Access iCloud files using the Finder in OS X

Documents in Apple's iCloud service are meant to be opened from within programs, but there are ways to access and manage them using the Finder.

Apple's iCloud is built to be application-centric, which means that unlike other cloud-based file management services for OS X that are essentially add-ons to the Finder, iCloud only allows you to interact with documents through the programs that created them. If a program is built for iCloud, then its Open dialog box will show an iCloud document list that you can select from, but you by default cannot access these documents in the Finder.

While this approach is convenient in some respects, it is limiting if you wish to open an iCloud document in another program, access the files directly for troubleshooting purposes, or perform basic actions like copying or moving them to a new location.

As with other cloud-based services for OS X, this interface essentially manages all files through a single synchronized folder, which for iCloud is called Mobile Documents and is located in the user library.

iCloud document browser
iCloud can be used to store different file types that are supported by the program. If a file type is not supported then it will appear grayed out. Screenshot by Topher Kessler/CNET

As changes are made to this folder, the service will dynamically synchronize them with iCloud and push them to other devices. As a result, the iCloud interface for applications is just a representation of the contents of this folder, and if you need to, you can directly access this folder from within the Finder to manually manage your documents.

To access your user library, select it from the Finder's Go menu (hold the Option key down to reveal the Library if needed). In the library, open the Mobile Documents directory to reveal the iCloud data structure, and optionally create an alias of it on the Desktop or in another location for easy access (one easy option is to drag it to the Finder sidebar).

In the Mobile Documents folder you will see parent directories for each application that has documents stored in iCloud, and opening these will reveal two directories: one for the documents themselves, and another for their thumbnails.

iCloud's local storage folder in OS X
The Mobile Documents folder in your user library contains programs' documents as they appear in the iCloud browser. Screenshot by Topher Kessler/CNET

By accessing the iCloud synchronized folder in this way, you can help tackle problems and other limitations with Apple's iCloud service:

  1. Troubleshooting
    If a document can't be deleted or you have problems accessing it, then manually removing it from the service or checking its permissions setup can be done through this folder.
  2. Organization
    Apple supports organizing iCloud documents into subfolders, which can also be done by creating folders and moving your documents to them using the Finder, though you're limited to a single level of folders. If you try to create nested folders, then the iCloud service will not display them or the documents they contain on other Macs. You also cannot use aliases or other links to files outside of the iCloud folder.
  3. Adding non-native document types
    Applications that use iCloud can export multiple supported file formats to iCloud storage and have them all be available when opening files. You can likewise use the Finder to move files of different formats to the Mobile Documents folder and have them both be available to a specific application, and be propagated to your various Macs and iOS devices.

    For example, if you have a number of Text or Word documents that you would like to access on multiple Macs using iCloud, then you can drag them to the Pages documents folder in iCloud and they should synchronize.

    As with creating folders and organizing your iCloud documents manually, there are some limitations to consider when manually adding documents to iCloud. If an iCloud-based program alters the document, then the changes will be automatically saved and propagated to your iCloud-enabled devices. As a result, if you export a document to a text file on your Mac and save it to iCloud, if you open this file with Pages on an iPad it will be automatically converted to a Pages document, even if you lock the file or set it to be a Stationery Pad.

Because of these limitations and behaviors, it may be best to stick to doing most iCloud document management the intended way, through the iCloud interface. However, if you work within the above constraints, you should be able to access these files directly without problems.

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