Two years after buying Lala.com, and over eight years after launching the iTunes Store, Apple finally revealed its iCloud service at today’s World Wide Developers’ Conference (WWDC). Yet with storage limitations, intermittent connectivity, and high wireless data costs, the promise of iCloud may instead be another online storm cloud brewing, much like Apple’s horrific MobileMe solution.
“Ten years ago, we revealed the concept of the digital hub,” said Steve Jobs, Apple’s chief executive officer. “Acquiring pics, music, video to the computer was our strategy, and it worked for the better part of ten years.”
“Now that mobile devices all have music, video, and pictures on them,” Jobs continued, “How do we keep it all in sync? Keeping devices in sync is driving us crazy.”
With that Jobs, announced a demotion of a device—the personal computer—to “just another device” and suggested that Apple plans to move the “digital hub to the cloud, or more specifically, to iCloud.
Apple isn’t the first to market with a cloud-based storage locker model that uses cloud delivery to synchronize the push of purchased songs and movies out to end user iOS devices: both Amazon and Google have digital storage lockers, and a number of smaller companies have innovative features that exceed both Amazon and Google in terms of overall functionality.
In addition, Apple has stumbled badly with a $99 annual plan called Mac.com, which was later rebranded to MobileMe, to avoid the black eye the company received when Mac.com didn’t work as advertised. MobileMe, in turn, was equally anemic.
“Why should I believe them, they’re the ones that brought MobileMe,” Jobs said, stating the obvious tarnishing that MobileMe could bring to the new iCloud “digital hub” solution.
Yet, if the MobileMe era lessons can be applied to Apple’s iCloud, the company might stand a chance of dominating this part of the market, for one simple reason: Apple owns an entire ecosystem, from the iTunes Store for movies and music, to the iPod, iPhone and today’s dominant tablet computer, the iPad.
Ownership of the ecosystem is important, especially as iPads and other tablets replace the traditional PC desktop or laptop as the primary computing device. Apple seems to understand this, as one of the features of its new iOS 5 mobile operating system (which we covered in a separate article) is the ability to set an iOS device up without needing a computer.
“We are in a post-PC world,” said Apple’s Scott Forstall, senior vice president of iOS software. “Customers want to buy and use the iPhone as their only computing device. We’ve seen that many iPhone customers in China, Italy, and Japan don’t use desktop computers except to set up their iOS device.”
Apple’s move to a post-PC world allows consumers, in Forstall’s words, to “cut the cord to iTunes” for more than just set-up, which is where the Apple’s cloud-based announcement comes into play.
When Apple bought Lala.com in late 2009, then shut it down a few months later, the common assumption was that Apple had chosen not to go into the streaming delivery of music, let alone movies, to its portable iOS devices.
The idea with Lala.com was that a user’s library was uploaded into the cloud, where it is cross-referenced against songs that Lala has available for purchase or playback; any song that has been uploaded from the user’s hard drive was available for unlimited playback. Songs not owned by the user are available for a free “first listen” scheme, via a partnership with Google, but then needed either to be purchased or rented for additional listening. The rental would take place as a stream, while the purchase could be downloaded to the end user’s device.
Since Lala.com was a cloud-based service, Apple would have needed a large data center to handle all of the stream delivery to desktops, laptops, and portable devices, and would probably need to cache a certain number of songs on the listener’s device so that offline listening was also possible, within reason.
Fast forward to 2011 and the completion of Apple’s massive data center in rural North Carolina, almost two years in the making. The billion-dollar data center appears primed to offer not just streaming music: it has the capacity to handle storage of messages, user-generated content, and premium videos and movies.
In the world of instant messaging, where a large amount of user-generated content is created, Apple announced iMessage.
“Users can send texts, photos, videos, contacts, group messaging,” said Forstall, “and can also mimic email delivery with delivery and optional read receipts. We offer the ability to carry on conversations across multiple iOS devices, as the iMessage will be pushed to all iOS devices with encrypted delivery.”
All of this is well and good, and iCloud may be successful, but the limited amount of memory on iOS devices—coupled with the limited connectivity that most users face in rural and, increasingly, urban areas—may be the nail in the coffin for iCloud, if it doesn’t take a hybrid approach to storing the majority of content on end-user devices.
This is key to user adoption, as many users want to access their music, pictures, and movies wherever they are, but may not have the capacity on their portable device to store all their music files.
Jobs seems to grok this issue, although not in a way that is effective for any real iOS user.
“One of the problems we faced is that photos are large and will consume all the memory in your devices,” said Jobs, speaking of his photo sharing solution between devices, called PhotoStream. As one of the iCloud apps, it isn’t elegant at all, as it only stores the last 1000 images, meaning that users will only have the last few months of their photos available on all cloud-connected devices.
In addition, when it comes to music or movie consumption, a streaming-only service in the form of “iTunes in the Cloud” app for iCloud will penalize those who may choose to travel outside the confines of a data network, be it a home Wi-Fi network or even a cellular provider’s footprint. Apple has chosen to deliver files, but not stream delivery of content.
In fact, the limitation of intermittent connectivity was one of the downfalls of Napster to Go, a service that launched in 2005, to take on the Apple iTunes juggernaut.
Relying on a derivative slogan from Apple’s original iPod (“1,000 songs in your pocket”) the Napster to Go approach offered “1,000,000 songs in your pocket” for its subscribers.
Besides the strangleholds that Napster instituted, including a music catalog that required consumers to maintain an ongoing subscription, plus the limitation of only being able to be played on select Windows-only portable MP3 players, the subscription service required constant re-checking with the main licensing server, rendering it somewhat unusable for those with intermittent connections.
The iCloud solution will have another hurdle: gone are the days of unlimited data access on mobile service provider networks, meaning that customers will either be limited to some of these features on Wi-Fi only networks, or risk astronomical bills if they choose to stream their music to iOS devices incapable of holding all the media content the user wishes to consume.
Apple appears to be addressing some of these issues, such as back-up, by limiting the functionality to Wi-Fi only. The company may succeed in synching documents in the cloud (although DropBox does an equally good job), but it seems destined to another MobileMe-based scenario unless it offers a firm hybrid approach and expanded memory on iOS devices.
Otherwise, there are too many variables outside of Apple’s control to tame the wild cat of a mobile iOS streaming-only solution. At least for the moment.