Of all the things Apple announced at WWDC, iCloud is the most difficult to explain. After watching the keynote and reading Apple’s site, the whole thing is so big it is hard to think about.
As John Gruber pointed out in this week’s The Talk Show, not everything in iCloud is actually new. iBooks has been using the “it just works” sync-like features since the service launched over a year ago. MobileMe’s contact and calendar sync has been pushing data between devices for years.
In short, iCloud is the iTunes Store and MobileMe glued together with an AppleID. The new bits are exciting, especially the APIs being open to developers for the first time.[1. Of course, developers have been able to sync data across iDisk for years, but iCloud looks like it will be a lot more robust.]
“iCloud” really is just a term that Apple is using to tie all of these things closer together in the eyes of consumers.
The Elephant in the Room
Of course, it is easy to compare iCloud with Google’s cloud services. So let’s do just that.
iCloud and the Google cloud have very similar features on paper:
- IMAP Email
- Contact Management
- Calendar Syncing
- Photo Syncing
- Device-to-Cloud Backups
- Document Storage
- Push-to-Device Purchasing
- Cloud Music
- Purchasing of eBooks, Apps, etc.
Both sets of services take advantage of a single sign-on based on an email address for these services. However, way the companies approach the cloud, devices and how the two interact differ in a some very fundamental ways.
The Cloud and Devices
Google started with the cloud. Gmail, Google Calendar, etc. all existed before Android came along. As such, there is often a disconnect between the cloud and the device.
Google Docs is perhaps the biggest example of this. For ages, Google Docs was cloud-only, with no ability to edit from mobile devices. This has been added recently, but still seems half-baked. The company started with the cloud, and shoehorned its service onto devices.
Apple, on the other hand, is positioning its cloud services to supplement existing applications on existing hardware. For example, instead of the Google Docs approach, Apple has added file syncing and versions to iWork.
A side effect of this is the software itself. Google views the browser as all you need, while Apple continues to pour effort in rich, fat desktop and mobile applications. While web apps don’t gain many of the features as native apps, it is clear that Google believes that won’t always be the case.
Personally, I much prefer Apple’s philosophy. iCloud is designed so that users don’t have to learn anything new. Google wants users to log in to its servers and go to town on work; Apple wants users to keep on working the way the do now — just in a way that is better.
Google’s services are free. iCloud is free, with the exception of iTunes Match. However, the age old debate concerning Google crops up here yet again — ads.
Google shows ads because it is the only way it makes money. Apple, however doesn’t have this issue. During the keynote, Steve Jobs said that they built iCloud as something that the people at Apple themselves wanted to use, and they didn’t want to look at ads.
I think it is pretty clear that Apple sees iCloud as an investment in its operating systems, even if iCloud — as its own entity — loses money.
Of course, ad-supported free service really isn’t free. Users are paying to use Google’s services with their personal information. That is something that a growing number of consumers are uncomfortable with, and with iCloud being a free service, I think this aspect of Google’s personality will become more apparent.