Blog Post

Will the Cloud Lead Me Away From the Mac?


There’s no doubt that cloud computing is a growing trend. All you have to look at is the popularity of netbooks to see that many people nowadays will be quite happy with a computing device that gives them access to the web, and not much else.

I’m certainly part of this trend, as I write this story I have the following web-based applications open on my Mac:

What surprises me isn’t how many web apps I’m accessing, but how few native Mac applications I am using to access these services. I am using Tweetie to access Twitter, Evernote has it’s own native Mac application and I use BusyCal to access Google Calendar. Apart from that, all of these web services are being accessed either via Safari (Facebook and Lexulous), or via Site Specific Browsers (SSBs), which means I’m using the naked, if you will, web interface for the application.

Two years ago I never would have done this. I actually wrote a whole blog post, on a now defunct blog, about how I eschewed web-based applications in favor of native Mac apps because I wanted a Mac-like experience. As such I used to get my email, NetNewsWire for RSS feeds, Omni Focus for tasks, etc. Nowadays I use web-based apps for all those functions.

There were several factors that led me to this place. First of all web based apps have become better in terms of user experience, in some cases even exceeding, in my opinion, the user experience of the native Mac alternative, for example Gmail versus Mail. Although Google’s web apps aren’t particularly pretty, they are well thought out, and some other web apps are almost elegant, like Remember the Milk.

The iPhone has also been a driving force towards web-based applications because they are more likely to offer the ability to easily synchronize over the air. For example, I would love to use Things as my main task manager, but the simple reality is that I never remember to go through the rigamarole of synchronizing via Wi-Fi. If I can’t sync over the air with my iPhone, then I don’t want to use it on my Mac.

Probably the most important driving force, however, has been features. Google Reader is an excellent example of this. I recently went over several native Google Reader clients for the Mac, but despite this range of choices, I’m still using a site specific browser to access Google Reader. Why? Because none of these applications offer the feature set that the actual website does, and I actually use all of those features. I’ve faced similar problems with native Mac apps that purport to give you access to Facebook or WordPress.

The reality is that many web applications have reached the point of complexity that building a third-party client for them becomes very difficult, especially on the desktop where users will demand feature parity, or something close to it. Unless a company is building their own client, such as Evernote, or the service is exceedingly simple, such as Twitter, desktop clients are constantly going to be playing a losing game of catchup.

What all this means for users like myself is that more and more of my computing experience is moving away from the Mac and to the web (subscription required). I love the Mac, I love the combination of stability, elegance, ease of use and power Apple’s computers offer me, but I have to admit that I’m taking less advantage of the platform than I have in the past, and unless something drastic changes, that trend is only going to continue.

Apple doesn’t seem to be making aggressive moves towards building better support for web applications into the operating system, and this may be a dangerous mistake. Someday in the not to distant future something approaching 100 percent of the average user’s computing is going to move online, and when that happens Apple may find itself flat footed in a new world, and I may find myself looking for a computing platform better suited for my actual use.

37 Responses to “Will the Cloud Lead Me Away From the Mac?”

  1. For me, the cloud enbles me to be free of a bulky laptop, or havin to pay top dolar for a powerful small laptop.
    My desktop at home is a Mac Mini, My work provided laptop is an HP tablet, and I have access to several different desktops at work. The OS’s on these range from XP, Windows7, Vista, Linux, and my iPhone.
    I also have the issue that where I work is not my main office, it is my clients office but I still want access to my personal settings and data whereever I am. This used to mean a big laptop that held my entire working and personal life.
    Now, my personal mail is on GMail – but I use Thunderbird on the windows and linux desktops I own, and Apple mail on my Mac. I use Gmail as the mail server via iMap. I also have a mail server at home, and I archive mail to that, but I cant access it from anywhere but home.
    I use Google Calendar for my work diary, and synch my iPhone, Sunbird (on Windows and Linux) and iCal (on OS X) – at my current client I use the Outlook synch application to pull data read only into Outlook and exchange so the client can see my free/busy information.
    Bookmarks are synched via xMarks, so I can use Safari and Firefox on OS X, Firefox on Linux, and IE and Firefox on Windows. All my important bookmarks follow me everywhere.
    I use dropbox to synch non private files, and an encrypted USB key with Truecrypt (client available for all platforms) for sensitive files or customer data.
    Office Apps – for my personal use, I use, and I have Office just incase I cant open something for work, but, have not used it on my Mac at all and wont be upgrading it to 2010. I also inherited a copy of iWork, but again as the client software is not universal, I don’t use it for anything I need to share. I wont be upgrading this either.
    RSS – Feeddemon on WIndows and NetNewswire on OS X and iPhone. I use the native reader webpage in linux and on work computers. Synch works pretty well for what I need.
    So for everything I need to do for work and play, using the combination of cloud synch for storing a copy of the data and keeping the client software universal, I can use any OS I want.

