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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, 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.

  •, 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 “ 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, 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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Comments about Hey! You! Get Off of My iCloud
(Comments are closed.)

Matthew  2011-07-14 13:49
I concur with you. I thought that MobileMe did two things: sync and share. With iCloud, sync is still there, but sharing is dead. Too bad, as I used most of the sharing features!!!
Rodney  2011-07-14 14:15
There are loads of sharing services "out there". But there is no other service that matches iCloud (as presented) for the breadth and depth of syncing.

Apple often succeeds when it does something "small" really, really well. They then expand incrementally... and the success expands with it.

iTools/.Mac/MobileMe were exceptions that proved the rule. These services attempted to do a lot, but didn't do it exceptionally well. And... they haven't taken off in a big way.

My prediction: Apple will add sharing back in, once they have syncing working so well that everyone thinks it is easy. is an interesting one. Despite the limitations, it is quite useful. Through this, I can share documents for review without requiring my colleagues to sign up for an account (as with Google Doc's) or have my software (as with MS Office).

Hopefully Apple will integrate an improved into iCloud over time.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-07-14 15:51
For group review of documents with no round-trip needs, we've long used QuickTopic Document Review. Works with anything you can convert into HTML.

As soon as there are any collaborative needs beyond comments, we switch to Google Docs.
Dan Shafer  2011-07-14 17:52
I agree with a lot of what you have to say here, Adam, but I do take issue with one comment. You say "There is little an online service can do better than a local application unless the point is to share data."

Where the cloud makes a difference for me is in its ability to free me from having to carry my computer environment anywhere I go if I want or need to access my "stuff". I call this idea the Zero-Pound Computer and it is immensely attractive. This, of course, suggests that the Cloud will be most helpful to me when, like Google Docs and other apps (including Zoho), it combines functionality with the attendant content. IOW, I want to be able to do my work from any platform I can get my hands on without having to carry my own computer everywhere I go.

Collaboration is a sometimes-important capability but for me, it's this convenient access from any computer that makes the cloud valuable.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-07-15 08:54
Ah, this is an interesting point, Dan, and you're absolutely right that the capability to use any machine, anywhere, with your own data is a win of online services over local apps. This is, in fact, exactly what Google is pushing with Chromebook - the hardware becomes nearly irrelevant.
Jeffrey Hellman  2011-07-14 18:45
If iCloud succeeds in it's first incarnation I believe we will see collaborative apps being written. Perhaps something can be done based on a group sharing the same account. I envisioned a project management tool based on the cloud in a piece I wrote "iCloud's Big Brother". This tool would allow project management to have real-time status on the various parts of the project as they were being worked on.

I'm not thinking this can be done with iCloud as it will be in its first release. I do believe the potential is in there though. I'm hoping Apple can make the leap from a storage based individual service to a data conduit based service with some storage. Add to that, group accounts as well as individual and we're good to go I think. They have created the plumbing infrastructure and hopefully used pipes that can handle the kind of data streams that group communication will need. Then its up to the app developer to figure out how to parse the data and store it where it does the most good.
You forgot probably Apple's biggest blunder (of a neat service for back in the day)- eWorld
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-07-15 08:56
Doh! Clearly I was trying to block it from my memory. In my defense, eWorld was never a true Internet service.

But it did replace AppleLink with its usurious hourly rate. :-)
James Bowers  2011-07-15 07:59
You make the assumption that collaboration is paramount when it is only one application of cloud computing. (Important to many, but only to some.) I'm and old man now. (whew there I said it!) I've done terminals/main frame computing and I have had everything on my own hard drive and lost it. They both suck. The ultimate for me is the "Zero-pound" computing experience as one earlier commenter described it.
If I need to share there are other solutions and maybe Apple will bring that back. But first they have to get the syncing correct and in all the .mac and Mobileme type attempts they hadn't gotten it. Let's start with the fundamentals first rather than asking for the world and getting less than the baby carriage.
Being an old man, allows me some perspective. Apple figures things out and does a great job, so let's let them do it with this too. They have their limitations as do I (we?) and so ask for what you want but work with them rather than blasting them for being less that perfect.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-07-15 08:59
Yes, the zero-pound computing usage scenario is a good argument for online tools over local tools. But I don't think it's a good argument for why Apple should do online services, given that Apple makes all its money selling hardware.

