Friday, February 3, 2012

25,000 Views and Counting... PhotoStream and Windows Don't Play Well Together......

Taking a quick pic of your pooch and having it appear on your iPad, computer and Apple TV without any extra steps on your part sounds nearly too good to be true, and for some users of Apple's recently released PhotoStream, it is.... I have written several posts about my real world user experiences with various elements of Apple's recently released iCloud services. To date, I have found some elements to work as promised and enhance the Apple iDevice promise. Other pieces of iCloud have not been nearly as useful, and in some cases have proven to be a greater drain to productivity than real world time saver......

I believe my use of these services in a mixed environment-- combining a number of iDevices (iPhones, iPads and iTvs) with Windows machines (operating a fully patched copy of  Windows 7 in my testing environment), has caused at least some of my difficulties with iCloud services. I maintain this is a very typical operating environment, especially with mainstream small businesses and households.

Even if you are able to perform all of your computing needs using Apple devices-- and software availability often make this an impossibility-- using a Windows computer is still by far the most common computing environment in the world. As the nearby graph shows, despite what Apple and its legion fans would have you believe, the desktop operating system "war" is still handily won by Microsoft! In fact, the aging XP operating system still has more users worldwide than any other OS. For all but a few niche markets such as professional video editing, Windows remains the dominant operating system in use around the world today. Creating services such as iCloud which aren't rock solid for Windows users is a recipe for user dissatisfaction.

Why is this important to this discussion? This "mixed use" environment is Apple's biggest client base and problems such as this need to be squarely in Apple's focus, not a peripheral engineering challenge. As much as I like Apple products and this company's customer relations, too often I feel like "the answer" to this issue and others is, "Just buy a Mac and your problems will vanish!" Well, that isn't an answer, nor is it a satisfying solution to real world compatibility issues for everyday, real world, consumers.

So what's today's problem point? PhotoStream. The concept is wonderful, another potential problem solver which has the promise of working with Apple devices more convenient and "friendly" than Android, Windows, or any other platform. I love photography, I have been an amateur photo buff for nearly fifty years. My grandfather gave me my first Kodak box camera when I was about five, I have been clicking and preserving moments ever since.

One of my saddest losses in life (in terms of belongings anyway) is a box stuffed with thousands of photos and negatives, mostly black and white prints I took, developed, and enlarged myself during my childhood. I still have boxes in my garage from decades ago which have been moved countless times and rarely, if ever, see the light of day. But that priceless (to me anyway) box of prints is long gone, a victim of my neglect in some move during my college years "eons" ago.

Digital photography should make sharing and archiving photos infinitely easier than the Kodak moments of past generations. Sadly, digital doesn't mean timeless in many cases. All too many photos snapped on digital cameras, especially ubiquitous camera phones, never get backed up or synced leaving them susceptible.  Broken, lost, or damaged devices are commonplace. I know many very smart individuals who never back up their smartphone data!  If you haven't ever lost a digital photo you are either very diligent or very lucky. Photostream has the potential of making your photos easy to share and effortlessly backed up.

Here's the theory, snap a pic on your iDevice (iPhone or iPad2). This photo will then sync "instantly" through Apple's servers to your other iDevice(s) making them visible for sharing and editing without manual syncing, wires, or third party applications. When your iDevice is on your local wi-fi network these photos will also sync to your local Mac or Windows PC. (These transferred files will be uncompressed, exact copies rather than the compressed, optimized, version transferred between your iDevices.) PhotoStream is a two way street; you can add photos from your computer library to share on your iDevice(s) by placing these pics in a folder designated for this purpose in iCloud.

That's "the theory" but there are some real limitations and caveats even when everything is working as "advertised:"

  • PhotoStream collects ALL of your photos over a thirty (30) day window. You can't be selective. In other words, you can't delete or erase a single photo or group of photos-- it is "all or nothing." (You can delete and reset your ENTIRE PhotoStream if you decide this is what you need to do.)

  • To use PhotoStream you must be running iOS 5.X on all of your devices. If a Windows box is included on your network you must also be running the iCloud service and iCloud Application.

  • PhotoStream does NOT support network drives. I save all of my photos on a dedicated hard drive which runs as part of my Windows Small Business Server. This drive is mapped on the network, allowing other computers and devices to easily read and share these files. My first inclination was to create the PhotoStream folder structure on this mapped drive (i.e. X:\PhotoStream). No joy.