    Why not MobileMe – because is does not work through a proxy, or with Outlook using Exchange and poor client support for Linux.

    However because I use everything, I know what I want to spend “MY” money on – so I own a Mac. Apple mail is really nice to use and has some nice desktop and automation features (I love jsut clicking on a mail and say “Create appointment in iCal” it usually gets the details right, then iCal synch with Google, and all my other devices get the appointment too.

    The only “Mac Only” app I use is Eye-TV and iTunes to synch my iPhone, but the mac as a client for all my other apps is nice to use. It is small and quiet, the OS has never crashed on me. All the free and open source software I use is supported, and is a real unix for when I need to do work, and has the best parental control features of any OS I have used so I have not problems letting my kids use it too.
    The cloud to me does not diminish my use of OS X, but actually lets me use it now where I would not have been able to just a few years ago.

  2. @JasonM80

    As far as change tracking, Pages has a very sophisticated system that is compatible with Word. One nice thing is that it allows multiple people to make changes on the same document. It also has a nice feature of being able to easily send a copy of a document over Mail from within the document itself.

    You make a good point about the real issue of keeping track of who is working on the document and I can see where having it available over our internal network makes sense. On the other hand, I still prefer the tools I currently have to the online tools and our system of making changes and then passing them around via email works well for us. Who knows, there may come a time when we change. Our little forays into online document sharing have run into issues that made us decide to stop pursuing it.

    Finally you make the comment, “Two key benefits of storing your docs . . . and you can free up your IT guy to do more important things than maintain the document-storage servers and their associated software.”

    We use Macs. I need to keep him busy. Take care

  3. @Khurt

    Quote: “Maybe you need another IT guy or maybe your NOT listening to your IT guy. Instead of spending money on the license for a copy of each app installed on those 70 Mac you could reduce your IT spend and use the savings to improve your service.”

    Aren’t you being a little presumptive? You know nothing about my business nor do you know anything about my business processes but you presume that I’m NOT listening to my IT guy. Is it possible that maybe we have sat down and looked carefully at the choices and the costs of those choices (both in monetary terms and in other terms) and determined that the costs outweigh the benefits of online solutions.

    What is also presumptive is your listing of online programs that you presume will meet our needs. A good example is Quickbook online. I am being a little presumptive myself, but I am guessing that you have never run a complex business (7 locations) with Quickbooks Online. Because if you had, you would understand its significant limitations. I use Moneyworks Gold which is far removed from Quickbooks. The same is true for all the other solutions you suggest. None of them meet my needs.

    I would also like to suggest that rather than say that I am NOT listening to my IT guy, that it would have been preferable to say something more like, “Have you considered the money you would save on licensing and how it could be better spent on your business?”

  4. @JasonM80

    Yes, maybe someday the web apps will get much better but at the end of the day, there still something to be said about having the data readily available in a physical media that you control. I am not going to suggest that online back up solutions are not as robust or as capable as local hard drive solutions. I don’t know. I’ve never tried them. But I trust my local hard drive solution.

    As far as having multiple people cooperatively working on a document. I have never seen a real application where that works with people working concurrently. I am not saying it doesn’t, I just haven’t seen it. It isn’t because of the technology side, it is because of the human nature side. Let’s use a thought experimen. Let’s say we are going to have a brain storming session to come up with a solution to a problem. So we bring a group of smart people into a room with a white board and the task to solve the problem. There are two ways you can proceed. 1) have one person moderate the meeting (at the white board) while others throw out ideas. The person moderating is putting the ideas up on the board, restating what was said, and working with the group to get to a solution. 2) Every body goes to the white board and starts talking and writing.

