Several weeks have passed since the Apple WWDC and I am finally starting to wrap my head around the new iCloud product and also the bigger picture of how cloud based computing is going mainstream. Initially after the keynote I was lukewarm on iCloud because my expectations shot for the moon. It was foolish of me to think that Apple was going to dramatically shift the computing world with one product. History has shown that they prefer the route of baby steps as was seen with the original iPhone in 2007 that was released without a developer API and only included 14 apps out of the box. Of course every year since giant chunks of new functionality have been added to each iteration of iOS and now the "missing" feature list is negligible. Now that I have put things into perspective it seems like this is just the early stages of what is to come from Apple.
Browsers are the Future
In early 2008 it looked as though software inside the browser was the way of the future. Most users had migrated completely to online email clients thanks to the rich user interfaces of Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo! mail. Online photo management via Picasa, Kodak Gallery and Flickr also started taking off. Online word processing and spreadsheets existed, but they were still very raw and hard to use because of the limitations of the browser (darn keyboard shortcut interception). Besides the move towards web apps nobody (besides gamers) was running out to the store to buy software in a box, beyond the staples of Microsoft Office, Quicken, TurboTax and a few assorted random applications. The move by consumers towards using a single application, the browser, also lessened the importance of the operating system as well as the need for getting the latest and greatest hardware to run multiple applications. Simply put you could plop down at nearly any computer with an internet connection and a browser and take care of most of your computing needs.
The Apps Arrive
All of that changed in the Spring of 2008 when Apple released a developer API for the iPhone operating system (now known as iOS) and announced that they were putting the App Store on every iPhone and iPod Touch. Once the App Store opened things changed and people started buying software again. Nearly overnight companies of one were releasing games that would rocket to the top of the App Store and put these developers on the map. It seemed at one point like everybody was releasing apps from big retail companies like Gap and Target, to dads like me who just wanted to get their kids to sleep through the night. Of course there was controversy around the closed nature of the store and certain apps getting declined for sometimes what seemed like random reasons, but that is for a different story. What's important is that the clear future of browser based software all of a sudden became a little fuzzy.
I didn't have much luck with my first iPhone 3G, I had a hardware problem that caused the orientation of the phone to get locked in one direction until I restarted. Thankfully Apple is relatively understanding when it comes to issues of this type and after a brief conversation at the Genius Bar I was given a new iPhone 3G on the spot. I was pretty psyched about this and headed home ready to set my iPhone up again. Once I got home I plugged the phone into the computer and iTunes asked if I wanted to restore from a backup. I wanted to say, "Hell yeah I want to back up", but the button only said "Ok", so I clicked it. Within minutes my new iPhone 3G was, well my old iPhone 3G minus the hardware glitch. With this new device Apple had made the device itself disposable in some way. Computers didn't work this way. If for some reason your computer hard drive crashed, putting it back together typically involved several late nights of copying files, tweaking settings and never getting back to exactly where you had been. The new iOS devices could be returned to their original state within minutes all with negligible user interaction.
By June of 2011 the App Store had become a huge success and had expanded to the iPad and even the Mac. Steve Jobs took the stage to finish out the keynote at the WWDC and started talking about iCloud. Now prior to this I was expecting we would all just put everything on Apple's servers somewhere and magically stream things wherever we wanted. Instead Mr. Jobs said iCloud will provide free push email, calendars and contacts (yawn). iCloud will sync your camera roll across your iOS devices and Macs (rubbing eyes). iCloud will let you download any music you already purchased onto any of your devices (focused). iCloud will let you backup your iOS devices settings (nodding off again). Finally, we will be providing an API that will allow developers to save their applications data to the cloud (fell asleep). Sadly the one I was most dismissive about has the most potential.
