Amazon and Google both rolled out cloud music services recently, and now everyone is buzzing because Apple says it will introduce its own cloud service, iCloud, at a conference for developers next week, and that Steve Jobs himself will be on stage to show it off.
Not much is known about iCloud, but as always happens with any new Apple product, there’s been plenty of speculation about how Apple might leapfrog the competition.
I have no inside knowledge, but I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that Apple will be the first company to deliver a cloud service that is easy to understand and easy to use.
This is a risky bet, especially because Apple’s original cloud service, MobileMe, has never lived up to its promise and has been a consistent disappointment. It’s so bad, in fact, that as Fortune recently reported, in 2008 Jobs dressed down his developers and told them they had “tarnished Apple’s reputation” by shipping a lousy product.
Nevertheless, I am betting that Apple sees iCloud as a chance to redeem itself, and that this time Apple will get things right—or at least, not as wrong.
The big opportunity here is to provide one place in cyberspace where people can keep all of their stuff—music, movies, home videos, photos, files.
Whatever the price, the much more important question will be, Do I trust these guys? Can I can rely on them? Will the system just work, without any glitches? Will it seem like magic?
Right now there are all sorts of places where you can do this. You can put photos on Flickr or Picasa or MobileMe; create documents on Google Docs (which I’m using to write this article) and store backup files on Dropbox, MobileMe, Mozy or Carbonite; and share your home videos via YouTube. You probably store your own music on a computer somewhere in your house, and maybe you stream music from Pandora. You have some Hollywood movies that you’ve bought via iTunes stored on your home computer, but you likely also stream movies from Netflix. And maybe you watch TV shows via Hulu.
Enough already! What I want—what everybody wants—is one place to keep everything. We also want it to be easy to understand and easy to use.
That’s where Apple comes in. Nobody does user interface like Apple. Nobody is better at creating metaphors that make arcane tech stuff seem simple and easy to understand.
That’s where I’m expecting Apple to shine next week. It’s not that they’ll be reinventing the wheel. It’s that they’ve spent the past few years studying this problem, learning from mistakes they’ve made on MobileMe, and now they’ll come out with a solution—One Cloud To Rule Them All, as I like to think of it.
One place Apple is expected to outdo its rivals is in music storage. Amazon and Google both let you upload the music collection on your computer up to their servers in the cloud, and from there you can listen to your music from any device with a wireless connection to the Internet. This means your smartphone now has access to all of your music, wherever you are.
But that approach has one big hassle—you have to go through the process of uploading all of your music. It’s not that difficult, but it does take some time. (Google’s cloud service gobbled up about 3,500 of my songs in one overnight session.)
What Apple is going to do, people suspect, is something a lot more clever. Its software will survey your music collection, figure out what songs you own, and then create a library in the cloud that contains all the same stuff. No need to upload.
To make this work, Apple is striking deals with the music labels—something that Google and Amazon have been unable to do. (Those guys boldly rolled out their services without getting any kind of blessing from the music companies.)
It’s also likely that Apple will integrate its iTunes music store into the mix, so that when you go online with your iPhone and buy a song or an album, the system will automatically add that music to your iCloud collection where it will be available on your home computer, your Pad or any device with a Web browser.
To power iCloud Apple has built a 500,000-square-foot data center in North Carolina whose price tag—supposedly $1 billion—shows you just how seriously Apple is taking this whole cloud thing.
Indeed, the cloud is the next big battleground in consumer computing, a multi-billion-dollar market that the Big Three—Amazon, Apple, Google—will be fighting over.
How will this brave new world work? Instead of storing files locally and then sending backups to the Internet, we’ll just keep stuff on the Internet and pull items down as we need them.
We can do this because Internet connections are fast enough that we can zip stuff across thousands of miles in so little time that it seems to be right here on our computer. And connections are ubiquitous enough that no matter where you are, you can pretty much always be connected.
For those times when you’re not able to get on the Internet, you can keep a local copy of some files—a little cache of stuff that you want to keep with you at all times.
But see what’s happened? We’ve tipped things upside down. Until now your hard drive has been your primary storage vault, and the Internet was just for backups. In the new cloud model, your primary storage vault is on the Internet, and the hard drive on your computer or SD card on your smartphone is secondary.
The implications are huge. For one thing, devices become much less important. They’re switchable, interchangeable, almost irrelevant. They’ll also become cheaper, if only because you’re not going to need a super-fast microprocessor and a 1-terabyte storage drive anymore.
The much more difficult and important decision will be choosing the right cloud provider. They’re all going to find ways to try to lock you in and keep you from switching to a different service. It’s not clear how much Apple will charge for iCloud. Maybe it will stick with the $99-per-year price that it has used for MobileMe. But whatever the price, the much more important question will be, Do I trust these guys? Can I can rely on them? Will the system just work, without any glitches? Will it seem like magic?
That, in the end, may be Apple’s biggest advantage, and the one that enables it to come out on top in the battle for the cloud.
Dan Lyons is technology editor at Newsweek and the creator of Fake Steve Jobs, the persona behind the notorious tech blog, The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs. Before joining Newsweek, Lyons spent 10 years at Forbes.