    # 2 isn’t going to work. Or will only work in unique situations. People don’t really think that way. Most people can contribute but only if one person takes over all responsibility and manages the work. There has to be one person in charge. So we are working on a major project involving a new service we are offering and it requires a client information pamphlet. Sure we could have multiple people cooperatively working on the document via an online application but unless they are working all at the same time, it isn’t different from what we do now.

    One person creates the base document in Pages. This person may do minimal formatting. It then gets sent out to multiple people who work on the document at their pace making changes and suggestions using the change tracking system. It comes back to the project manager who goes through the changes updating the document as needed. Eventually once the content is agreed to, we start formatting and back out for reevaluation and eventually end up with a document that 3-5 people worked on and which we all agree is ready for release. It was done collaboratively but sequentially. There was no need for an online system other than to pass the document around from person to person to make changes. Sure we could have done this on line but how would it be better?

    What you need is not an online system but an easy way to track changes from person to person and an easy way to send a document to other people. Can an online system work. Sure. Is it better. No.

    • > there still something to be said about having the data
      > readily available in a physical media that you control.
      I definitely hear you. I recently took my laptop onto the bus, hoping to get some work done during my commute. Being offline, I was still able to update some numbers in my spreadsheet and work on a draft of an e-mail, but I soon realized how dependent I was on having a network connection as I could do very little else.

      As for cooperative work, it sound like you have a good solution in place. However, how do people view and make changes to the document? Are they passing around a hard copy, e-mailing it to each other, or modifying the document over your network? Except for the change-tracking features in MS Word, all other change-tracking systems that I’ve seen work over the network.

      If your people use the features in Word and pass the document around by e-mail, it works to some extent, but you can easily run into cases of getting multiple people working on separate copies of the document at the same time, without knowing the other is working on it (this is a pain to then have to go through and merge), and they have to remember to attach it in their next e-mail, make sure they attached the right version, and the next person has to make sure no one else is working on it and he/she has the latest one.

      If you use the third option, accessing the document over the network, you avoid all these problems. While it is stored on your company’s local network instead of in “the cloud,” you are essentially doing the same thing. Two key benefits of storing your docs in the cloud are that you can access them from anywhere (not just from your company’s network), and you can free up your IT guy to do more important things than maintain the document-storage servers and their associated software.

    • Smooth you rock – but a couple of things to add.

      Regardless of where the data or the application is located, local, local network, internet – you still need a local machine – an Apple is clearly the best solution (easier to use, better security, stability, cost of ownership, etc.)

      Automatically backing up mission/business critical data off-site every day is a must. Still want to backup every day locally and take the backups home each night? Fine – but still automate the off site backup.

      Smooth’s whiteboard analogy is dead on – collaborate and mediate to problem solve. For document sharing/routing/editing, Snow Leopard Server’s Wiki server is a simple to use solution to manage the process. It both works and is better than sending email attachments.

      Want to run a business, make money, grow and use a Mac? Then check out open source xTuple ERP . Runs on Mac Linux and Windows – and can be used in a mixed environment – basically Alfredo’s point on robust OS specific client, think of the xTuple client as a souped up browser and just as easy to install and manage. It easily and securely connects to the database in the main office or on a public server. And way more robust than Quickbooks and has an integrated CRM that, while not at SalesForce’s level, will satisfy almost all situations.

      Now Smooth wants to be able to touch his hard drives – while I get the point, if he has a multisite organization exactly where does he want his database (I’ll assume he has a core database for his financials, sales, purchasing, inventory, crm, etc) so that he can go touch it? As long as you have a solid backup plan, redundant servers and power and 24/7 network support – put it where ever you like. And if you can stand the down time redundancy is optional – backup is not.

      If you use xTuple and want your database in the cloud – then we have a hosted solution that solves the redundancy, backup issues and has all the advantages of scalable pricing, managed up grades, support, security, etc. We run our database on Apple severs and you can optionally have Apple’s Wiki server. If you later want to put it on your own hardware, buy your own Mac, Linux or Windows server and you can host it yourself.