  • In addition to the limitation noted above, PhotoStream doesn't support custom folders (if someone has found a workaround to this issue please post it here!!!). This issue has implications for some who might otherwise want to use this service. As an example, an insurance company whose agents are armed with iPhones snapping pictures all day of client claims may want to preserve these images by client and/or date. PhotoStream would eliminate several steps and speed their claims process if this feature existed. For companies like this, "020212\rwachs\image01.png" is a whole lot more valuable than "image01.png" stuffed into a folder simply labeled "Photostream\Photostream Downloads."

  • All of your devices and attached computers MUST be signed into the same iCloud Account. This may seem obvious but this can be the source of confusion and problems. If you are having PhotoStream issues, ensuring all devices are running under the same account credentials is one of the very first troubleshooting steps you should take (don't assume!).

If the above limitations aren't a deterrent, PhotoStream is free and has many obvious advantages and applications. However, PhotoStream has been more like a log jammed river for me. After installation,  PhotoStream seemed to work across my iDevices and Windnows PC using "photostream\download" and "photostream\upload" folders on my local drive under the "\User Account\My Pictures" folder structure. Great.... For about ten days! Mysteriously, the sync process stopped between my iDevices and my Windows box. Nothing changed (that I was aware of); just no new photos showed up in my "PhotoStream\Downloads" folder.....

Several hours of troubleshooting later, I have resolved the problem (for the moment) and learned a few things along the way. First and foremost, I am not alone with this issue. There are many threads discussing this topic on Apple's Support forums and elsewhere. This thread alone has well over 25,000 views and counting. My experience suggests for every individual reading, much less participating, in these forums, there are at least ten times this number of frustrated, casual, users who never reach out to these forums for guidance (and yes, this is a highly subjective, unscientific, estimate).

There are many solutions included in the above mentioned thread alone. Many contributors have slogged through possible resolutions and shared their expertise. There is a notable absence of official comment from Apple Support on this problem which is disconcerting.... So what worked for me?

Ultimately, these steps have PhotoStream working once again for me:

Turn off Photostream.
Stop all Apple iCloud services from Task Manager by highlighting them and selecting end process:


(I have no idea if all of these are required to stop but I did this for safe measure)

I then went into : 

C:\Users\\AppData\Roaming\Apple Computer\MediaStream\

and deleted all the files \ folders in this directory.

I then opened back up the iCloud app (which will automatically start back up those services we stopped), and turned back on Photostream.  My photos then began to download

Your mileage may vary and likely will. If you are having problems, I suggest you be sure you are using the same iCloud Account. I would also allow PhotoStream to create its own folder structure upon installation or re-installation. This isn't required but creating unique, non-default, folders seems to be the cause of several users' woes. The above referenced thread is the source of a wealth of solutions which have resolved the syncing issue for others.

The reason this solution worked in my case is deleting the files in the above noted directory resets Apple's media stream database in essence "forcing" a re-sync between devices which is exactly what the doctor ordered. What caused the database to corrupt? Great question. A conflict with another application or service, perhaps even a Microsoft update.... I don't know. One could examine Event Logs around the time synchronization failed to perhaps glean some insight. Candidly, I haven't taken this step. Like most users, finding an answer and resolving the issue is enough to satiate my curiosity and move on to the next "opportunity." Apple Engineers might, and should!, have a desire to help the legions of customers still suffering. I hope this problem is escalated at Infinity Loop; it deserves attention.

I wish this was a more stable service and I wish I could recommend it but for many who don't have the time, inclination, or skill set, to troubleshoot the interactions between iCloud and Windows, waiting until "2.0" is my best advise! The iPhone 4S is arguably the best SmartPhone Camera on the market today. It takes stunning photos and for most users is always available (the iPad 2's photo hardware is anemic at best, but its big screen makes an excellent editing platform!). PhotoStream can make capturing that next Kodak moment all the more fun and easy. Apple just needs to get the stream flowing for all its users.

So what else would I like to see in "2.0?"

  • Support for network drives.
  • Support for custom folders. 
  • Selective photo deletion from the stream. 
  • Support for video transfer (over wi-fi).

I think that is enough for the next release! What are your thoughts on PhotoStream? Have you found it useful? Any problems? I welcome your comments.....

I currently participate in the Amazon Associates Program and certain item links included within this post may tie to this affiliate program.

Companies:  Apple, Microsoft

This commentary is not meant as an endorsement of any company or to provide financial advice.  If the author has any financial interest in any company mentioned at the time of this article’s posting, it will be explicitly noted. I welcome feedback and comments. 

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All rights reserved @2012, Music Row Tech (MRT). Any reproduction without the author's consent is prohibited.

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