iCloud Reality

This post is a follow-up to both the WWDC 2011 keynote and my previous post, in which I used iCloud as inspiration for some “cloud computing” dreams.

“Whoa!”, you say, ”two posts about iCloud within 24 hours? This guy must really about iCloud!”

Actually, I don’t care about iCloud itself. Now that it’s been announced, I can say that I’ll welcome it, as a replacement for MobileMe and enhancement to the “iTunes ecosystem”. But it’s not that major a thing, in my mind.

Point is, I don’t blog because I really care about specific things. I blog because it’s fun to do.

In this case, it’s pretty easy to do. Nothing groundbreaking in this blogpost, but it’s a neat context for blogging, in my mind. Almost like a writing exercise. And a placeholder for further thoughts on “cloud computing”, Apple, and mobile devices. I do “care” about all of these things in the sense that I’m curious to see what might come out of them. But my universe probably won’t collapse if these things all take an unexpected turn.

Why don’t I blog about Android? Well, mostly because I don’t have an Android device and don’t plan on getting a smartphone or a new tablet in the foreseeable future. I do follow Google news (especially through TWiG but also through some generalist tech blogs, like TNW) and there are some things I find interesting, in what Google offers. But that’ll have to wait for another day. (I do have a blogpost in mind for “What I Like about Google”.)

So… iCloud, eh?

Well, pretty much as rumours predicted, overall. Which is neither awe-inspiring nor so disappointing. I’m looking forward to some features which made it in and somewhat lukewarm about several of the things they announced. Not overwhelmed but not really underwhelmed either. So I’m “whelmed”.

An announcement about which I have positive feelings isn’t about iCloud: Mac OS X Lion will be available for download in July, at a reasonable price (30$). Since my 2006 Mac mini doesn’t support Lion, the news may not impact me that directly but it does mean that I’ll be able to install it on the MacBook of the person about whom I really care. And it might mean that we’ll see updated Mac minis in July. So, timing should be good, for me, in terms of getting a new computer before the semester starts.

Speaking of Lion, I’m rather puzzled by the announcement (rumoured a few days ago) that the server version will come at an extra cost. Guess I had misunderstood a previous announcement that Server was included in the normal version of Mac OS X to mean that it would be included at no extra cost. During the keynote, it was announced that Server would be an App Store purchase, though no price was mentioned. Looking on Apple’s site as I’m writing this, I find out that Mac OS X Lion Server will cost 50$. Not free, but not as bad as I feared, until a minute ago.

Now, about the iCloud and iOS5 announcements…

One thing I find remarkable (and which also applies to Mac OS X Lion) is how precisely rumours end up matching the actual announcement. For a company which is known as being so tightly sealed, it’s kind of unexpected. What’s more awkward, though, is that it doesn’t seem to have that much effect on dulling down audience reactions. Almost everything which was announced today has at least been rumoured yet the crowd was very enthusiastic at some points. Now, it’s a very specific crowd, which comprises a number of die-hard Apple enthusiasts (after all, their business may depend on Apple, to a fairly large extent). But I must admit I was surprised by some of these reactions, especially pertaining to iOS5. I can understand that the new notification system may be a big “wow factor”, to many of these developers. It might help them make their apps more useful. But I was genuinely surprised that tabbed browsing got such a positive response. I personally don’t miss tabbed browsing on iOS4 and almost wish we could keep the current approach to switching between preloaded pages. But members of the audience seemed quite happy about the change. Of course, their reactions are shaped by many factors, as in a tv show. But I felt like one who didn’t get the joke. “So, y’all wanted tabbed browsing, all this time? Ok…”

The announcement of a PC-free feature of iCloud was quite similar. I understand that it’s pretty neat, and it does correspond to a lot of things Gruber has been saying for a while. But how big of a deal is it, for developers? What am I missing, here? I’m sure I’ll be told, soon enough. Or the audience reaction was exaggerated because of other factors.

Speaking of Gruber. A statement of his, made before the keynote, got some people thinking (including myself):

Don’t think of iCloud as the new MobileMe; think of iCloud as the new iTunes.

I’d say it’s a bit of both. While iCloud does make iTunes optional in some cases, it doesn’t completely negate any need for it. On the other hand, iCloud will officially replace MobileMe.

What’s happening to MobileMe?
Effective June 6, 2011, if you had an active MobileMe account, your service has been automatically extended through June 30, 2012, at no additional charge. After this, the MobileMe service will no longer be available.

What will happen to the content I have on MobileMe?
Apple has announced a new service called iCloud which will be available this fall and free for iOS 5 and OS X Lion users.