      And uh – don’t forget to backup.

  5. This is such a cute article.

    But here’s the problem. I own a business with 70 employees. We sell cosmetic services to consumers. I also own about 70 macs, most still powerpcs.

    The apps you say you are using are about playing on your computer. They aren’t about making money. Making money is what pays the bills. I have one person who could legitimately use most of your apps as part of his work flow for me and that is my IT guy who is responsible for our social networking. Otherwise, I am not paying people to twitter or surf or be on facebook while they are working for me. Harsh perhaps, but our job is to provide our clients with the best possible service. Twittering isn’t the way you do that. If we aren’t providing a good service we go out of business and 70 people lose their jobs and our clients lose their investment.

    The kind of apps we use are about making money and supporting our business processes. Database applications, accounting software, photo software, word processing, presentation software, spreadsheets. Stuff like that. We use a lot of distributed data systems, but I can go physically touch the hard drives. We’ve used some google apps for allowing sales people to view and edit data online. The applications were acceptable but not as good as a spreadsheet on my computer. Plus, I need that spreadsheet where ever I am. I’m not always connected to the net. I can’t imagine trying to use Google Apps to design a new brochure. In almost every case, where we have distributed computing, hard drive based data systems are much more practical.

    The applications you refer to seem to me to be either for personal enjoyment (recreation) or for a small subset of individuals who think that their business use of computer systems represent the use by the vast majority of people who go to work each day in both retail and business settings. I would bet that there are more cashiers working in the US than there are people who make their living blogging and immersed in the information sphere. I doubt that very few cashiers need cloud computing for their work.

    There is something to be said about the groundbreaking that cutting edge individuals provide but to think that everyone is doing what you are doing is silly. Yes, for recreation and for social contact, the cloud makes sense. But right now for hard core business use, which is what pays the bills, it’s not there and I don’t see it being there for a while. If ever.

    Less you wonder why I am surfing the net and posting comments (which I rarely do), today is my birthday and I decided to knock off work early. Plus, I own the business and can goof around one day if I want to.

  6. Isn’t the real issue here OTA sync. Weather you use web aps or native aps is a preference for some and, well, wont be a pro tool in a while…
    But I do agree with the underlying thought that for all the small service aps we use, syncing is key. Things only drawback is the lack of OTA sync. I still get frustrated that the iphone doens’t sync photos and music OTA or at least on the same WiFI. So for me the most interesting development is where apple will take it’s sync service the day it outgrows being an addon in iTunes :-)

  7. I’m not very interested in the cloud. I have accounts for almost everything but I don’t use the services because they are too time consuming.

    I love my MacBook and the feeling of having everything with me, when using it. I wouldn’t upload sensitive data, like pictures to a service either. I’m the own it have it with you guy, same for music. Spotify may be nice, but I’m happier with my music collection on the Mac.

    And I need many professional tools, like MatLab, so I’m not that into the cloud.

  8. I largely have to agree with the consensus. How you feel about cloud computing is directly proportional to how well it supports your work. For me, it isn’t a very good fit. I do some pretty intensive data modeling that just wouldn’t transition well to a cloud computing environment. Further, a lot of my data is either proprietary, or protected by government regulation. It might even be a crime to store it on an unsecured server.

    Since my work isn’t supported very well by cloud apps, I’ve never gotten very excited about using them which probably colors my perception of them. As a result, I find the Microsoft and Apple visions of “Software + Services” much more compelling than Google’s vision of a cloud based Universe. But that’s just me.

  9. Cloud. Don’t trust it. Won’t use it. If I create something, I want it on my hard drive, backed up to another hard drive, and archived yet again. I don’t trust nameless, faceless corporations to provide security and privacy for me. It’s as simple as that. And when the cloud goes down (all things go down, now and again), you’ll be lost, while if the same thing happens to my system all I need to do is hook up another CPU and keep going.

  10. Alfredo, you’re absolutely right. Having so many services become cloud-based made it easier for a lot of people to move to the Mac. but on the flip side, it makes using windows (7) a lot more tolerant.