And while I normally agree with you that Apple does a very good job of figuring things out and offering what people want, the company's lackluster history with online services makes me wonder if they'll ever match up to what Internet-focused companies can create.
Jim Rea  2011-07-15 12:05
If I can purchase a new piece of hardware and immediately start using all of my existing documents without some sort of manual migration, I'm much more likely to purchase additional hardware goodies. So I think this zero-pound usage scenario *will* help Apple make more money from hardware. In fact, I'm somewhat living this scenario right now, as DropBox, Google Mail and MobileMe synching (via Yojimbo) have enabled me to move back and forth between my main MacBook Pro and a MacBook Air, making the purchase of a second computer (the Air) a much better value for me than it would have been a few years ago.
Scott Knaster  2011-07-15 08:55
Hi Adam,

Great analysis. I think you're right, and Apple is smart to focus on what it's really good at (as always).

One point about using cloud services like Google Docs just for collaboration: I also use them when I want a doc (or other data) available anywhere, e.g. any computer in my house, phones, hotel business center, etc. I guess you could call this self-collaboration, but it's useful even if I'm the only one who sees the doc.

Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-07-15 09:01
Yep, this is really another sub-category of the zero-pound computing that Dan mentioned. I'll add it to the article.
Paul Corr  2011-07-18 17:27
I was thinking why don't they just call it iSync... a quick search shows Apple already has something called that for syncing to 3rd-party devices.

It would certainly be more honest.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-07-19 06:50
Yes, it would, but with the single exception of FileVault, I can't really think of a situation where Apple has reused a name for a completely different service. Plus, iCloud doesn't prevent them from doing non-syncing services in the future, much as those may not be in evidence now.
Paul Corr  2011-07-18 17:28
Appreciated the Monty Python reference, "ex-parrot."
larry_me  2011-07-18 17:28
You make some very valid & insightful points. Sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the trees , as the saying goes...
I'm truly going to miss the ease with which iWeb would publish to .mac/MobileMe.
Now that I'm all dressed up with several iWeb created websites I'll soon have to decide where to go when it shuts down. Any suggestions please with pro & Con analysis of possible alternatives? ...hmmm material for an(other) ebook?
Also, what about those of us who don't want the "sync" with our other devices? In my particular situation I have multiple devices that I want left alone. IE... I have one MBPro that I use exclusively for my photography/video work and another separate MBPro that I use exclusively for audio/soundboard work. I don't want "things" synced across all my devices. However, I would want specific files/apps/databases to be able to sync. How much control will I have to chose what evaporates to the cloud ...or not? Thanks for your insights
Regards from the coast of Main
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-07-19 06:52
We just did an article about alternatives to MobileMe for iWeb users.

As far as avoiding syncing; there's no way to know for sure until iCloud is fully available, but I would strongly suspect that you'll be able to choose which apps sync and how, unless the entire point of the app is to share data with other instances of itself.
larry_me  2011-07-18 17:59
Oh... & just another 2 thoughts I've had.
1- What about "security" of my/our private files/info when it ends up in a corporate data farm somewhere in bumtruck-whoknowswhere? If my voicemail can get hacked by some tabloid journalist then what about any personal material that "floats" back & forth in a "cloud"?
2- I live in a rural area far from the fast lane of urban development. For the longest time the only option for connectivity was dial-up. There is no such thing as cable here. When folks visit their reception (various providers) is at no-signal to 1-bar. It was only just in March that our "local" phone company upgrades our lines that we now get the lowest DSL option. So how effective will cloud connectivity be to to those with limited connectivity?
just random questions that I've not heard anyone else mention or consider...
I'd appreciate your thoughts
Regards from the coast of Maine
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-07-19 06:54
Security is always an unknown - companies of course always promise that they're doing everything that should be done, but there's no way to know if that's true or not. Unless they get hacked, at which point the promises were clearly not true.

