Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) has enjoyed a strong position for several years in the mobile-computing shift that one might argue it kicked off, but there has been a glaring hole in its strategy. It’s looking more and more like 2011 might finally be the year in which Apple gets the Web.
There have been a host of reports lately about Apple’s plans for something that is being called iCloud, in line with Apple’s affinity for the letter “i.” For starters, Apple has been putting the finishing touches on a state-of-the-art data center in North Carolina for several months. It managed to recently acquire the iCloud.com domain name. References to iCloud have been discovered inside developer preview code for Mac OS X Lion, the next version of its operating system for the Mac. AppleInsider believes that the company is readying a combination music-locker/file storage/syncing service that would take Apple’s half-baked Web product, MobileMe, and bring it into the 21st century. And just the past week, 9to5Mac.com reported that Apple and Verizon have figured out a way to deliver software updates over-the-air to Verizon iPhones, potentially cutting the last of the cords.
It’s high time. For all of Apple’s strengths in user-interface design, developer tools, and marketing, it has never clearly articulated a Web-services strategy for its mobile devices, despite clever tools like Find My iPhone. After CEO Steve Jobs rearticulated his vision of the “post-PC era” when introducing the iPad 2 in March, many scoffed at the notion that devices like iPhones and iPads-which require a physical connection to a PC or Mac in order to obtain new software-could be considered devices that have moved past the influence of the PC.
As others pointed out, namely analyst Michael Gartenberg, “post-PC” doesn’t necessarily mean “sans-PC,” it means an era which arrives chronologically after the era of the PC. But there’s some bite to the criticism: truly mobile devices need to be free of constraints to older hardware in order to stand on their own as the future of computing. Apple’s method for updating iPhones and iPads was designed years ago for the iPod, a relatively dumb device not much better than a stylish hard drive that didn’t offer a fraction of the capability that Apple’s modern mobile devices provide.
Google (NSDQ: GOOG) has shown the mobile industry how this can be done. Android devices can be provisioned right out of the box with contacts, calendars, and other files synced directly from one’s free Google account with a few quick steps. They can be updated with new software anywhere at any time over the air, which in practice is convoluted due to control-freak wireless carriers but in vision is exactly what a mobile computer requires to stand on its own.
But Apple, with its $99-a-year MobileMe service (for which it doesn’t appear to have ever released usage numbers), doesn’t have nearly the user base or expertise that companies like Google–born of the Web and as influential a Web-services player as there is–have in spades. That’s why of all the announcements that might arrive over the next several months from Apple, like Mac OS X Lion or the iPhone 5 or even another iPad, its Web-services strategy could potentially change the game in more ways than the hardware or software released in 2011.
Improved cloud-based services (a subscription-based music locker, long-rumored, is the easiest to envision) would keep iOS on top of mobile developers’ priority list and potentially allow for a whole new segment of in-app features that would provide additional ways to make money and attract users. Apple is likely to have a few things on its own that could make iPhones play nicer with Macs and PCs without having to spend $99 a year on MobileMe, and perhaps even a few services for corporate iOS users looking for more security and reliability.
This is one of the nicer things about the Apple-Google mobile rivalry for those other than tech media writers: both companies are pushing each other to improve the areas in which their rival holds an advantage. While we all debate the suitability of mobile applications versus mobile Web sites when it comes to current development, it’s hard to imagine that the cross-platform beauty of the Web won’t eventually, once the technology is refined, provide a common ground for the mobile industry.
After years of neglect, Apple might as well figure out the Web now.