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Summary:

Apple has to do more than just upgrade MobileMe or match its competitors to provide a cloud offering that really catches fire with consumers on Monday. I talked with the CTO of a cloud management company to see just how far iCloud needs to go.

apple-icloud-cloud

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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  1. Apple has a well-proven ability to make the consumer experience a very good one, so I’m betting they’ll do the same with iCloud.

  2. If it’s locked to proprietary hardware, it is NOT a “cloud service”.

    P.S. One year ago today, Jobs said he would open source Face Time …how’s that coming along?

    1. It all depends on what you mean by “time”. http://daringfireball.net/linked/2011/05/11/facetime-standard

    2. Never worked in sales, eh? Or software design.

  3. Ranjit Nayak Thursday, June 2, 2011

    The Appstore is already a cloud offering from Apple. The number of applications and downloads would indicate that the company has done commendable job. It will be very interesting to see Apple’s iCloud offer although it would be a stretch to credit them with making the Cloud work for consumers. Companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon have proved the cloud works for Consumers.

  4. What worries me is the elimination of unlimited data plans by cellphone carriers. What’s the point of having my media in iCloud when streaming it will put me over my data limit?

  5. John Loughlin Thursday, June 2, 2011

    Darrell you can choose the direction to sync your Bookmarks to or from the Cloud to get everything back in sync. Back up your Mac Bookmarks locally, and then from System Preferences >> MobileMe >> Sync use the Advanced button to choose to sync just your Bookmarks from the Cloud. In the early days of MobileMe there were a lot of problems, and frustrated users, but for the last year or so I have experienced perfect results across several desktops, laptops, iPads and iPhones. There are still annoyances – Why doesn’t the MobileMe app on iOS recognize that the device can open and read an ePub file? (It does when I email the file to myself, from MobileMe!) Why is file syncing so much slower than DropBox? I suspect that many of us will be pleasantly surprised with iCloud, and when the news spreads that it works as easily as other Apple products, Apple will further strengthen their position as the only mobile player with all the ‘parts’.

  6. Doesn’t “a change in DNA” push the “DNA” metaphor just a little bit too far? Sorry to complain about something this trivial, but I’m starting to grit my teeth every time DNA is mentioned on GigaOM.

  7. Peter Pottinger Thursday, June 2, 2011

    will be a big flop.

  8. Pete Mazzaccaro Thursday, June 2, 2011

    There are lots of great, free cloud services, so It’s going to have to be free or work incredibly well to get widespread adaptation. I Apple them to have a great music offering, but if the price tag stays at $99 a year, or you need to shell out cash for Lion, I think it’ll only catch on with Mac fanatics.

    Also, I have a hard time believing Apple will give up on a Mac centered universe and let people access its services on the open Web… iTunes worked well because they made it Windows compatible. They’ll definitely need to open it up to the Web and start letting people operate iPads and iPods without having to sync the things to a PC all the time.

  9. I think iCloud won’t be perfect on Monday, however very promising. It will take some time, due to the major shift required, but in the end it will be a success. It’s simple: Apple does not have the choice here!!! It has to become a cloud-centric company. Its iCloud offering HAS to work otherwise Apple will be meaningless in the future. The other reason why Apple needs to and will move the center of its universe from the Mac to the cloud, is to make iOS devices computer-independent. This will make the iPad a true PC-replacement, propelling Apple to new heights! With iCloud, Apple will truly define the post-PC era paradigm.

  10. I wouldn’t bet against Apple either, but it will be very interesting to see how they get around the rapaciousness of the ATTs and Verisons of this world. It seems to me that the only reason for storing your music in the cloud is the desire to download on demand to portable devices Local storage would be desirable for a computer. So there you have it, download to your I device and run the gauntlet of outrageous data charges or store on a local drive and sync your music at home.

    Perhaps Apple has come up with a way to circumvent the phone companies, I hope so.

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