iCloud snafus point to dark side of consumer cloud

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Apple’s highly anticipated iCloud consumer cloud service went live last week in a debut marred by snafus that show that cloud providers still have some kinks to work out.

In short: Consumers are ready for the cloud–Apple claims 20 million iCloud adopters in just five days–but the clouds may not all be completely ready for consumers when it comes to easing the transition of on-device data to the cloud.

Expectations are high–especially when massive ad campaigns like Microsoft’s “to the cloud” commercials and Amazon’s new Kindle Fire device/Silk browser tandem make all this cloud stuff seem so easy.

But with iCloud roll-out glitches and worries that consumer clouds in general pose huge potential privacy issues, the cloud providers need to get their acts together.

Issue one: Moving stuff from device to cloud

The promise of iCloud is it will let consumers easily store their data—iTunes music, photos, etc.—on Apple’s cloud infrastructure. That data would then be available to them on all of their devices.

The problem is, last week (and even today for some customers)  iCloud often didn’t recognize existing Apple users with more than one Apple ID or who had shared IDs. Most impacted were customers that had used Apple’s older MobileMe service, which saw its own share of woes when it debuted three years ago.

Rule of thumb: Moving data from local devices to the cloud has to be drop-dead easy or you’ll see things like the  “Is iCloud completely worthless?” discussion cropping up on Apple’s support forums and #iCloud #Fail threads on Twitter. Not the sort of glowing reviews Apple tends to get.

Complaints about iCloud’s inability to recognize or handle existing Apple IDs surfaced soon into the October 12 launch and persist today.

Clearly, in the iCloud case, sheer volume is an issue. Twenty million people is a lot to handle in five days, but execution counts big-time in the consumer space. So any vendor launching consumer-oriented services needs to assess initial demand carefully and make sure the infrastructure can carry the load.

Issue Two: Keeping your stuff intact

Another complaint from early iCloud adopters is that the installation process took their apps right off their local devices. That can be unsettling to say the least. As my GigaOM colleague Darrell Etherington explained in his Q&A with The Washington Post:

The fact that the installation removes the apps from your device is one of the most common complaints I’ve seen about the update. As to why Apple did things this way, I’m not sure, but it may be that the underlying code is changed in such a way that app folders and organization couldn’t be preserved. My only advice would be to re-organize apps in the way you want using iTunes, since it’s faster than trying to recreate your folders and home screens on your device.

Consumers who have been inundated with hype about how the cloud will make it easier/cheaper/better for them to store and view their stuff have high expectations. And that goes far beyond Apple iCloud issues.

Users need to be informed that their stuff — their digital photos, for example — will look the same now that it’s sourced from the cloud. Or if it will look different — if photos get resized — why that is. Transparency is key for users who do not have IT staffs to guide them.

PC users need to know up front if iCloud will support their devices and, on the flip side, if Microsoft’s Windows Live services support Apple devices. It’s all about meeting expectations and not ticking off customers who can be very vocal on Twitter, Facebook and other social sites about their discontent.

Issue Three: Data privacy/protection in the cloud

Questions about how user data will be stored and protected in these vast consumer clouds have percolated for months and surged on news that Amazon’s new Silk browser will use customer data to predict where a given user will go next on-line. The stated goal is to speed the browsing/shopping experience, but just what data is being aggregated, how it will be used and if and how it will be shared raised all sorts of red flags.

That omniscient nature of Amazon Silk (which ships with Amazon’s new Kindle Fire reader), raised a lot of eyebrows, including some in Washington D.C. Congressman Edward Markey  (D-Mass) fired off a letter late last week to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Markey wants Amazon to specify what customer information it collects; how that data will be used; how customer privacy will be protected; and if and how customers can opt out of the whole process.

So, while consumer clouds are supposed to be as easy as falling off a log for the actual users, making them that easy is very, very hard for the cloud providers. They’ll probably get there, but there have clearly been some misteps at the start.

Image courtesy of Flickr user akakumo.

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