Sounds to me like as direct a replacement as possible. And it makes all the sense in the world. No news on “Find My iPhone”, but I’d be surprised (and disappointed) if it were abandoned, the way eCards were abandoned in the transition from .Mac to MobileMe.

Not that Gruber was wrong or that his advice was misleading. It’s just that MobileMe users are directly impacted. As one of those rare people who purchased a MobileMe license since the iPad came out, I do welcome the news. If this hadn’t been announced, I probably wouldn’t have renewed my MobileMe license (due at the end of this month). So the timing is right, for me. While it was expected, based on rumours, it’s a “classy move”.

It must also mean that Apple isn’t finding much value in selling MobileMe, anymore. One might say that iCloud is more valuable as a selling point for iOS5 and OS X Lion devices than MobileMe was as its own revenue stream. We’ve heard from Apple Store employees (and I heard from other people dealing with Apple retail) that Apple was pushing MobileMe whenever it could. In this sense, the change is clueful.
In fact, there’s something about free, in this case. Now that MobileMe is free, I might actually start using it more.
As mentioned in my last post, I haven’t been making intensive or extensive use of MobileMe. I did use the “Find My iPhone” on occasion and the synchronization has been somewhat helpful, despite the fact that I use Gsync. But I wasn’t really using the other features, including email, gallery, and iDisk. Now that I know how it’ll fit in the coming year, I find it somewhat easier to “invest” in these tools.

That’s the rational argument, and it might not actually hold so well. For one thing, we still don’t know how seamless the transition to iCloud will be. And some MobileMe features have been left undiscussed. So, counting on the MobileMe to iCloud transition might be ill-advised.

There are some less-rational motivations behind my possibly-intensified use of MobileMe. One is that I feel almost an obligation to give free services a chance. And, though MobileMe itself hasn’t changed, doing more with it might give me a taste of what’s is likely to happen with iCloud.

Although some MobileMe features have not been mentioned in terms of iCloud.

One glaring omission is iWeb. As mentioned before, the web publishing application hasn’t been updated along with other parts of iLife (most notably, iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand). Unlike the other pieces of the iLife suite, it almost requires MobileMe to provide significant value (although you can also publish via FTP). I was daydreaming about iCloud becoming a webhost and it’s conceivable that Apple might follow that route at some point in the distant future. But, right now, it sounds like iWeb’s value proposition has become less interesting than it ever was. It’s possible that iWeb-created sites maintained through MobileMe will continue to be supported beyond the transition to iCloud. But it sounds unlikely.

And there might be a missed opportunity, here. As is often the case, with technology companies, iWeb sounds like an afterthought, for Apple. Maybe it’ll be like Apple TV and go from a “hobby” to something closer to the central strategy. But I doubt it. In part because iWeb doesn’t really fit in the “Digital Hub” vision which, as Jobs finally reminded us, has been central for Apple for the better part of the last decade.

Speaking of the digital hub… In a way, it was a very telling part of today’s presentation. It does demonstrate a clear vision for something which been carried out through iLife and the whole “iTunes ecosystem”. The picture of a Mac surrounded by PDas, digital cameras, and other peripherals requires some adjustment, to accommodate for iOS devices and wireless connections. Bul the idea has remain relatively unchanged, as we prepare for the so-called “post-PC era”.

Yet this “digital hub” notion shows some weaknesses, in terms of imagining the future of “cloud computing”, the alleged target of the iCloud announcement. Not that I have any idea whether or not Apple will succeed “in the cloud space”. I wouldn’t bet either way. But Apple’s “digital hub” shows a few signs of constraining the imagination.

For one thing, hubs are a rather specific way to organize things. The laptop or desktop computer is now “just a device”, and there’s a lot of insight hidden in this conception of “devices”. But it’s also more hub than spoke. Regardless of how important Apple products have been for road warriors, the notion is still that users have specific places where some devices remain. Several parts of the iCloud announcement make it possible to overcome this model, but I’d argue that the model remains dominant in the minds of many Apple employees and customers.

A better way to put it, perhaps, is that Apple is transitioning away from the digital hub model into a much more fluid structure. Addressing the digital hub model might have been a way to pave the road to an ethereal future, with “cloud computing ” and seamless integration of multiple devices. But I have my doubts. For instance, description of WiFi iTunes Sync in the iOS5 video has a mention of physical proximity to a machine running iTunes. It confuses me a bit, since it also sounds like it’ll be possible to use iOS5 devices without any access to a machine running iTunes, It might be that the description is inaccurate (you can sync your devices through “iTunes in the cloud”, wherever you are). Or the two types of synchronization are different, in that one pairs your iOS5 device with a given Mac or PC while the other lets you use your iOS5 with iCloud content. But I tend to link my confusion to a clash between two models. It’s more likely that I just “don’t get it”, and it all makes sense in the grand scheme of things. I’m fine with that.

