Once a year in San Francisco, Apple summons its third-party application engineers to the World Wide Developers Conference. Since Steve Jobs‘s return to the company the event has grown in attendance and importance. One turning point was the 2002 introduction of OS X, a genuinely modern Mac OS, built on a Unix foundation. Then there was the 2008 WWDC featuring iPhone native apps and the epoch-making iOS App Store. (Yes, “epoch-making” sounds a bit grand, but it really was the birth of a new era.)
This year’s programme was more loaded than usual, offering three main topics: a major OS X release, dubbed Lion, slated for this summer; a new version of the iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch for the autumn (iOS5); and iCloud.
The two-hour keynote is worth your while. Always entertaining, Jobs and his co-presenters convey the massive effort that went into moving Apple’s engineering armies on these three fronts ‚Äì with a mere 2% of revenue in RD expenses.
But let’s focus on iCloud.
Apple has often been involved in feature-list schoolyard squabbles of the “mine is longer than yours” type. Two years ago, Steve Ballmer, our favourite rhetorician, scoffed that the MacBook is an Intel laptop with an Apple logo slapped on the lid. He might as well have noted that all cars have wheels ‚Äì round and black, mostly ‚Äì and then gone on to sneer at brands commanding higher prices than your basic Chevrolet. (I’ve owned half a dozen of the latter.) In the world of cars, the value of the How is well understood: all cubic inches aren’t born equal.
For computers, we’re getting there. The PC market is in the doldrums: Shipments are stagnant, Apple claims a 1% drop in Q2 2011 vs Q2 2010 while, during the same time period, Mac shipments grew 28%. It can’t be the Intel processors, it is How they are driven.
Unsurprisingly, Apple’s iCloud announcement has been met with the same type of misunderstanding: ‘OK, after all these years, Apple finally makes the plunge into the Cloud. The Cloud is the Cloud. Or, rather, Google is the Cloud. What’s the BFD?’
A strong dose of scepticism is warranted. Even Jobs calls MobileMe, his company’s previous effort, “Not our finest hour”. Both What and How fell frustratingly short of the standards of polish, simplicity and agility Apple is known and financially rewarded for. MobileMe’s 2008 vintage was plonk. This led to apologies, subscription extensions and management changes. Improvements followed, including the well-regarded Find My iPhone service.
But both What and How remained deficient.
The feature list barely differentiated MobileMe from other services. Mail, calendar, address book, photo galleries, web hosting, file storage are offered elsewhere on the web by a long list of companies: Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, DropBox, Flickr‚Ä¶ Google, followed by Microsoft and others, also offer Web Apps, Google Docs being the best known example, an “Office Suite” in the Cloud, accessible anywhere, from any computer with a net connection and a decent browser. This led many, yours truly included, to wonder: does dear leader “grok the cloud”? Does Apple have it in its DNA to be a serious participant in the cloud computing revolution?
MobileMe’s reliability remained sub-par, often showing evidence of “silos”, of poorly interconnected modules, a cloud computing cardinal sin, as recounted in the What I Want for my Mac Monday Note.
Against this tattered backdrop, iCloud walks on stage. The most striking difference with MobileMe and other web-based offerings already mentioned, is the shift away from the browser. I’ll use a word-processor document to illustrate. In both cases we’ll assume you’ve already stated your credentials, login and password for Google, Apple ID, and password for iCloud. With Google Docs, you fire up your browser, enter the URL for your service, compose or edit a document, file it in a folder in Google’s Cloud, and it’s ready for you from any computer anywhere.
With iCloud, you fire up your word processor, Pages for the time being, and compose. No saving, no URL for a web service. You get up and leave. In the queue at the airport you remember something, you fire up Pages on your iPhone and add the brilliant idea that just came to you. But how do you access the Pages document from your Mac at the office? You don’t have to “access” it, it’s already there on your iPhone, your iPad or, sitting at the gate after security, on your MacBook. Your document was automagically saved and pushed to your device. No hands, the system does it for you ‚Äì and propagates the edits you just made.
(This is why, the week before the WWDC, Apple published “universal” ‚Äì meaning iPhone + iPad + iPod Touch ‚Äì versions of Pages, Numbers, and Keynote. I’m not sure I would want to write this Monday Note on an iPhone but, in a pinch, I can fix a mistake using the small device.)
This is the BFD, this is the How. Such behaviour is available or will be extended to all applications and content.
The Google model sees everything through a browser. Apple’s iCloud model uses local apps transparently interconnected through the Cloud. Browsers Everywhere vs Apps Everywhere.
Another important feature is the demotion of the PC as the media hub or, if you prefer, the untethering of our iDevices from the personal computer. From now on, content and apps are purchased, downloaded, updated wirelessly, PC-free. And seamlessly propagated to all devices with the same Apple ID.
The demos look good, the iCloud technical sessions at the WWDC went well. But the full-scale implementation remains to be field-tested. For the document editing example, Apple used an iPad to iPhone and back example, and merely mentioned the Mac as a participant later in the presentation. Annoying details such as iWork file format incompatibilities between Macs and iDevices need closer inspection as they might make reality a little less pristine than the theory.
For developers, the new APIs just released will enable more applications to offer the seamless multi-device updates just demonstrated.
If iCloud works as represented, it will be very competitive ‚Äì and the price is right: free for the first 5Gb of documents. (Content such as music or video and apps don’t count in those 5Gb.)
The “free” iCloud reminds us of Apple’s real business model. They want to sell lots of devices, everything else supports this goal. It seems iCloud’s easy, executive-proof How will sell a lot nicely interconnected Apple hardware. For competitors, weaving together a Brand X laptop, a Brand Y smartphone and a Brand Z tablet won’t be as easy or inexpensive.
To be continued as competitors take Apple’s theory apart and as both developers and the company move the iCloud story into reality.
For further perspective, a few links:
– A prescient (15 April 2011) “Cutting That Cord” piece by John Gruber.
– A 10,000 feet overview by Philip Ellmer-Dewitt, in Fortune’s Apple 2.0.
– Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry thinks iCloud annoys Google and humiliates Microsoft.
– John Paczkowski’s take in All Things D: iCloud: The Mother of All Halos.
– Business Insider thinks Microsoft had a service “just like iCloud” for Windows Mobile.
– Walt Mossberg’s iCloud take, interviewed by Charlie Rose.
– Steve Jobs’ “It Just Works”, as seen by MG Siegler on TechCrunch.