Lately, all that anyone can ever talk about is the Cloud. You’ll notice, I’ve capitalized the Cloud, because it has becoming the all encompassing noun to describe nearly every area of computing. Running your business? That’s going to the Cloud. Media? Oh, you’d better believe that’s already in the Cloud. Gaming? That bad boy will get into the Cloud before you know it. More and more, the Cloud is becoming the solution all of life’s little problems. Distributed computing, spread across thousands of cheap, powerful computers, making computers and operating systems as we now know them obsolete.
Of course, this is an Apple blog, and since Apple is wholly invested in the hardware side of things, this presents a massive problem. The Cloud is premised on thin client access: the power of computers no longer becomes a concern, and any terminal should allow virtually the same experience with little to no effort. Of course, Apple is known for charging huge markup on their products (come on, you know it’s true, I know it’s true. Let’s just accept it and move on) and the future of the Cloud presents a threat to that markup. Even worse, operating systems in the Cloud become near irrelevant, since the computing power is distributed across limitless numbers of machines, and access being controlled from a browser-like point. Thus, Mac OS X also stands to fall by the wayside.
So, what is the future of Apple in the world of the Cloud? Well, not as bad as the first impressions I presented above might appear to be. From the terminal hardpoint, Apple is in decent shape. The iPhone and MacBook Air are light, portable devices, which are light devices which people use for the same purpose described above: as thin client terminals for accessing information stored in the nebulous Cloud. The most common tasks the iPhone and MacBook Air are used for are music, and email and web browsing. So, from an end user hardware perspective, Apple is in prime position to address a need in the Cloud market.
The real issue lies in the services which Apple currently offers. In terms of a web presence, the only sure foothold the company has is as an e-commerce provider. From that perspective, they are a veritable juggernaut, from music to applications, and, I’m sure, ebooks and others types of digital content. From, from a distribution angle, Apple is secure in what they offer. The real challenge is translating existing services and capabilities, and offering the same ease and simplicity of the Mac experience to the Cloud.
The initial attempts, so far at least, have been less than stellar. Apple’s foray into the Cloud and Web 2.0 in the form of MobileMe was, as many have documented, a spectacular failure. A buggy release, followed by inconsistent uptime, and shaky security, combined with high costs of entry, have made the service a black eye on the shining face of a successful computer company.
Apple’s next step into the wide world of the Cloud was in the form of iWork.com, currently in beta. iWork.com allowed for sharing of documents, much in the same vein of Google Docs or Zoho. While Apple has never been the first company to leap to mind when considering business applications, iWork.com is a demonstration that Apple recognizes the implications of a future in the cloud. MobileMe and iWork.com are a important first steps if Apple is to gain a forebearer position in the coming Cloud market.
This also means taking a stronger foothold in the Web 2.0 space. Prior to this year, uttering the phrase “Web 2.0” in the same sentence as “Apple” was unthinkable, unless you happened to be addressing the effectiveness of Web 2.0 for increasing awareness of your fruit company (We’re looking at you, Dole). With the recent rumors surrounding an Apple buyout of Twitter, the implication must be considered. Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft have been lapping Apple for years in Web 2.0 services, and while nothing can be said about those moves now, when the Cloud arrives in full force, these players will be in prime position. Thus, Apple needs to make serious inroads into this sphere, and a move such as acquiring Twitter might well be seen as a step in that direction. Regardless of whether the rumor is true or (likely) not, a move by Apple like this should be considered with an eye towards the future.
Someday in the far future, when we all have iVisors pumping music, work and social networks directly into our eyes and ears, a few souls will stumble upon the clunky MacBooks and iPhones on a cached page on the Wayback Machine or Wikipedia. The concept of having physical copies of information will seem archaic and clumsy. And the idea that Apple, the provider of the greatest Cloud services in the entire galaxy, was among the riff raff producing these enormous slabs of metal and plastic will seem downright offensive. These souls with count their lucky stars (literally) that Apple was wise enough to see beyond the dark ages of the early twenty first century, and understand the implications of the massive Cloud which contains our lives, hopes and dreams.