Apple?s iCloud announcement

There’s a reason Steve Jobs saved the presentation of iCloud for himself; it’s one of the company’s biggest announcements in years, arguably second only to the debut of the original iPhone and iPad. The ramifications of Apple’s cloud service are so big it makes my head hurt, and I’m mostly positive on what I’ve heard. That said, I’ve got a few questions and concerns:

The first step

Make no mistake, iCloud is fundamentally a syncing service. John Gruber can gush how it’s different and there will be “no conflicts or merging” but at some point an offline device has to sync with the latest iCloud copy. If both copies have changes, how will files be merged accurately? How will conflicts be conveyed and settled with the user?

It’s clear from their North Carolina venture Apple is betting big. But it’s a huge bet on something fundamentally not in Apple’s core competency. I still think they’ll pull through, but it’s not a guaranteed knock out of the park yet.

A scorched earth policy against the web and non-Apple products

iCloud does work with PCs; given the huge number of PC iTunes users, that’s necessary. Yet unlike other syncing services like Dropbox, you don’t get integration with other popular mobile devices (a.k.a. Android.) That’s not exactly shocking for Apple, but I was disappointed the company double downed on its pro-native app stance by providing no iCloud web access or export capabilities of any kind. That’s an annoyance, and currently a huge disadvantage for anyone straying outside Apple’s closed ecosystem.

This has big long term implications: Can Apple’s native app focus and its huge user base effectively make multi-platform and web-accessible cloud computing (e.g. Readability, Dropbox) moot? I think it’s a race against the clock and Apple is looking for a knockout punch with iCloud. Soon the speed and efficiency of web apps and web development will reach a competency level that can really put them toe to toe with native apps (we’re already seeing that today in simpler apps like Readability.) At that point Apple will be in danger of losing its lock in to its money making ecosystem; the tide would turn against the company on several fronts.

Documents details and flexibility

Apple is very loose with its details on how iCloud documents are stored. Is the folder structure very rigid or are apps and users free at create an open folder structure of their choosing? Also, a 5GB footprint for syncing can add up on smaller devices; will Apple provide for easy, one click selective folder syncing for different devices? Overall I’m seeing far less flexibility than Dropbox, my current sync system of choice.

Apple isn’t offering music streaming

This was a big surprise; unlike with Google or Amazon you won’t be able stream music content from the cloud on demand. That effectively renders music and video selection to strictly what can fit on the device, a disadvantage for those that have a larger media library. Ironically given the popularity of smaller flash memory drives on iPhones, Macbook Airs and other mobile devices, this is a steadily growing user base. In addition, as evidenced by the thisismynext crew it appears there’s quite a few button presses necessary on iOS devices to get music on and off iCloud, exacerbating problems as HD space runs out.

Overall this leaves Apple’s music service more vulnerable to competition from Google and Amazon (both companies clearly rushed their product release, but a later version could improve the experience significantly) along with unlimited streaming options from the likes of Rdio and Mog.