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Hey! You! Get Off of My iCloud

Despite Rich Mogull’s “Of iCloud, Dropbox, and Elastic Computing: A Cloud Primer” (7 June 2011) “cloud computing” remains a slippery concept for most people. I would bet that, if asked to provide examples of cloud-based services, most people would list sites like the online word processor Google Docs, the file-sharing site Dropbox, the myriad services provided by Zoho, the online project management site Basecamp, and so on. Even simpler publishing services like YouTube, Flickr, and Blogger might make the list.

What all of these services have in common is that they involve multiple people, either a small group that might collaborate on a document in Google Docs or a project in Basecamp, or a one-to-many publishing scenario with YouTube or Blogger.

Obviously, there’s nothing preventing an individual from using these services without involving other people, but for the most part (Dropbox syncing among devices as the primary counter-example), it’s not really the point. Why bother writing alone in Google Docs instead of TextEdit if you’re not planning on sharing the results in some way? There is little an online service can do better than a local application unless the point is to share data. (Several commenters aptly pointed out that generic online services are useful when you wish to be able to access your data from multiple different devices, some of which may not even be yours. This is, in fact, the entire point of Google’s Chromebook; it’s generic hardware that does nothing but run a Web browser.)

Enter Apple’s iCloud (for background, see “iCloud Rolls In, Extended Forecast Calls for Disruption,” 6 June 2011). Backed by a massive data center in North Carolina and introduced with much fanfare during last month’s Worldwide Developer Conference, iCloud is unabashedly pushing Apple’s vision of individual empowerment and giving up almost entirely on any sort of group collaboration or sharing of data (the sole exception appears to be calendar sharing, assuming that feature isn’t lost in the transition from MobileMe).

But don’t just take my word for it. Look at the tag lines Apple currently uses on the iCloud Web page (emphasis mine):

“The new way to store and access your content.”

“This is the cloud the way it should be: automatic and effortless. iCloud is seamlessly integrated into your apps, so you can access your content on all your devices.”

“iCloud stores your content and wirelessly pushes it to all your devices.”

Apple isn’t even giving lip service to the concept that iCloud could be used to communicate or collaborate in a significant way with others. I’m disappointed in this, since I use the Mac because it makes me more productive, and I collaborate with others because that also makes me more productive. In my ideal world, I’d be able to collaborate with my colleagues using best-of-class Mac software.

But the reality of the situation is that Apple has never understood how people interact on the Internet. From iTools to .Mac to MobileMe to iWork.com, Apple has consistently failed. Remember:

  • iCards, which let you send custom greeting cards via the Internet? Gone.

  • HomePage, which let you create Web sites using a simple online interface? Gone.

  • .Mac Groups, which let you share information with small family or work groups? Gone.

  • MobileMe Gallery, which was presented as an alternative to Flickr and Facebook photo sharing? Slated to disappear on 30 June 2012.

  • iWeb-published sites on MobileMe? Gone next year too.

  • iDisk? On the MobileMe chopping block for 2012.

  • iWork.com, which has been in beta since January 2009? Amazingly, it’s still available, but I hadn’t heard of anyone using it 9 months later (see “iWork.com Enhanced, Does Anyone Care?,” 30 September 2009), and nearly 2 years later, I remain shocked that Apple hasn’t shuttered it.

  • Ping? After a flurry of initial signups, all it seems to do is show what my friends buy, which is neither ground-breaking nor particularly interesting (see “iTunes 10.0.1 Integrates Ping,” 27 September 2010).

In other words, Apple has tried to provide multi-user Internet services over the years, but none has caught on in a big way, to the point where most are now ex-parrots, and those that remain are largely irrelevant.

To a large extent, this result was a foregone conclusion, since the Internet communication and collaboration services that have become wildly popular have all started with free options and evolved quickly. In contrast, most of what Apple has done has been behind the .Mac/MobileMe paywall, which automatically limits the potential audience in a big way. (To be fair, Apple has probably earned non-trivial amounts of money from all those .Mac and MobileMe subscriptions while even successful Internet startups have scraped by on venture capital en route to a business model.)

At the same time, few of Apple’s multi-user Internet services have been any good, and some, like iWork.com, have been laughably bad. There are undoubtedly multiple reasons for this, such as the fact that making any given service good wasn’t a matter of survival for Apple. Also, the company’s user interface design experience is all focused on the individual, not the group.

My guess, and it’s just a guess, is that Apple has realized that multi-user Internet services aren’t the company’s strong suit, and they have intentionally focused iCloud on providing a data conduit for apps running on multiple devices owned by a single individual. That’s certainly Apple’s prerogative, and it’s likely that iCloud will solve a particular set of data synchronization problems that have long caused headaches for developers (assuming, of course, that iCloud synchronization works better than MobileMe calendar and contact synchronization has, historically speaking).

Nonetheless, at least as I understand what iCloud will make available to developers initially, we won’t be seeing iCloud-enabled apps that let us share data beyond calendar events and contacts with one another, or collaborate in real-time, or publish anything for the world to see. That may simply be out of scope for what Apple is hoping to achieve, but I remain disappointed.

To my mind, what’s interesting about the Internet is how it brings people together, whereas Apple sees the Internet, and iCloud in particular, as just a snazzy virtual cable that connects particular apps on an individual’s various devices. Here’s hoping that changes as iCloud evolves.

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