Just before the launch of its long-rumored GDrive – a service for storing all your desktop files on the web – Google killed the thing. "Files are so 1990. ... I don’t think we need files anymore," Google's Sundar Pichai told colleague Bradley Horowitz, according to the new book In the Plex. "You just want to get information into the cloud. When people use our Google Docs, there are no more files. You just start editing in the cloud, and there’s never a file.”
According to the book, penned by Wired scribe Steven Levy, Horowitz – who led the GDrive project – was skeptical of Pinchai's stance. But the GDrive eventually vanished in favor of the Google Docs model, after more than a year of development, even though it was never released to the public.
On Monday, Steve Jobs followed suit.
At its annual Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco, Apple unveiled a new set of online services it calls iCloud. As Jobs indicated, these services will replace the company's existing MobileMe offering, which Jobs acknowledged "wasn't our finest hour." iCloud offers new versions of existing MobileMe services – including tools for storing contacts, calendars, and email on the net – as well as various new services for storing photos, backups, and documents specific to applications that make use of new Apple APIs.
But, if you read between the lines, it seems that other parts of MobileMe will vanish entirely, including Apple's online iDisk, which let you store any amount of random files online, as long as you pay for the privilege. Like Google, Apple is dropping the idea of replicating the familiar desktop file metaphor on the interwebs. Apparently, Apple is also killing MobileMe services such as iWeb (for hosting websites) and Gallery (for sharing photos with others), but the company – as is typical – did not respond to a request for comment on the unmentioned MobileMe services.
Some existing MobileMe users aren't too happy about the changes. in an email sent to MobileMe users and an FAQ posted to the web, Apple said that it will extend all MobileMe subscriptions to June 30, 2012. Users can move their MobileMe mail accounts, contacts, calendars, and bookmarks to iCloud, which is largely free. And if you just bought or renewed a MobileMe subscription, you may be eligible for a refund. But MobileMe also dies on June 30, 2012, along with iDisk, iWeb, and Gallery.
The end result is that users can either move to third-party web services that duplicate these offerings or embrace the iCloud way. Some will make switch to likes of Dropbox, which lets you upload any old file to the web, but with Apple tying iCloud so tightly to iOS and Lion – and setting the price tag at nothing for 5GB of data – iCloud is set change the notion of online storage among Apple's ever-so-committed users. Following much the same philosophy as Google's Sundar Pichai, Apple has abandoned the idea of the file. With iCloud, you can't upload all your desktop files and folders to the net. You can only upload and use data through particular services.
Much like Google with its Chromebooks, Apple wants to do away with the local file system. “We’re going to demote the PC and the Mac to just be a device – just like an iPad, an iPhone, or an iPod Touch," Jobs said on Monday. "We’re going to move the hub of your digital life to the cloud.” The company is so intend on this switch, it won't even let you duplicate your local file system online.
The difference between Google and Apple is that Mountain View wants to eliminate local applications as well. Apple very much wants to keep local applications alive. On its own operating system platforms, it can maintain greater control over local applications, and with its app stores – for both the Mac and iOS – it can make more money from local applications too. Famously, the company takes a 30 per cent cut of all apps sold.
As Apple said on Monday, third-party applications can give users access to iCloud through Apple APIs. These APIs are already used by three of Apple's own applications – Pages, Numbers, and Keynote – and no doubt, third-party iCloud apps will be available in the fall when iCloud launches. According to Apple, these APIs will be available to Windows applications as well as Mac and iOS apps. Notice that Jobs said he wants to "demote" the PC as well as the Mac.
But presumably, these APIs will only be available to local applications. They won't be available to web services. Apple is not only creating its own online ecosystem completely separate from the web. It's pushing developers even further towards this Jobsian ecosystem.
Apple didn't respond to our questions about the iCloud APIs. But as others have pointed out, the odds of anyone using iCloud from a web browser are very slim indeed. They call it iCloud, not iWeb. iWeb, like iDisk, is on the way out. ®