iCloud And The Competing Paths To The Future

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Apple’s announcement of a collection of services sharing the name “iCloud” has generated endless articles about what it all means. I’ll talk about some of the details in the next few days but let’s step back and look at the bigger picture, because it encapsulates so many things that are happening right before your eyes.


THE END OF THE SINGLE PC

Almost overnight it has become a truism that we are in a “post-PC” world. Instead of a single computer that holds all of our digital files, each of us is surrounded by a multitude of devices that we want to use as interchangeably as possible – computers at home and computers in the office and notebooks in the briefcase, smartphones everywhere, and iPads and other tablets on the coffee table. Businesses want employees to be able to log onto any of the computers at the office (not just ROBERTPC for Robert) and open their mailbox and files. Business owners need their business mail to be readily available on their home computers and smartphones. We want photos on the TV in the living room after we’ve finished editing them in the bedroom. Music and video, documents and spreadsheets – information is flying and we want access to it with whatever is closest at hand, wherever we are.

Apple, Google and Microsoft are all racing to develop services that can move bits around in ways that will meet our new demands, especially people who fully commit to that company’s services. From their perspective, it’s actually a plus if their devices and services are incompatible with the competitors: Apple has demonstrated the value of locking in loyal customers and it has rewarded its loyalists with a constant outpouring of marvelously cool devices, leaving Microsoft and Google green with jealousy and struggling to keep up.

The four big players – Apple, Google. Amazon and Microsoft – are each approaching things differently at the moment. This is mostly academic from your perspective; you can accomplish many of the same things regardless of which one you choose. There will be many twists and turns in the next few years and the details will change quickly. At the moment, though, your guiding principle is that not all combinations of services will work with all devices, so each choice you make may have consequences later. Get used to discovering that something cool won’t work with your phone or tablet or computer!


APPLE

iCloud represents Apple’s big step into developing services that will work with its devices to lock its customers further into the Apple ecosystem. It follows some weak efforts (MobileMe and others) and iCloud is actually a bit less interesting than you might expect when you look at the details. As you might expect from Apple, though, it is likely to be cleanly designed and reasonably easy to use, which will itself be a significant achievement.

Despite the name and the hype, Apple’s iCloud services are built around files stored on your local devices. Apple is actually developing syncing services, quite a bit like Dropbox, rather than cloud services where files are used online.

The “cloud” service for iTunes’ music is the best example. Your music library will stay right where it is, stored on your computer. The iCloud service will collect information about what’s on your computer and allow you to download the same songs to any other devices linked to your iTunes account. The service does not allow you to stream those songs from online and start playing anything in the library right away. Instead, you are permitted to download any or all of those songs to the next device, so they can be played from the local storage on that device. You will have to wait for them to be downloaded, and you will be limited by the amount of storage space on the device. You will not have access to your 25Gb music library on your 16Gb iPad – you’ll have to choose the music that will fit. There is no web access to your music library.

Contrast that to the music services run by Amazon and Google, which are built around storing the actual files from your music library online. You have to wait for them to be uploaded, but then they can be streamed to any device running the right software without downloading them to that device. You still have to consider storage space but now it’s the online storage space that’s on your mind – you might have to pay a small amount to store your entire 25Gb music library with Amazon, for example, but once it’s there then storage space on your local device is irrelevant.

The devices? Apple’s service can run on any computer (but only if it has iTunes installed and linked to your account), and it runs on iPhones and iPads. The iCloud services are irrelevant if you have an Android phone or Android tablet.

Meanwhile, Amazon’s and Google’s music services run beautifully on an Android phone but not on Apple devices. See what I mean about the consequences of your choices of devices and services?


MICROSOFT AND GOOGLE

Microsoft, on the other hand, has developed services that blend storage of files on local computers, on the one hand, with rich online access to files stored online, on the other hand. The problem is that it has done that inconsistently and without the elegant ease that Apple will likely provide. With one exception, Microsoft’s cloud services are engineered differently than Apple’s iCloud services:

  • Apple is offering a syncing service for certain kinds of data. The service will make sure that you have up to date copies of photos and music, using online storage as an intermediate holding place, but you will be using local storage and local programs to work with those files.
  • Microsoft is offering to store files online, if you choose to put them there instead of storing them on your local computer. You’ll access the files and work with them in their online storage place, but you’ll be able to use either web-based programs or locally installed programs.
  • Google is offering to store files online. You’ll access the files and work with them in their online storage place, with the expectation that you will only use web-based programs.

The exception for Microsoft is its hosted Exchange mailboxes, which will be re-launched on June 28 as part of Office 365, the next generation of its online services. The hosted Exchange service provides the model that I keep hoping Microsoft will mimic for other kinds of files. An Exchange mailbox can be viewed on any computer running Outlook. When you set up Outlook it creates a copy of the mailbox that is fully usable offline and syncs up when you go back online. The same mailbox is equally accessible in a web browser from any computer, using Outlook Web Access, and it can be viewed from any Android or Apple phone or tablet. It is the shining example of what we want for all of our files and photos and music – and unfortunately it’s not what we’re being offered, not yet.


THE MARKET

Apple’s services are almost exclusively aimed at consumers, home users, and students. It’s all photos and music and books. Apple announced a service for documents but it was just kidding; the iCloud service for documents is exclusively limited to people who use iWorks, which has a global user base of 23 people.

Microsoft would like you to think it offers comparable services for home media, and there’s some truth to that – it has inelegant features for moving photos around, for example. Although it has created a platform for syncing files between computers and the cloud, it has wholly failed to make it useful. Windows Live Mesh promised to be the engine that would sync any kind of file between multiple devices, with online access through Skydrive and offline access on our computers. If Microsoft had a tenth of the marketing savvy and insight that Apple shows routinely, it could have delivered everything good about the iCloud services more than two years ago. There are the vaguest of rumors that Live Mesh will be re-launched with Office 365 but I have zero confidence that it will live up to its potential.

Microsoft’s more appealing services are business-oriented. In addition to hosted Exchange mailboxes, companies that commit to Microsoft’s Sharepoint platform can store documents online, with easy access to the documents online using Office Web Apps, and on a local computer running Office 2010. Small businesses have not adopted Sharepoint, although it is widespread in bigger enterprises; it has a pretty steep learning curve and persistent maintenance by IT, and the online reward has been meager so far, since Office Web Apps are disappointing and limited. When Office 365 is launched, we’ll take another look at Sharepoint and decide if it has been polished to the point that small businesses should consider it.

Google has a collection of services that are exclusively online that so far have not penetrated businesses, although not for lack of trying. Documents are stored online in Google Docs, mail is stored online in Gmail, photos are stored online in Picasa, and all work is done in browser-based programs. Again, it really only works smoothly if you commit your whole digital life to Google-based services and devices, and the Google services seem to have even more compromises and downright strange bits than the offerings from Apple and Microsoft. Many people agree to be absorbed into the Google world and live there happily. If your life is lived within Google Calendar and Gmail, don’t buy an iPad – you’re missing the point.

It’s hard to summarize the current state of things, which is part of the point. The online world of the cloud is fragmented, with pieces missing and competitors taking very different roads to get you to more or less the same place. If you’re already invested in the Apple ecosystem, it provides important reasons to stay there, but it might not do quite everything you imagine, especially for businesses.