Apple’s Universal Clipboard feature “just works” only when it’s in the mood

Universal Clipboard” is small-but-significant new feature of iOS 10 and macOS Sierra: seamless copying and pasting between devices. Copy on one device, and then paste on any other device within a couple minutes. This capability requires newer devices and a common iCloud account; it’s an extension of the “Continuity” family of integration features, which can all be toggled with a master switch (Settings > General).

Although the feature is understated — there is no user interface, and no marketing page dedicated to it — this is a bit of a superpower and a great example of the kind of it-just-works functionality that Apple is good at in some ways, but definitely not all, which provokes endless scathing snark (just as “don’t be evil” has become a joke about Google). True story: about 96% of complaints about Apple products on social media sarcastically mention #itjustworks!

Universal Clipboard is temperamental

As I feared, the feature is unreliable; worse, when used on one device it can actually (mildly) sabotage the clipboard of another.

After a few successful usages over the last week, which I discovered almost by accident, I tried to use the feature deliberately today for the first time. I wanted to type something long-ish on my Mac, copy it, and then automagically paste it on my iPhone. But Universal Clipboard fell hard on its face, and remains borked after an hour of testing. I cannot use it right now, period. So I wrote this.

But wait, there’s more! UC didn’t just fail to paste: it caused hangs and strange behaviour with copy/paste on two devices. Both froze for 15-20 seconds after a copy on the other. Both hung for 15-20 on paste, displaying either nothing or a broken progress indicator (“pasting from MacBook Pro”), followed by… nothing. And both devices lost their previous clipboard contents — an actual data loss bug, making this glitch far worse.

And all this nonsense survived restarts on both devices, and fresh attempts with new text to and from different apps, and after toggling Handoff features off and on again. In fact, as of this moment, I cannot use the UC feature at all, in any app. Appalling. This is using all fresh Apple hardware and software — iPhone 7, and a MacBook Pro that arrived a couple weeks ago, all fully updated.

I think this is a perfect example of the spread-too-thin, post-iPhone Apple at its worst, the Apple that has “lost the functional high ground”: it’s yet another important OS feature with significant reliability issues which may never be fixed. What a bummer.

Good luck troubleshooting Universal Clipboard

Like all of Apple’s iCloud-powered features, the failure mode here is a real stumper. What’s a power user to do? What is anyone to do? Other than restarting devices and banging on that master toggle switch for all the Handoff features? Which didn’t work for me.

I’m not sure what I expect here, but I know that the need for reliability goes way up if there’s basically nothing I can do when it fails.