June 07, 2011

The Split Definition of Cloud Suits Those Speaking

Like any good Mac user and tech fan, I absorbed yesterday's announcements with Apple with great interest - knowing the OS updates will be hitting my laptop in a few months' time, and the iOS feature bumps will reach our array of iPod Touch and iPads at home - eventually seeing the best of these new features trickle out to non-Apple systems (including our Androids) thanks to the continued leapfrogging we see in this closely followed industry. But where Apple struck was where one would expect them to - in a manner that suited their interests. It's not necessarily always best for the future, but what's best for them. All money-driven companies would love to shape the future to meet their needs.

The most heavily anticipated updates from Steve Jobs and crew yesterday pertained to their introduction of iCloud, the next generation of MobileMe and iTunes. With Google and Amazon having announced music lockers, and streaming services like Spotify, MOG and Rdio in the mix, Apple's big move into the cloud was much-discussed, as news items followed each label, signature by signature, and watched the tea leaves to try and anticipate what Apple would deliver.

Apple used the term iCloud to represent the near-synchronization of digital media between a host of devices, from music to movies, books and photos. Buy once and play anywhere was the idea. No more moving of data back and forth. That's good stuff - and much was made of the $25 a year iTunes Match, which would push all your music, purchased on iTunes or not, to your other devices. Very clean, but oddly misrepresented, I believe. Apple says that iCloud stores your music, and its description page strictly states "your music is stored in iCloud", while the music automatically appears on your registered devices. But it's not streaming, and it's not as if when you are playing your music that you are doing so from their cloud. You're still doing it from your local device.

In contrast, we have seen two major business models from more acceptably-labeled cloud music services. The first, like Google Music, has you upload all your tracks (which can take a while) and then you can play them in a Web browser, any Web browser with your Google credentials, and play any time you like. The music is hosted in the cloud and streamed to you. The second, like Spotify and others, lets you tap into their available tracks, including playlists you've made from that library, and stream it to you.

Apple did not announce either of those approaches yesterday. They kept with their device-centric model which is making them billions of dollars and quite honestly, simplifying the Web and applications for millions of people. As I joked with one ardent Apple fan yesterday, Apple makes other people's inventions beautiful. They do quite a bit of innovation on their own, of course, but they sure do know how to take other people's ideas and make them look fantastic. But they didn't turn their back on their devices, despite talk of making them second-class citizens.

Google's approach on being truly Web-centric, and not tied down to specific devices, supports their business model, of course. They are making money from Web services (and associated advertising) while commoditizing hardware, which we will see with a big kickoff in a few weeks with the launch of the first ChromeBooks. The ChromeBooks, including the CR-48 which I've been using since December, bring you the Web and nothing but the Web. Sign in with your ID and get your content. Sign in with somebody else's ID and get their content. It's a fantastic idea and one that clearly supports their own business strategy. Their cloud interpretation supports what makes sense for them.

The divergence between these two players' strategies was in clear display yesterday. As a Mac user who has multiple Apple devices and a host of iTunes files, having them everywhere is cool. But I did also make the move to put them in the cloud (Google's version) and love the fact I can get to them from anywhere. Having used the CR-48 a ton lately, it's eye-opening to think of how the hardware is practically disposable. Assume you're logged out and it gets stolen. So what? Go buy a new one. For the price of a high-end iPod, you get everything back. No lost data or preferences. Google's interpretation of the cloud, which matches their interests, has some kind of real value to the user, and so does that with Apple.

If I was looking for a big announcement from Apple yesterday to keep me on iTunes instead of Spotify, it didn't come yesterday. I didn't see a major reason to stick with MobileMe/iCloud instead of Gmail and Google Docs either. But I absolutely see real value in their introductions, and anytime you see major companies slugging it out on quality for their users, everybody wins. But don't expect them to tell you what the future holds, unless you know that their projections are directly in line with what they can sell you today.