5 GB is the new 16

Now that the iPhone 7 starts at 32 GB of storage, the constant juggling needed to avoid a full device has been left behind by more users than ever before.

So let’s talk about iCloud storage.

While not as critical as on-device storage, available space in iCloud is an increasingly important factor in the user experience of Apple devices like iPhones, iPads and even the Mac.

Here’s how Apple pitches paying for additional storage space:

You get 5GB of free storage in iCloud and you have the option to choose a plan for up to 2TB. More iCloud storage means more space to store your photos, videos, documents, and apps, so they’re always available from any device. iCloud Photo Library and iCloud Drive can also help free up space on your devices. You can upgrade your storage option right from your Mac or iOS device.

As of this writing, this is what Apple charges:

Space: Cost Per Month:
5 GB Free
50 GB $0.99
200 GB $2.99
1 TB $9.99
2 TB $19.99

Here’s everything iCloud offers to store:

  • Photo Library
  • Files and folders via iCloud Drive
  • Synced ~/Desktop and ~/Documents files
  • iOS device backups
  • Notes data
  • Email
  • Calendars
  • Contacts
  • Reminders
  • Safari browsing data
  • Keychain entries

5 GB often isn’t enough to back up an iPhone and an iPad, let alone store years worth of family photos.

Unlike One Drive or even Dropbox, iCloud storage is key to extending and improving the experience of using a Mac or iPhone. Dropbox may be a semi-magical folder that syncs data to other devices, but iCloud is the glue between Apple’s various platforms.

Photos.app is better with iCloud Photo Library than it is with Photo Stream. iCloud backups are easier and simpler than iTunes backups. Files stored in iCloud Drive are easier to use in apps like iWork for iOS than those stored in other systems.

As this layer of glue becomes more important, the free 5 GB plan becomes increasingly problematic. It may have been fine when Apple announced iCloud five years ago.

Back then, iCloud could be used to store data from apps like iWork, but it wasn’t as widely used — or as reliable — as iCloud Drive is today. iCloud Photo Library didn’t exist, and Photo Stream didn’t count against the 5 GB limit.

Today, countless little niceties depend on iCloud, and simply don’t work with a full account. Due to the 5 GB limit, people go as far as turning off their device backups, leaving their data at greater risk of being lost.

A popular suggestion is to grant users additional space based on the devices they purchase. Buy a 128 GB iPhone 7, get another 128 GB worth of storage on iCloud. While I like the idea, I’m not sure it’s feasible. What happens if you are like me and buy a new iPhone every year? Does my free storage just increase forever, or does it get adjusted based on my active devices?

Another common suggestion goes along the lines of “Apple has a pile of money, so they can afford to give everyone more storage.”

That’s a fair statement to a degree. There is an aspect of the 5 GB limit that feels … stingy.

There’s more to it than that, I’m sure. I’m no data center expert, but bumping everyone to even 10 GB would be a huge increase in disk space needed at Apple’s data centers. I don’t know what that sort of change would cost, but I can imagine it’d be huge based on Apple’s sheer number of customers. Whatever slice of profit off of iPhone hardware goes to paying for iCloud storage would certainly take a hit.

I’m sure this is why a change hasn’t been made.

However, I think it’s something the company should consider biting the bullet on. I hope that something is underway to increase the space Apple provides for free.

It may not make much sense in black and white, but it’s the right thing to do.