Open ... and Shut For a company that prides itself on craftsmanship and a beautiful user experience, Apple's cloud services continue to be more than a blemish on the company's reputation. They are a serious black hole.
Google, meanwhile, was born in the cloud, and it shows: things like document and calendar synchronisation just work, and across a dizzying breadth of devices. Ditto for Amazon. Even desktop-bound Microsoft groks and executes the cloud better than Apple. Indeed, it is this fundamental flaw in Apple's end-to-end product strategy that ultimately paves the way for a host of competitors to set up shop on its wonderful hardware and steal the future of computing out from under its feet.
Even as Google's Android swallows the lion's share of smartphone market share, and begins to seriously nip at Apple's heels in tablets, the real battle is brewing in the cloud. In a hyper-connected world, devices continue to matter, but the services that connect those devices will come to matter more.
This is reflected in Amazon's quick rise to 14 per cent of the overall tablet market. While things have recently cooled somewhat for Amazon's Kindle Fire, the company's end-to-end ecosystem message resonates with consumers, whether they're buying Kindle Fires or iPads. I know when I buy from Amazon, whatever the device, that content will be immediately available on every other device I own - or even on devices I don't yet own. And when I stop reading in the Kindle app on my iPad 2 and pick up my Kindle Fire, I won't miss a beat.
That's power of the cloud, and Amazon gets it.
So does Google, which has been my primary calendaring and contacts service for years. I've flirted with Apple's MobileMe (yikes!) and iCloud (not much better), because I figured with my home full of Macs, iPads, and iPhones a complete Apple experience would be seamless. But I was wrong. While third-party Google managed to sync everything flawlessly across Apple's devices, Apple couldn't manage the feat. At all.
Jason Maynard, Software and Internet analyst for Wells Fargo Securities, points out: "Evernote, Dropbox, etc. all make great software that lives above a single device. [I'd] much rather use that than MobileMe." It would seem that these companies that are born on the web understand the concept of cloud much better than Apple, where cloud feels like a bolt-on strategy to help users stitch together their various Apple products.
That would be something, but the promise butts up against a harsh reality: Apple's cloud services don't work. Or, at least, not well enough to be trusted.
Tom Dale, co-founder of HTML5 web company Tilde, and formerly a software engineer working on MobileMe and iCloud at Apple, puts it this way: "I have seen the man behind the curtain, and it is not pretty."
Not very encouraging.
It's not a question of lock-in: many would be just fine ceding all control to Apple. But even for an Apple-heavy household like mine (five Macs, two iPads, and four iPhones all running the latest OSes), things fall apart when we try to give Apple control of syncing between the devices.
The only way we've found to make things work is to use my iCloud account as the master for purchasing new content, and then use iTunes Match to generate the horrendously slow torture of downloading others' purchased items onto our individual devices. (Yes, I know downloading others' purchases can be automated, but after the tenth Tinie Tempah song of my son's showing up on my devices, I declared his content off-limits to my Mac and iPhone and turned it off.)
Yes, it's nice that Apple now enables me to download songs that have been purchased on other devices. But man, is it sloooowwwwww.
It also reflects a thought well-articulated by Neil Levine, vice president of Product at Fluidinfo. He suggested that the right way to think about cloud is "cloud in, not device out." In other words, you start with the cloud as the source and distribute to devices. In Apple's hardware-centric world, small wonder that this idea doesn't really gain much purchase, which shows in its execution of iCloud and MobileMe.
Which is why Manek Dubash is correct to point to Google as the model for cloud, not Apple, opining that Apple's iCloud requires "a good deal of chicanery, goat sacrifices and widdershins dancing" to get it to work properly.
But of course Google is going to do cloud sync better than Apple: Google is at heart a systems company, not a search or an advertising company, as Benjy Weinberger argues:
The tricky parts of search were crawling the web, indexing the content and retrieving relevant results very quickly. These problems required an ability to run complex computations in parallel on large numbers of computers, while being resilient to failure of any one of them. In other words, web search is fundamentally a distributed systems problem, as well as, more obviously, an Information Retrieval (IR) problem.
As a result, Google focused on systems from day one….The outcome was that distributed systems are a core part of Google’s DNA, even more so than search.
In other words, while it's nice that Apple finally grudgingly admits non-Apple devices exist and supports them with iCloud (as it did before with iTunes, eventually), it still gets cloud services wrong because it starts from the wrong place - the device - rather than starting from the cloud, as Google does.
Will this spell the end of Apple? No. I and many others will continue to buy its premium hardware, and happily so. But Apple risks ceding the bulk of the computer, tablet, and smartphone markets to those companies that grok the cloud. Steve Jobs was wrong: things like Dropbox are not merely "features", as Jobs famously told Dropbox founder Drew Houston, which Apple will build into its device-centric worldview. Apple has tried that approach, and largely failed.
No, it turns out that cloud sync is a big selling point for consumers and enterprises as devices multiply. We might continue to buy our Apple gear, but every time we buy a Samsung or Amazon or Google device, we're going to be reminded why we don't keep our content in iCloud, but instead keep it with Amazon or Google or Microsoft SkyDrive. These other services "just work." Apple's cloud? Not so much. ®
Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analysing cloud-based data. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.