    On windows, we had an such awful default email app with outlook express that everyone moved to gmail, hotmail, yahoo. But on mac i was astounded to find that people still used and ical. While is probably the best desktop email app, it still pales in comparison to a machine-independent web app like gmail.

    My thought is that when the world becomes the Apple v. Google I’d pick Google every time because Google knows the cloud. Apple’s mobileme? I couldn’t believe that something from Apple could be so crappy.

  11. danielthemac

    I think it really comes down to 2 things;
    1. Preference (obviously), and
    2. Profession: you write a blog so the tools you utilize are geared towards those, like you, can leverage a certain type of interconnected internet interface. Being in science, there are *ahem* few web-based tools for my use. Further, the cloud is. not. secure. There are no ifs and ands or buts about it. That is an issue for many.

  12. Man will have to pry my Mac desktop computer from my cold, dead hands. You see, I’m old enough to realize that personal computing is liberty, the freedom to do what I wish when I want. The personal computer industry has matured now, and essentially is trying to go back to the server/terminal model of days gone by. I don’t want to be controlled. That being said, I have no problem using services in the Cloud. But just don’t expect me to give up my real love, my Mac.

  13. While the cloud is always a good solution, it also has it’s negatives as well such as trusting the website with your data, loss of data as evidenced by Danger, and the potential privacy issues with a company like Google.

    As with anything the middle path is best. The perfect solution is to have native Mac apps tht sync to the cloud which will leave you with multiple places to keep your data and be able to potentially move your data to another service.

  14. depends greatly on what you do… social, and text can go to the cloud easily (light data), but some tasks such as video editing are much to data heavy to be done on anything but local hard drives. (even gigabit ethernet is slow for moving large amounts of data around)

    also depends greatly on the workplace… half of the things you are using are blocked in our companies firewall ;)

    half of what I do can be done from any computer with internet access, the other half is greatly improved by a Mac desktop being where I need it.

    • This is a great point. Cloud computing offers a tradeoff between processor power (the server farms at Google, Amazon and Microsoft offer processing power well beyond that of a personal desktop) and network bandwidth. Applications that perform heavy I/O, such as Brian M’s example of video editing software, for now are better suited for running on a local desktop. However, as available Internet connection speed improves over time, video editing will become more and more appealing to do (and performant enough to be useful) online.

      As others have posted, however, it is a matter of preference. However, more and more people will be drawn to the cloud as technology advances (you’ll still have a choice, though).

  15. You’re simply wrong. Yes a lot is moving to the cloud. But many people will require at least a version for the desktop. I can’t rely on having service.

    Also, some of the web apps you use I’d scratch my eyes out if I had to use. Evernote is just god awful. And I wish Things had cloud sync, but it’s still so far superior to RTM that I stick with it.

  16. @Alfredo Padilla

    Do you really believe that Apple will be caught flat footed by their slow development in cloud computing?

    Apple has already shown the way the new platform is the iPhone which is always connected to the web and for the desktop I believe they will do something similar but bigger and apps instead of the current stable of softwares.

    If I am not wrong Adobe will be brought down to their knees by some upstarts which can create light weight apps that can duplicate all the functions of, say, photoshop. It will not happen today but in 5 years’ time anything is possible especially when the chips are more powerful than those available today – this is where P.A. Semi will come in. Apple is prepared for the could and Mobileme is their testimony.

    If all this didn’t happen I owe you a beer.

  17. Creepwood

    This article is pretty drastic. Ultimately, all of this stuff is a matter of taste – I for one would never use a WebApp, let alone gmail, over OS X’ native Mail app, but whatever floats your boat. Evernote is great, but I’m not sure if it should technically be called a Web app, since it’s basically a normal app both on the iPhone and on Mac, its distinguishing feature being its ability to sync OTA. I use an online calendar – Mobile Me -, but again, this thing is only truly useful to me because it syncs and integrates with iCal and the iPhone’s calendar app. I’d never use it if it were just a standalone (granted, Google Calendar can also sync with the iPhone and I do use it at work). And hilariously, I mainly use Twitter on my Mac with Twitteriffic (I don’t “tweet”, but I like Twitter as a newsreader of sorts). Ultimately and as I already said, it’s a matter of taste. I for one prefer a situation where WebApps and native apps enter into a complementary relationship, each harnessing the other’s strength.

