Kindle Fire tablets. Apple doesn’t sell subsidized products. They sell them for a profit. They are on track to become a trillion dollar company. Do you really think 5GB for free instead of 25GB is really affecting their bottom line that much?

If you are pro personal privacy, you should be arguing even more for Apple to expand the free tier of iCloud. Every time Google runs this commercial, it makes Apple look bad.

People see that error because iCloud Photo Library is off and photos cannot be offloaded to iCloud (freeing up device storage)

There are people who refuse to pay monthly for storage. I agree, they should realize it’s only $1. I agree that if they can spend $800-$1,000 on an iPhone, they could be willing to spend $12/year on 50GB of storage. There is just a subset of people that will refuse to do that. When they see that Google commercial, they see unlimited backups (most people don’t care if it’s slightly downscaled) for free instead of nags about iCloud being full or phones being out of space. Those users iPhone purchases are more profitable to Apple than their iCloud storage revenue would ever be.

That statement is true, but I am not asking for Apple to do anything similar. Unlimited would be nice, but that would be a lot of data. I am asking them to give at least 25GB for free so that users aren’t immediately nagged about storage. Looking at my iPhone X camera settings, if I use 4K video at 60 fps, I am going to be using around 800 MB every two minutes. You can fill up iCloud’s free tier in under 20 minutes. If you ignore the warnings about iCloud being full, your media will stay locally on your device until its full. All the while, your media isn’t being backed up anywhere (unless you are manually offloading to a Mac).

Apple has made their devices where iCloud is an essential aspect of it. It’s time they offered enough free storage to where it’s usable without paying a monthly fee. I’ll continue to keep paying for my expanded storage, but it would provide a more “Apple-like” experience to many people out there who enjoy their Apple devices but refuse to pay for monthly storage. In a year where students got 200GB for free, regular users got nothing.

My final thought is this: do we expect 5GB to remain the free tier forever? In 10 years, are we going to have 5GB as the free tier, 1TB for $1/month, 5TB for $3/month, and 20TB for $10/month? If not, when will it change?

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