Apple’s challenge to Google’s vision: rethinking the cloud

TL;DR: While Google puts all your data in one place, Apple wants to make sure you have of all your files everywhere.

Read on…

The cloud is here to stay, there is little doubt about that. Everyone talks about it, but many misunderstand the reason it’s become such a hot topic. For the most part, the cloud is actually not a feature in itself. At its core it is a means to fix a problem: the multiplication of devices.

Ten years ago, your home or work computer was your only point of access to your data: your documents were stored locally on a hard drive and all was well. The amount of data we managed also wasn’t very large: a few documents and spreadsheets, and that was it. It’s only in the past ten years that we’ve started having digital photos and music, and mp3 players, and phones that can hold our whole lives in their guts. The digitization of everything and the advent of mobile computing are changing he way we relate to our data.

Today, everyone is accessing their “digital life” from many different machines: home and work computers, phones, laptops… All of which need to let us to access our set of personal data (photo, music, documents, and even settings from programs and games). But our systems weren’t built for accessing data across several machines, and this is becoming more and more of an issue.

Enter “the cloud” : a vaguely defined buzz word which essentially means “let’s find a solution online”.

The Google way: going all in
The first and most obvious way to approach the issue is the one that Google and many others have adopted: they create a giant hard drive somewhere on the internet and store your data there. That way, when a program modifies a piece of data, it does so directly on the file that is up there on the server (“in the cloud”). And any other program or device accessing that data will always see the latest and “correct” version, because there is only one version that actually exists. Problem solved!
Except… you need to be online to access anything. More on that later.
NB: I call this approach “the Google way” because Google seems like its biggest champion, but they certainly aren’t the first or only ones using these methods. Also, Google VS Apple sounds better.

The Apple way: the halfway house
With its upcoming iCloud system, Apple is approaching the issue in a very different way (so different in fact that it’s a bit hard to grasp when you’ve been drunk on the “other” vision of what the cloud “is” for so many years). Essentially, they don’t see the cloud as the final destination for your data. Instead, they use it as the conduit that makes sure your data is actually present and up to date locally on all your devices.
With iCloud, if you create  or modify an item on one device, the action is automatically replicated on all of them. That is made possible by near instantaneous updates, coordinated by the iCloud system, and sent over the Internet to all your registered machines. I’m simplifying, but that’s the idea.
In effect, you theoretically end up with the same data on all of your devices.

A clashing of visions
Of course, both systems have their strengths and weaknesses. But it seems to me that the most important aspect of it all is that Google’s way is a bit ahead of its time. Indeed, the way we’ve imagined the cloud until now requires you to be online to access anything. And we might have truly online homes now, but we are still a long ways off from a truly online world. Mobility, which represents more and more of the way we access our data, is far from being up to the standards that a truly connected system requires.
There are ways to counter that of course, with pining and caching and such, but the issue of connectivity remains, and  it can make for a frustrating user experience. Thinking “always connected world” today would be like imagining Gmail in 1996: a fantastic service by our current standards of ubiquitous ADSL, but barely useable in a time when you had to pay for each hour spent online, blocking your phone line with you noisy 56.6kbps modem.

Apple’s vision seems to bridge the gap from tomorrow’s hopes to today’s reality: online is central, but local is still the heart of the system. If iCloud works the way it’s supposed to, and your local copies are always up to date everywhere, there is no reason it can’t be the best of both worlds: you work on these local files, and the size efficient updates “sent when the network is available” make the best of the spotty coverage issues that would plague the “online or nothing” methods.
Another advantage is that your data is managed by native applications, which are usually more solid and better designed than web apps. HTML5 is getting better and better, but web apps are still behind in many ways. Again, Google’s way seems designed for the future, where Apple’s way tries to solve the issues of today.

Of disclaimers and pitfalls
All that being said, iCloud is not perfect either. What if I work on a document on a laptop that I can’t sync, but then need to access it from another machine? Worse still, what if you work on one document offline, don’t sync, and make another change on that document elsewhere? I can bet that will create more than one headache in the coming months. And I’m not even going to mention the issue of sharing documents, which seems pretty much impossible to do reliably without one unique version accessible online.
Still, there are answers to these concerns:
– If you’re offline, it’s not like the Google way would allow you to edit these documents anyway. There, no online access means no data access, period.
– Apple is the absolute master of “good enough”, with a side of “ultra convenient and easy to use”. This approach has proven successful time and time again.
– Apple doesn’t seem interested in anything beyond helping you manage your personal set of data. They tie everything to your ID, to the point that it is becoming more and more difficult to use someone else’s device. They want you to have the best possible experience handling your photos, your music, your purchases, and all your personal stuff. In that sense, I’m not certain how interested they are in providing solid collaboration tools if it gets in the way of that “personal life management” philosophy.

Strengths and weaknesses of both systems will be debated for weeks and months to come, with powerful arguments on both sides of the trollish war that is certain to ensue.
Still, trying to understand iCloud is making me realize how frustrating it is to live in a world of “always online” promises before they are actually realized. Thanks to Google and their “always connected” philosophy, we already have incredibly powerful tools to work with. Believe it or not, for all the failings I’m describing here, I’ve been living in the Google ecosystem for years (Gmail, Gdocs, Calendar, contacts…), and certainly some of those do work incredibly well. But I’m starting to believe it is possible that Google’s vision is a bit too forward looking still. Once we live in the “always connected & native-like web apps” world, it’ll make a lot more sense.

For now though, I’m thinking iCloud might turn out to be the perfect middle ground…

NB: It needs to be said somewhere: Apple’s iCloud is certainly borrowing ideas from others. Dropbox or Microsoft’s photo studio, for example, have been doing things for a while that might have inspired the iCloud vision. But repurposing existing buds of ideas into fully formed innovative concepts that “just work” is also one of the things Apple does best. And baking these notions into their operating systems certainly opens up a whole different kind of potential. Some might react negatively to this, the way Apple sometimes incites among tech enthusiasts: “there’s nothing new here, this has been possible with Dropbox for years”. That would be a grave misunderstanding of the extent of Apple’s project. For all the love I bear Dropbox (and I assure you it is very very great), iCloud is a very different beast, with very different implications.
Oh, and Dropbox will be fine by the way, it’s an awesome product that enables things iCloud never will.

Partly related: also prepare for a whole lot of fun with Apple’s photo stream feature (which sends all the photos you take on your phone to all your other devices, in real time, home computer included). I can’t wait for the first idiot who will take pictures of his “work dinner” (i.e: strip club night out), only to discover that his wife is seeing them pop up on the computer at home. Seriously, the media is going to go crazy with this.
So remember kids: what happens in Vegas… is sent in real time to your computer if you take a picture of it. 🙂


August 15th, 2011