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iCloud Is Not for Us

Lately I’ve been busy writing about the latest incarnation of Pages (see “Experimenting with “Take Control of Pages” Pre-book on Leanpub,” 3 February 2014). One of the defining characteristics I noticed early on about the new Pages is its iCloud-iness: with the newest Pages you can, via iCloud, shuttle your Pages documents from your Mac to your iPhone to your iPad to Internet Explorer on Windows PCs in your office and then back to your Mac, and your doc won’t lose a single drop cap or footnote. Sure, in order to do this Apple had to rip out a ton of features from Pages and redesign its document file structure, but Apple thought that was a good trade-off — iCloud compatibility is that important to Apple.

This should not come as a surprise: two years ago, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that iCloud was “a strategy for the next decade.” In fact, however, it’s a strategy that has been percolating within Apple for almost two decades. What’s more, it is a strategy that almost quintessentially reflects the personality of Steve Jobs, embodying a vision that he held and cherished since even before he returned to Apple.

Jobs delivered one of the earliest descriptions of iCloud (though it was many years before it would be called that) at Apple’s 1997 World Wide Developers Conference during a ninety-minute question and answer session with developers. About fourteen or so minutes into that session, in response to a developer’s question, he said the following:

Let me describe the world I live in [at NeXT]: about eight years ago, we had high-speed networking connected to our now obsolete NeXT hardware running NeXTStep at the time, and because we were using NFS, we were able to take all of our personal data, our home directories we call them, off of our local machines and put them on a server. And the software made that completely transparent, and, because the server had a lot of RAM on it, in some cases it was actually faster to get stuff from the server than it was to get stuff off of your local hard disk because in some cases it would be cached in the RAM of the server if it was in popular use. But what was really remarkable was that the organization could hire a professional person to back up that server every night, and could afford to spend a little bit more on that server so maybe it had redundant disk drives, redundant power supplies. And you know, in the last seven years, you know how many times I have lost personal data? Zero. Do you know how many times I have backed up my computer? Zero.

I have computers at Apple, at NeXT, at Pixar, and at home. I walk up to any of them and log in as myself, it goes over the network, finds my home directory on the server, and I’ve got my stuff wherever I am. And none of that is on a local hard disk.

[…]

Managing a network like this is a pain in the butt. Setting it up, getting it all to work is really complicated. One of my hopes is that Apple can do for this new type of network — not so new, but to the average person it’s new — with gigabit ether technology and some of the new stuff that’s coming down the pike, and some thin, thinner hardware clients — hardware clients that are thinner, not necessarily software — that Apple could make that as plug-and-play for mere mortals as it made the user experience over a decade ago.

Replace “gigabit ether technology” with a wireless connection, a “thin client” with, say, a MacBook or iPad Air, and you’re looking at a description of iCloud: a service that allows you to get access to your stuff wherever you are. And that’s “you” as a singular pronoun: the vision is a very person-centric, not team-centric, one. (Elsewhere in that session Jobs talks about using the network to be “in touch” with colleagues, but the vision of having his stuff wherever he happens to be is what really excited him that day in 1997.)

The names of the various services that Apple instituted over the years to realize that vision are telling: iTools, iDisk, Mobile Me, iCloud. Not usTools, usDisk, Mobile Us, or usCloud.

Related Apple services and their limitations mirror the me-ness of iCloud. Your iTunes account is associated with a single AppleID, and makes no real provision for families or even for transferring ownership. If a couple breaks up, or a child goes away to school, the media obtained from one iTunes account can’t be divvied up the way books and videotapes and DVDs and Blu-rays and CDs and LPs can. It’s one owner, now and forever.

Some people look at the Internet and think of all the possibilities for collaboration and community. But the network vision that Jobs carried with him to Apple from NeXT was all about empowering the individual: community was, and is, only an afterthought.

And it’s an afterthought that usually costs extra. For example, your Photo Stream in iCloud makes 1000 of your photos free for you to access from any of your devices, no matter how big they are. Your shared Photo Streams? Those count against your iCloud storage allocation, and only the first 5 GB of that allocation is free (your choices: use the 5 GB for backing up your iPad, or use it for sharing photos with others — for the prudent user, it’s Hobson’s choice).

But even when community or collaboration doesn’t cost extra, what iCloud offers tends to be markedly weak tea with no scones. Take the new Pages: it does offer free real-time collaboration among users, even among non-Apple users — but only via the Web version of Pages, an app which provides only the barest subset of the capabilities that the Mac Pages app, or even the iOS Pages app, offers.

In iCloud, getting to your stuff so you can play with it anywhere is central; being able to share your stuff and let others play with it is an add-on.

Granted, building a robust and reliable infrastructure for real-time data sharing and real-time collaboration is a much harder engineering problem to solve than building a robust and reliable infrastructure for storing and syncing a single person’s data among several devices. Apple sells personal computing devices to individuals: for it to devote resources to solving the collaboration problem would not give it a big return on investment. Solving the storage and syncing problem, though, being able to tell each customer, “You can have your tunes, and your docs, and your books, and your apps, and your mail, and your contacts, and your bookmarks available on every single one of your devices” — that sells itself!

So don’t look to iCloud as it evolves for best of breed collaborative software, for media sharing flexibility, for services that foster and promote community. Apple has always been a personal computer company; group hugs are not in its DNA.

Steve Jobs was a famously self-centered person. It seems obvious in retrospect that his vision of networked computing, carried back to Apple from his years in the wilderness, would be a self-centered vision. Steve may be gone, but his singular vision lives on: it’s Apple’s strategy for the next decade.

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