December 8 2011
by Todd Hixon

The Battle For The Clouds

The recent launch of iCloud introduced a new phase of cloud computing: the battle for dominance of the consumer cloud. Consumers have used cloud-based services for years: Facebook, Yahoo Mail and Flickr, Hotmail and Windows Live Mesh, Apple’s MobileMe, and a series of loosely connected (often great) offerings from Google (GMail, Google Docs, PicasaWeb, etc.). Amazon has some pieces too: “Your Digital Items” and particularly Cloud Drive.

Picture Credit: USAF Art Collection

With iCloud Apple hit the afterburners. iCloud is a comprehensive service that puts most (eventually all?) of your data in a personal cloud that syncs across your desktop and mobile devices and archives in the cloud. In best Apple fashion, it requires (or allows) almost no set-up: you log in, check a few boxes to decide what gets synced, and away it goes. Your music is everywhere. Pictures taken on your phone pop magically onto your PC.

iCloud is actually a family cloud. Content including music and TV shows subject to digital rights management (DRM) syncs across all the devices you control, including those belonging to other members of the household. iCloud’s “Match” service brings in music files acquired from sources other than the iTunes store. This is smart recognition of how we really live. Except that overyone needs to have Apple devices to enjoy the full benefit. Apparently Apple defines marriage as a union between a Mac and Mac.

The most ambitious feature is cloud-aware applications. Users can, for example, write or edit a document on one device, put that device to sleep, open the same document on another device, and pick up where they left off, right down to the cursor position. If this model of tight client-app/cloud integration catches on, it throws down an interesting challenge to both Microsoft’s client-app hegemony and Google’s cloud-app lead.

My experience tells me this is really hard technology. Sync applications have been around for years, and many have been cranky (e.g., early versions of iDisk). iCloud has to work across multiple devices that can appear and disappear from the network in the middle of a sync. Much of the content iCloud addresses has DRM requirements that iCloud has to meet without frustrating users too much. Cloud-aware apps add another layer of complexity. This won’t be easy for competitors to copy, or for Apple to get entirely right: while iCloud set-up is simple, setting up the cloud sharing features of iTunes is gnarly. I think iTunes has accumulated too many incremental functions and needs a ground-up re-write.

There are big holes in Apple’s version 1.0 offering: iCloud does not provide for sharing content on the web (e.g., post your pictures from your trip) or archiving user-generated content offsite, some features are not supported on Windows, nothing is supported on Android, and movies do not sync across devices (probably due to rights issues).

But iCloud is a huge step towards the future. I’ve read that Steve Jobs was deeply chagrined by what he saw as the botched launch of MobileMe [as a user, I agree]. Jobs learned from adversity. Siri has gotten most of the press attention from iOS5, but Siri is basically an improved version of Google voice search. iCloud may well turn out to be Jobs’ last great contribution to Apple and its customers.

This post first appeared on my Forbes blog (link).

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