As you are probably aware if you’re a longtime reader of this little newsletter, that one of my hobby issues has been complaining about Dropbox, which the company has made particularly easy in recent years due to an apparent disinterest in protecting its core customer base.
But let’s take a step back here and do everyone a favor and discuss the arguably anti-competitive issues that are creating the headaches for Dropbox and other personal cloud providers in the first place.
Apple has, in a point release, decided to basically tear apart the existing approach to cloud file infrastructure in MacOS, requiring cloud providers to basically rip up their applications and disrupt the user experiences of millions of people all for the sake of an arbitrary deadline. Apple announced the detail on its developer website, buried inside a long list of other features:
“The kernel extensions used by Dropbox Desktop Application and Microsoft OneDrive are no longer available,” the website stated. “Both service providers have replacements for this functionality currently in beta.”
Given how much this is likely to impact the way lots of people work, it seems like Apple should have, I don’t know, slow-rolled this? But for some reason, the company has insisted on taking an unusually aggressive approach to modernizing its under-the-hood technical capabilities for reasons of security.
Kernel extensions, which allow to-the-metal execution of important commands, have been on the way out for a few years now, with Apple first announcing the plans to move away from this approach at the 2019 edition of WWDC. The three versions of MacOS released since then—Catalina, Big Sur, and Monterey—have gradually taken steps to replace kernel extensions, which have traditionally offered additional controls by offering access to code execution at the MacOS kernel level, in favor of system extensions, which instead work in the user space, and are less capable as a result. (You haven’t lived until you’ve had to go into recovery mode just to type in a few terminal commands just to run a piece of software you want to use.)
“From Apple’s point of view, this a major step towards improving the security of macOS,” Mac security expert Patrick Wardle said to ZDNet in 2020.
It’s one thing to improve security for end users, but another entirely to deeply inconvenience them, especially when many of those users are corporate in nature. Apple’s File Provider mechanism simply works differently than a lot of people are used to, and the recent OneDrive beta has really frustrated a lot of users because they’re not expecting these massive differences. Even companies that have been slightly ahead of the curve, like Box, have had these issues.
The big thing is that these under-the-hood changes haven’t been explained in depth to those users, by Apple. After all, it’s not like the session on kexts versus system extensions at WWDC was the one that everyone was livestreaming.
So it looks like Microsoft, or Box, or Dropbox is the one ruining the experience for the end user, when in reality, it’s Apple taking an aggressive approach to removing highly relied-upon kernel extensions for things that most professionals need for their jobs.
I’m not saying the messaging has been perfect here. Users have been particularly upset with Dropbox about its pushing back of MacOS updates, but if they had been transparent and said, “Hey, Apple is changing a lot of stuff and will basically require us to rewrite our entire app,” they might have gotten a pass. But other providers are having a bad time as well, which suggests to me that the problem is not with Dropbox alone but the underlying changes that cloud providers need to account for.
And given the numerous issues I’ve personally had connecting to cloud services in its Files app on iPadOS—an app that, inexplicably, is missing a number of basic features that one would expect in a file-explorer app—I honestly am scared that Apple is coming to screw up file sharing for every other cloud service on the Mac. They have not given users a reason to trust their engineering on cloud services, and yet they’re giving end users no choice in the matter. After all, there’s a reason I am not using iCloud—and I wasn’t asking Apple to turn every other cloud provider experience into iCloud.
Apple should push this change back, because it’s going to screw with the productivity of a lot of people, and for what benefit? To hit a deadline?
Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes
Time left on clock ⏲: 32 seconds