Their story arcs aren’t exactly the same, but the strategies employed by Apple and Amazon Web Services to reach their respective pinnacles (not that either is there yet) seem very similar, with result being that users are willing to pay a premium and accept a certain degree of lock-in as consequences of choosing either company. But why, when the core technologies in their respective spaces are all but commodities at this point? In both cases, it’s about building products so feature-rich and reliable that once people experience them, it’s difficult to go back. It’s about adding to and packaging those commodities in such a way that they’re greater than the sum of their parts.
On a personal level, for example, I recently replaced my old (and questionably reliable) Dell PC with an iMac, and I couldn’t be happier. Yes, I paid a premium in terms of horsepower — I could have purchased a PC with identical processor and memory specs, and a huge hard drive, for less money — but I learned in a hurry that what I’ve heard so many times about Apple product really is true: it’s all about the experience. My iMac came loaded with helpful tools — not just a lot of bloatware — and the performance is second to no PC I’ve ever used. I’d complain about the lack of an HDMI output, but the 27-inch screen — which I didn’t have to buy separately — does the job of an HDTV just fine if I really can’t make the short walk to my living room to watch a movie. Unlike even the supposedly great Windows 7, which has been an absolute nightmare for me, Mac OS X just works, and is very intuitive even after years of slavish PC patronage on my part. Certainly, the story has been the same for millions of Mac, iPod, iPhone and, now, iPad users around the world. There’s a reason so many people are willing to pay the Apple premium, every new mobile release is greeted with coverage comparable to a presidential election and the growth of Apple’s computer sales significantly outpaced the competition in 2010, and it’s not just to be part of the hip crowd.
AWS appears to be taking the same tact in the cloud computing space: build a product that works and keep making it better. I wrote yesterday about AWS’s new Virtual Private Cloud features, which are just the latest in an endless parade of new features, price adjustments and services coming out of the cloud computing leader. At last week’s Cloud Connect event, Cloudscaling CTO Randy Bias presented his case that AWS is running away with the cloud market based in large part on its rapid release cycle of, in the past two years, an average of five to six “significant” additions each month (it’s on pace for 66 in 2011). (His numbers map closely with a count I did before last year’s Structure event, so I know they’re accurate.) The result of AWS’s rapid release cycle is a platform that takes cloud computing beyond mere VMs, storage and a database, instead, giving developers quite literally anything they might need for their particular applications. Amazon CTO Werner Vogels hosts his entire blog within the Amazon S3 storage service, while others, like Netflix, are running serious number-crunching tasks using Elastic MapReduce. Want GPUs, a CDN or a custom DNS service, AWS has those, too, and everything is designed to work together. Depending on the use case, AWS users might end up paying more for their cloud computing than if they went elsewhere or if they ran it in-house, but it might require a lot more effort to achieve even a comparable experience.
Aside from potentially higher prices, Apple and AWS users also must concede to a certain degree of lock-in, although it’s not necessarily technological. In Apple’s world, it might come in the form of apps designed solely for its devices that either aren’t available elsewhere or for which users might have to repurchase for another platform, or it might be the considerable effort required to learn the Android OS and calibrate your device after years of iOS use. In AWS’s world, I would argue that lock-is primarily of the latter type. To the degree it’s possible to build the same type of application architecture in another provider’s cloud, it likely will require using more third-party services (through a partner program or otherwise) and, possibly, having to learn entirely new skill sets (e.g., Hadoop) in order to just run software atop the other provider’s resources where AWS offered a service. Still, there are plenty of innovations happening outside of Apple’s and AWS’s relatively closed worlds, but users considering making the switch have to decide whether it’s worth giving up the proprietary features they’ve come to rely upon. Is it better to live withing the safety of the walled fortress or to be free?
In many situations, it’s probably a lot better to be free. There are countless very valid reasons to choose other options, price-performance ratios, an avoidance of any real lock-in and security (especially in the case of cloud computing) being chief among them in most cases. There’s definitely something to be said about being able to open up that big PC tower and being able to tweak until your heart’s content, or about being able to hardware manufacturers while keeping the same OS, or about knowing that you could simply pick up, so to speak, your application or data and move it elsewhere without much effort. But for users — and that includes a growing number of large business — that just want a single product that just makes their lives easier, price and consequences be damned, it’s getting very difficult to compete with Apple and AWS.
Image courtesy of Flickr user jyri.