The Key to iCloud
The success of the App Store makes this one of the more important features of iCloud. Users currently using apps are for the most part limited to working with "documents"within that app on a particular device and due to the lack of a file system can't easily access those "documents" from anywhere else. iCloud changes that buy allowing you access to the same "document" across devices both iOS and Mac OS. Again the device becomes irrelevant. With iCloud you could throw your Mac into the ocean, buy a new Mac, download your purchased app and immediately resume work as if nothing happened. Voila the feeling of a browser based world, but with rich native apps. With more and more apps coming from the App Store, more and more apps will be able to save in iCloud, all with little change in user behavior. The user basically continues to use the app as they always have, but behind the scenes it is getting saved and backed up for them. Oh yeah and lack of an internet connection is no big deal, because it will just back up when it gets the chance.
The Other Approach
While all this app craziness is going on Google hasn't just been sitting around waiting Apple to lead the way they have continued to push the envelope with browser based computing. The Google Chrome browser is an ever evolving "platform" which is blurring the lines between native application and browser based application. The quality of browser based applications has improved dramatically thanks to newer html5 standards and improved robustness of first generation applications. The Google documents of today is a far cry from the first iteration and gmail has added so many features in the last couple years it is hard to shut them off fast enough. Google also rolled out its own web app store which has provided users with access to many of the titles found in the Apple app store. The strategy they are taking is to get people to work in the browser and make the operating system and hardware irrelevant. They even have created their own operating system called Chrome OS, which is essentially an operating system in a browser.
How The Story Ends
It is hard to say how the story ends. I like Apple's strategy of near transparency when it comes to the cloud. In my experience the less a user has to think the better for everyone. Users need things to be really easy for them, they can't be worried with backups, they can't be concerned with a file system (or trusted with it). They want to open up an app and be able to easily start something new or continue where they left off. One difficulty I see is the restriction to iOS and Mac OS devices. While Mac sales continue to improve they still represent a very small share of the market. Of course this only makes the sales pitch for getting a Mac that much easier. "Hi Mr. Customer, you say you have an iPad and you use Pages to do word processing. Well if you buy a Mac and link it to your account you can download Pages for free and will also immediately have access to all the documents you created on your iPad. Oh yeah an all the music you bought in iTunes will all just be downloaded." Switching to Mac has never been easier.
Google's strategy of getting everybody to work directly in the cloud is also pretty strong. I spend a majority of my day in a web browser and with Google Chrome's syncing of settings across computers it is easy to just log in and continue where I left off. The big hurdle with anything browser based is getting the average user to understand how it all works. First of all the internet address (URL) thing still confuses people. Raise your hand if your parent always goes to google to do anything. Why do you think Facebook gets so many Google hits? As simple as it may seem the browser is just too complex for some people to use. Native apps on the other hand are concrete things users can click on and once loaded are isolated to their own little world. Oh yeah and I forgot to mention getting somebody to download a new browser to use is next to impossible especially on a Windows machine. I think my dad still uses the MSN browser. Bottom line as long as somebody has to type an address to do something it is going to be difficult for the simple users. As for the Chrome OS, I think the likelihood of anybody I know going out and buying one is slim to none. I only know a handful of people who have upgraded to Windows 7, most people are sticking with XP until they can trust 7 or have a Mac running the latest and greatest version of Snow Leopard.
Lots of questions have been answered with iCloud and recent offerings from Google and Amazon. My music is going to be stored in the cloud in one of two ways: The right to download it (iCloud) or the right to stream it (Google and Amazon). Okay I am good with that. Documents will be stored one of two ways: Locally with a backup in the cloud (iCloud) or accessible in the cloud (Google). Apps will be taken care of either: Locally with rights to download (iCloud) or directly in the cloud. Okay that takes care of most of the types of things I store on my computer, but what about personal photos and videos. There really isn't a fully baked solution with iCloud, but there are lots of online options outside of the Apple universe like Picasa. Movies and tv shows were left off the list of iCloud supported content. Alternatives for those on the internet include things like Hulu, Netflix and YouTube.
It seems that Apple still has a little bit more work to do in order to make the computer as disposable the iPhone, but they are well on their way. Now I just have to wait and see how things pan out.