six colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

By Dan Moren

Wish List: Cloud-based OS X accounts

iCloud syncing

As wary as I am about Apple’s integration with cloud services—and I am, well, rather wary—I sometimes feel like the company doesn’t take things far enough. So while you can, these days, get pretty far using the web-based iCloud interface to access a lot of your data no matter where you are, I’d love to see Apple take things a step further and offer cloud-based user accounts for OS X.

I’ve thought about this idea a lot over the years, but it recently came to the top of my mind once again when I was reading Jason’s experiences getting information onto the new MacBook.

I can envision three scenarios in which this would be particularly useful. First, when you set up a new Mac, as Jason did with the MacBook, wouldn’t it be great if instead of having to tweak a bunch of settings and preferences you could simply log in—say with your iCloud username and password, a feature already supported by OS X—and have everything set up just to your liking?

iCloud login
You can already configure your OS X user account to let you log in with your iCloud username and password.

Second, for those of us who use multiple Macs on a regular basis, it would be great not to have to make the same changes in multiple places—say, keyboard shortcuts, or even something as banal as desktop pictures.

And third, it would be fantastic to be able to sit down at a friend or family member’s Mac, log in with one’s Apple ID and password, and have your account—or much of it—immediately accessible. (In that case, I think it would act like OS X’s guest account and basically nuke everything as soon as you log out, for security.)

Apple’s dabbled in this area: iCloud lets you sync the Keychain between devices, and some items—such as text shortcuts—actually do transfer transparently between Macs and iOS devices, but iCloud doesn’t explicitly handle preferences and settings. (The old .Mac/MobileMe version of the service actually used to support syncing of preferences, but the feature was removed in iCloud.) If you’ve ventured into the realm of OS X Server, Open Directory lets you create network-based accounts, but that’s overkill for most home users.

Obviously, there are limitations to such a feature. For one thing, you may not want all of your data stored in the cloud, whether for space or security reasons. Sometimes you want different settings on different machines, whether it be power management on your MacBook vs. your iMac, or network settings. Maybe providing a way for certain settings to “override” the cloud settings would be too complicated—or maybe there are simply a handful of preferences that aren’t synced between multiple Macs.

But for someone like me, whose files mainly live in Dropbox and iCloud, whose music resides largely in the cloud with iTunes Match, and whose photos and videos will soon probably soon follow suit, having an account bound to a single machine is starting to feel a bit antiquated.

What makes me hopeful about this idea is how simple and seamless Apple has made it in the past few years to transition between an old iOS device and a new one, thanks to backing up and restoring from iCloud. OS X, by comparison, sometimes feels left by the wayside. Granted, most of us probably don’t switch Macs as frequently as we switch iOS devices, and Time Machine and Migration Assistant have made somewhat of a dent there, but they’re still clunkier than the process on iOS.1

Letting users log in to their OS X accounts with their iCloud credentials is a step in the right direction (because we already have enough passwords to remember), and Apple’s increasingly encouraging users to trust more and more of their data to the cloud. Perhaps this all lays the seeds for a more machine-agnostic user account at some point in the future.


  1. Much as I’d love to see Apple implement some form of iCloud Backup for Macs—Time Machine’s great, but not nearly automatic or simple enough—it’s probably going to have to wait for Apple to embrace cheaper storage.  ↩

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[Dan Moren is a tech writer, novelist, podcaster, and the Official Dan of Six Colors. You can email him at dan@sixcolors.com or find him on Twitter at @dmoren.]