As far as slow Internet connections go, I think you'll be OK. You need a large pipe when you're accessing large quantities of data all at once, but with cloud-based syncing, the data chunks can be quite small and flow constantly.
Your comment: “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.” Hits precisely Apple philosophy and there is much evidence available over the past almost 30 Years.
It seems the entire Apple Business Model is been build entirely on individual users and any group consideration is been seen as an unwelcome byproduct they rater ignore than foster.
Phil Schiller said it best when approached just recently regarding Apple’s interest in any group concept, “Not Interested”. Just two words but they say it all.
Apple seems to see any group concept, where any larger entities than a family collaborate, as a fret they cannot handle.
It’s scary, considering its individual success, but an almost total blank on any group level.
But if you make yourself familiar with the company, its founders and the people involved in its evolutional process, you may understand what its conceptual philosophies are and can almost from there project its future, unless someone comes along who understand the powers, collaboration with groups can have.
Just as example, when Steve Jobs gives one of his presentations before a filled auditorium, he does not see the entire auditorium but he sees many individuals. Analyze that…
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-07-19 06:55
I'd argue that Apple doesn't even really understand families. Look at how hard it is to share photos and music within a family using iPhoto and iTunes.
wanapitei  2011-07-18 20:41
It's fairly obvious this is just stage one, just as when iTunes was introduced it didn't seem to amount to much — nice but ho hum. Here's the scenario I'm expecting.

1. Get the Mac and iOS community used to storing their data on iCloud. Syncing isn't in the picture at all because all the data from any Apple device gets stored on iCloud. You pull data from iCloud and with clickless saving under Lion everything gets saved there as well. Sure, there will be massive security and reliability issues to be worked out and the only way to do that is go live.
2. The novelty of this characteristic will become very attractive to the non-Mac world, thus sell more hardware.
3. Introduce iWork for Windows so users don't have to save a copy in Word format.
4. Introduce collaboration gradually when the foundations are solid.

The world has become both global and very mobile. Especially mobile. As such security and reliability become paramount. Apple has a brilliant future.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-07-19 06:57
I'd like to believe that too, but we've said roughly the same thing about iTools, and then .Mac, and then MobileMe. In no case has Apple ever improved the group-oriented collaborative tools such that those tools have survived in the long run.
Andrea Kracht  2011-07-19 03:20
what happened to you guys at TidBITS?!? Since the WWDC you don't stop moaning about this and that! Looks like more and more mainstream Mac news to me!!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-07-19 06:59
Nice to know we're not being labeled as fanboys! :-)

We call it as we see it, and there are quite a few different voices with different opinions; for instance, see Rich Mogull's article "The Future Is Disposable."
Paul Schwan  2011-07-20 05:26
Adam and others, in recent years I've had to become less "loyal" to Apple, too, just to do my job. As a 5th grade teacher I use Dropbox with netbooks (all my kids have one) and Open Office to share docs that don't need collaboration. Google Docs for collaboration projects. Windows 7 netbooks (because our school is PC-based, although my principal indulged my Mac-preference and I just got my second MBP). I can work with my students' PC-created files just fine on my MBP because we use a web-based collaboration tool (non-Apple) -- Google Docs, and a cross-platform, open source Office suite (Open Office). I remain a Mac user, have 2 MBPs and a Mini at home/work, but also tote netbooks, use an old Dell 7500 for Ham Radio dedicated software, and hum along just fine in a multi-platform world. I'm hoping iCloud helps me keep ME in sync as I work to collaborate with 50+ students and a staff of PC-users. Apple can't do it all (sync/share in particular), but what they do, for me, is very helpful.
Jim Thompson  2011-07-19 06:25
If I had rubbed the lamp and the genie offered me three wishes, the first would be a service that seamlessly syncs in real time, contacts, calendar, to-do, notes, ... across my macs, iPad and iPhone. Any chance that iCloud will provide this?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-07-19 07:00
That's the promise of iCloud, certainly. We'll see how well it delivers in a few months!
Ben McCune  2011-07-21 09:06
Glad to see this discussion and the reference to the article on the iWeb option. Have you a recommendation for replacement of MobileMe Gallery?