  18. FWIW, this portion of a sentence is a throwaway space-filler:

    “Someday in the not to distant future something approaching 100 percent of the average user’s computing is going to move online”

    Don’t use a percentage unless you have a percentage to use.

    I find the whole discussion of cloud-based comupting compelling, but I don’t think many average users are going to be cool with moving their entire lives off of the hard drive in front of them and to a server somewhere “in the internet.”

    And as far as Apple coming up with something to keep you buying their stuff, I wouldn’t worry. They have a knack for keeping guys like us coming back.

    • Good point here, since one of the things making me apprehensive of Wave is the fact that I don’t own my content.

      As much as it’s a nifty tool, if I were that keen on internal collaboration, I’d probably be more inclined to set up a forum than use Wave, unless there was a definite way to sync that content in an easily exportable format offline.

  19. “• Google Reader: used it once, but it’s so bulky and ugly I returned to Safari immediately. You just can’t beat Safari’s RSS implementation.”

    Lol, you use Safari but call Google Reader bulky and ugly? You can read a whole one news feed in Safari at a time but yet GR is bulky and ugly. Dumbest comment ever.

  20. I couldn’t agree less. I hate web applications. I use my phone for twitter and basically everything else is on my desktop. I enjoy having local backups of my data and don’t see that changing. The sidekick fiasco shows that cloud computing has a long way to go. The only time I use Google docs or something of the like is on the go and away from my computer so I can just grab it from the web later.

  21. I use a lot of web apps, but more out of convenience than preference. I’d switch to native Mac versions in a second if they offered the full feature set.

    Right now, I’m using SSBs for Google Wave, Gmail, Reader and Docs, but only because of the hosted environment. If anybody was able to do cloud computing with a similar feature set to Google, I’d jump ship in a second. I find their apps to be a little ugly and bare.

    I still use Apple Mail to access Gmail via IMAP, but use a SSB for a separate account used for checking logs. The others I only use because there aren’t really any viable alternatives I can find.

    I do have to ask though Alfredo, do you work on a Mac? You’re citing a lot of social tools there. If you’re a developer, the Mac still offers so much native software that Google or another cloud company is unlikely to compete with in the near future. For example, who is going to offer me:

    – VOIP in a browser (Skype)
    – Coda for web development
    – Photoshop, Illustrator, Fireworks
    – XCode

    If you do even semi-serious work on the desktop, you’re unlikely to get it done as well on a Netbook. Just my opinion. For me the Mac is as much a productivity tool as one that houses the apps I use.

  22. Interesting how different certain people’s experience is. Here’s my rundown of the apps you mentioned:

    • Twitter: never used it, have no desire to start.
    • Google Reader: used it once, but it’s so bulky and ugly I returned to Safari immediately. You just can’t beat Safari’s RSS implementation.
    • Evernote: never heard of it.
    • Google Calendar: never used it, don’t see any reason to start.
    • Remember The Milk: heard of it, don’t know what it is.
    • Gmail: hate it. is SO much nicer, and it lets me access ALL my mail instead of just my Gmail (which I never use).
    • Facebook: This one I use from time to time, but I usually forget it exists and have gone months without logging in at all. At least it lets me upload my pictures directly from iPhoto, which my friends and family enjoy.
    • WordPress: heard of it, don’t know what it is.
    • Socialcast: sounds vaguely familiar, don’t know what it is.
    • Lexulous: never heard of it.

    Web-based apps may be the wave of the future, but until somebody—anybody—starts offering decent connection speeds at affordable prices, I really don’t see the point.

  23. Gazoobee

    The simple answer to your question is, no. You will access more and more cloud apps, but you will do so on your iPhone or (next year), your tablet. They aren’t technically “Macs” but they are the next generation of the same thing.

    Personally I already find Facebook and Twitter on the desktop to be kind of annoying and pointless. Why would anyone tweet from anything but their phone? :)