Cloud syncing and the Apple ecosystem

I tend to be cynical when I hear journalists talk about how a new technology is a “glimpse of the future.” It’s often terminology synonymous with the overly ambitious, exotic and doomed to fail.

Real glimpses of the future for me instead come in surprisingly subtle forms, the most impressive being cloud syncing: Core bits of data are stored online in the “cloud”, in turn automatically referenced by different digital devices to keep media seamlessly in sync. Just as surprisingly? The usually innovative Apple has almost nothing to do with it.

We’ll get back to Apple’s role in a minute, but first a few choice examples of cloud syncing at work:

I start a TV episode on Netflix on my iPad at a local cafe of choice, and pick up right where I left off on the HDTV at home.

I jot down some ideas for a new blog post on the sub ride home with my iPhone. I’m able to continue on my home desktop seamlessly, all my changes having been automatically synced.

I construct a to do list for errands on my work computer, and immediately start scanning the list on my iPhone once I walk out the door.

I log into Google Reader via a friend’s computer, tagging a few interesting reads from today’s Times. Minutes later on the bus ride home, all my tagged articles are waiting on my iPad for me to read, automatically categorized by subject matter.

In short, the cloud translates into less wires, time and effort, while also allowing me to work and relax whenever and wherever I feel like more easily. It’s awesome stuff.

Some might argue that cloud syncing is only of use to a select few, primarily hard core tech audiences; I disagree. The above examples – watching movies, to do lists, catching up with news – aren’t exactly power user only territory. Then consider the explosion of internet connected devices in every setting: New HDTV increasingly come bundled with wifi connectivity, smart phone usage has skyrocketed and as telecommuting proliferates, workers are juggling more of their time between multiple computers. As the mainstream turns to more devices and internet connectivity everywhere, cloud syncing becomes even more powerful.

Clearly aware of cloud syncing’s increasingly important role, many tech companies are leveraging the technology heavily in their applications; Dropbox, Google, Netflix, Simple Note, and Twitter are a few that factor into a typical day for me, and there are countless others. Nevertheless, one notable company remains mostly off this list: Apple.

In contrast, here’s syncing the Apple way:

Newly purchased songs and podcasts are synced between Mac and iOS devices via a 30 pin dock cable, a process unchanged since the iPod’s inception in 2001.

iWork (a.k.a word processing, spreadsheet, presentation) documents are shared among Macs and iOS devices with Mobile Me, a service that’s been rarely updated since it’s introduction in 2008 and costs $99 a year.

When on an iOS device, the latest available subscribed podcast and TV episodes can only be updated one at a time via a manual search in the iTunes store. Third party apps like Podcaster have surged to fill Apple’s gap.

It’s a bit shocking to see a company as otherwise innovative as Apple be so behind in cloud sync technologies; perhaps it’s a legacy of their closed door, secretive company culture. With the significant launch of the iPad and major revisions of the iPhone and Apple TV behind them, 2011 could be the year that Apple embraces the cloud fully, but only time will tell.