Apple's iCloud: What's So Special?
By Tony Kontzer
The day after Apple announced its iCloud service, I was at my nearby community pool getting ready to swim some laps when everyone started looking to the sky to gawk at something you just don't see very often anymore--a skywriter spewing out a message. (Some confusing campaign about fruit--more on that later.)
I turn to one of my co-swimmers and, fully expecting to get a shrug before returning to our laps, say, "Y'know, Steve Jobs really missed an opportunity this time--he could have announced iCloud with skywriting." To which the reply is, "I don't get it--the cloud's been around a while, and you'd think he'd invented it."
I share this to make a point about Jobs' uncanny ability to remake entire markets according to his own vision and somehow come to get credit for inventing them. Remember, there were MP3 players before the iPod, smartphones before the iPhone, and a handful of tablets before the iPad. Yet Jobs has clearly done his best to reinvent and revolutionize each of those markets. So, although he has not invented anything with Apple's pending iCloud service, he very well may one day get credit for turning the cloud into something the average person not only can grasp, but actually craves. That would be, in itself, a pretty huge accomplishment.
Let's be clear, though: There does not appear to be anything very revolutionary about iCloud. Essentially an online storage locker for consumers to entrust their music and videos and photos, iCloud won't do anything that can't already be accomplished using services such as Microsoft Live, Amazon's Cloud Drive, Dropbox, or Google's fragmented array of cloud offerings. It also apparently will stop routing email to Apple users' me.com addresses once their free 5 GB of iCloud storage is used up. (And the sudden departure this week of Apple's senior iCloud product manager surely won't boost anyone's confidence.)
This brings us back to the convoluted skywriting message, which read: "Forget the Fruit: Try Tabco." Tabco, for those who aren't familiar (which should be pretty much everyone), is a soon-to-hit-the-market tablet maker whose web site indicates that it is clearly planning to go head-to-head with the iPad whenever its device becomes available.
Tabco, specifically, isn't important at the moment. But the idea that there's a population that's growing wary of entering Apple's closed kingdom, and that upstart vendors sense a kink in the armor, is important. Consider this comment from my aforementioned co-swimmer, an admitted Apple device addict: "I think once Jobs dies, Apple's in big trouble." (I feel it's important to interject that I think Jobs has been incredibly brave and admirable in his public handling of his battle with pancreatic cancer, and I wish him nothing less than a full recovery and a long life churning out those amazing Pixar films.)
Where Apple heads if Jobs does pass is food for thought. If you're weighing a move to Apple gear, it's probably worth envisioning a world without Jobs--a world, more to the point, where the walled Apple garden no longer has its guide; where all the vision Jobs has brought to more than a decade of revolutionary new products will be gone, but the lack of true interoperability remains. If you ask me, it doesn't sound like a great fit for the cloud, one of the main benefits of which is being able to get at one's content from any device, not any Apple device.
The way I see it, iCloud is like the rest of the Apple universe: It's Apple's cloud, where most of an expected user base of 150 million will be Apple minions using their Apple devices to get at content, much of which will have been purchased from Apple.
So long as Jobs continues to successfully battle the effects of his illness, not to mention cut the best content deals, iCloud may be hailed by Apple devotees as the best thing since sliced iBread. But let's be frank: As long as Apple maintains its Apple-as-the-center-of-the-universe approach, the service will remain the iCloud, not The Cloud.