In other words, feel free to disagree. Maybe the iCloud announcement means that the “digital hub” era is over and that what comes next bears only limited resemblance to the Mac surrounded by peripherals. Or the restrictions are more important than I imagine and the “cloud” is but a surface enhancement to what remains a decidedly “hub-centric model”.

Time will tell.

One part of the iCloud announcement that I find positive is about document sync. I recently started using iWork and iWork.com as a significant part of my workflow. Several things are missing from this, including an easy way to synchronize documents across iOS and Mac OS X devices. Unless I misunderstood, it sounds like iCloud will make this process seamless. I have my doubts as to how it might work in practice (synchronization is a relatively difficult problem, when there are multiple instances of the same context). But it might still be a time-saver, for me. In a way, it’s almost like taking away a pain point.

At the same time, no mention has been made of collaboration, in any way, shape, or form. As it stands, iWork.com makes it possible to share documents but collaboration is extremely limited in that case. In fact, unless I’m mistaken, it’s not even possible to allow public downloads of these documents. Unlike, say, Slideshare. In this sense, GDocs is very likely  remain a much more desirable solution for any form of collaboration. And since GDocs doesn’t handle iWork documents so well, sharing document for further collaboration will long remain a sticking point,in my workflow.

What’s more promising, though, is document sync as a replacement for some uses of Dropbox. I’m sure the GoodReader developer(s) have been giving iCloud a lot of thought. After all, the app can already use iDisk, Dropbox, WebDAV, GDocs, and other “cloud services”. I also hope that Jesse Grosjean at Hog Bay Software will add iCloud to TaskPaper sync, along with Dropbox. And I’m guessing that other apps will spring out, making good use of iCloud’s document sync. The WWDC crowd sounded fairly enthusiastic about this. And I’m sure advantages over iDisk are painfully obvious to several people. I’m mostly glad that it’ll be available for free to all iOS5 and OS X Lion users.

(By the by… I’m assuming that iCloud will be free to iOS5 users without Mac OS X machines and to OS X Lion users without iOS devices. It’d be very surprising but also very frustrating if it weren’t the case. Official mentions I’ve seen didn’t address this and I’ve learnt to be wary of assumptions about that which “goes without saying”, in Apple announcements.)

(Also by the by… Is “OS X Lion” the official name of the OS? Sounds like it. Not sure it’s significant but it could make sense in a “post-PC era”, with the Mac as “just another device”.)

Something iCloud doesn’t do, in this context, is completely replace Dropbox, in most use cases. For one thing, with documents in general as with iWork documents specifically, no mention has been made of collaboration and it sounds like it won’t really be possible to use iCloud to share documents efficiently.

This is where I would have let my mind wander, despite the fact that Apple has a spotty track record in collaboration. Basically, iCloud makes me wish for an integrated solution which combines: real-time collaboration in document editing (GDocs), seamless document sharing (Dropbox), online identity (Twitter/Facebook), and fluid group formation (Apache Wave, née Google Wave). Apple wasn’t going to create this, but the iCloud announcement was a context for me to think about such things.

Google is much more likely to do something like this. GDocs already has many of the required features, and we keep hoping that the “social Web” projects grouped under the “Google Me” label will benefit Google products more generally. But there seems to be an arbitrary separation between work collaboration and “social features”, for some reasons. So I’m not holding my breath. I’m just dreaming of an openly available solution making it even easier to collaborate with diverse people in diverse contexts.

Anyhoo… Back to the keynote.

An intriguing announcement during the iOS5 section was News Stand. It sounds like it’s mostly about the distribution mechanism but I wonder if it may not also mean that Apple is giving publishers some tools to make it easier to create iOS content. Apart from Apple’s relationship with publishers (which sounds more lovey-dovey than some publishers’ rhetoric makes us believe), there’s something about content creation that I really wish could be put in the hands of normal individuals.

In a way, it goes back to the iWeb issue. The rest of iLife can be quite useful, in terms of “user-generated content”. But given the number of professional, amateur, and would-be developers using Apple devices, one might expect some content creation tools, especially in terms of Web content. Tumult Hype is a neat example of an app which could be part of the content creator’s arsenal. But I could just imagine some Apple-crafted software app to handle Web content the way other contents are handled in GarageBand and Logic Studio; iPhoto and Aperture; iMovie and Final Cut Studio. iPhoto is the only one of these which was addressed in the keynote. But they could all be part of a broader strategy, helping people get creative and share their creativity. Given that something as basic as WYSIWYG HTML is very difficult on iOS, the lack of Apple-built Web tools becomes something of a thorn.

Speaking of “user-generated content”… