Can Apple Make the Cloud Work for Consumers?


Apple is getting ready to pull back the curtains on iCloud, a cloud services suite that will replace or augment MobileMe. We’ll get a look at iCloud next Monday at the WWDC 2011 keynote, but what does Apple have to do to make iCloud a success? I talked to enStratus Co-Founder and CTO George Reese, who has ample practical experience building and managing public and private clouds for his company’s clients.

Reese is a fan of Apple’s products and software, but he isn’t impressed with Apple’s track record when it comes to the cloud specifically. “Historically,” Reese told me in a phone interview, “Apple has gotten the cloud wrong time and time again,” because the company views “the Mac as the center of your device-driven life.” Even though they are more independent than they once were, the iPod, iPhone and iPad are all still essentially satellite devices that depend on the Mac in a few key ways.

In order to make a cloud computing experience work really well, the cloud has to be the center of the universe, according to Reese, and this isn’t the case with MobileMe. As an illustrative example, consider Bookmark syncing through MobileMe. I’m a MobileMe user myself, and I sync bookmarks across my Apple hardware so that if I find an interesting link on my iPhone that doesn’t read well on the small screen, I can bookmark it and check it out on my Mac. Unfortunately, something went wrong with bookmark syncing a while ago, and now my Mac computers regularly ask me to replace the information with that found on the computer. If I do, I’ll lose my iPhone bookmarks, and I can’t treat those as the master copy, because MobileMe requires that I use one of my Macs as the primary source. The Mac is “home,” so to speak, and everything else, including the cloud, is “away.”

Apple has made smart hires recently, bringing on staff with “good, cloudy experience and expertise,” according to Reese, but no matter whom you hire, Reese says, it’s hard to get away from what’s in your DNA as a company. Apple’s Mac-centric approach seems to be one key element of its corporate DNA.

A change in DNA is what Apple has to accomplish to make cloud computing work, says Reese. But big changes are something Apple is particularly good at. Reese cites the example of the iPod touch as a classic example. The iPod touch is a product that obviously threatened to eat into Apple’s existing successful iPod business, but Apple saw that it provided greater future potential down the road, by bringing more customers into the iOS fold. The MacBook Air is another good example, since with its new $999 starting price point, it could easily sway buyers away from the strong-selling MacBook, but the Air is a product designed with the future in mind, thanks to solid state storage and the dropped optical drive.

But in this case, Apple would have to shift the center of its universe away from the Mac and to the cloud, which is arguably a bigger and more daunting change than any other it has made so far, despite declarations that it is now a “mobile device company,” and more recently that we are living in the “post-PC” era (subscription required).

That’s not all it has to do, either. Reese says Apple also “has to reinvent what it is to be cloud.” It can’t just replicate Google’s success with Google Apps, or provide its own similar take on existing models. Apple has to “redefine the space of consumer cloud,” as it has done with previous products (the iPhone for mobile, and the iPod for media players, for example). And if Apple can do that, “they’ll be wildly successful,” Reese asserts.

This won’t be a surprise to Apple, according to Reese. It’s the same challenge it faced when it entered the mobile market with the iPhone, he points out, but this time around, the challengers it is facing are more nimble and less entrenched. Netflix, Amazon and Google are smart enough to be able to match what Apple does quickly, says Reese, whereas iPhone competitors were slow to realize and respond to the shift in landscape.

“One thing I’ve learned is never to bet against Apple,” Reese says, “But if I were to, this is where I’d bet against them.” Despite that, he’s really open to the possibility that Apple will succeed in making iCloud something consumers will get excited about. The prospect of a truly seamless computing experience across Apple devices is indeed a very sexy one. He and I are hoping Apple does for cloud computing Monday what it has already done for mobile devices and personal computing in the past. What do you think about Apple’s chances when it comes to achieving that goal?

For those really interested in the expertise required to build out real computing clouds, check out our Structure 2011 conference this month in San Francisco.

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