The iCloud hyperbole

I was relieved when Apple debuted iCloud last Monday; finally the company was addressing its subpar cloud connectivity head on. Given Apple’s penchant for great design, combined with its large install base and investment (a.k.a. its gigantic North Carolina data center) iCloud could move cloud computing to a much more mainstream level of integration and accessibility.

However, I’ve seen way too much hype from financial investors to tech pundits who are all accepting the Apple PR mantra of “it just works” as fact. Please, stop with the hyperbole. iCloud is not revolutionary. iCloud is very much a hard drive in the sky; Apple is merely obfuscating the details by burying them within their native apps.

In reality, Apple’s iCloud is less technical revolution and more philosophical shift. The company’s cloud system centers on tight vertical integration with iOS or Mac-friendly apps that have integrated Apple’s iCloud API. It’s a classic Apple move. An attempt to move an existing technology to the company?s comfort zone: its native user interfaces, hardware and software. I’d suspect iCloud will be easier, at first glance, for users heavily invested within Apple’s iOS and Mac ecosystem. A document will be saved, and given the likely heavy restrictions placed under the iCloud API, there’s only a few places it can go, namely the same file name and app on every other Apple vetted app.

In contrast, existing cloud sync systems from the likes of Google and Dropbox embrace a far more open, flexible structure that can be accessed in many ways (on any operating system, on the web, within native apps via APIs). Yet, that openness comes at a cost; more options and flexibility means a less unified, harder to understand interface, especially for the non-tech crowd.

However, Apple?s locked down stance has significant disadvantages as well: Users that aren’t tied as much into Apple hardware and software will find themselves mostly shut out of iCloud. For instance, few documents on an iPad will be cloud synced with an office Windows computer (there?s been mention of PC compatibility with photos and iTunes but nothing else). It also appears for now that iCloud documents won’t be accessible on the web either; no web mail or Flickr-like auto galleries of what you’ve been taking on your iPhone.

Then are all the costs associated with hiding the file folder structure from the user. Granted, it’s easier to perform basic tasks, but what about users who need their own file folder structure for organizing more complex projects? How about a single, universal folder that contains documents from a wide variety of iCloud compatible apps? What about direct cross app iCloud syncing sans export (e.g., take an iPhone photo, auto sync it with a photo editing app on my iPad)? Unlike the competition, none of these are possible with iCloud.

Also, though Jobs did everything possible to avoid using the word “sync” during his keynote, syncing is inevitable. At some point, an offline document has to sync with an existing version already on iCloud. That involves merging and conflict resolution, two tech-heavy processes that Apple will almost surely hide from its users. That?s great for making the service approachable, but what happens if something goes wrong and the user wants to somehow restore a previous version or find out what happened? There’s no clear way to do so outside of Mac OS X Lion. Contrast that with Google or Dropbox: I can log onto any web browser and see previous versions of all my files, and I’m able to restore any of them with just a few clicks.

In short, Apple is betting average users don’t need access to the file system and they’re largely right. But obfuscation can go too far; at some point it comes at the cost of flexibility, sharing, and locking out everyone who isn’t on an Apple vetted device or application. It also represents a scorched earth policy against the web and web apps, an aspect that I find especially worrisome.

“It just works” indeed ? as long as you play by Apple’s rules.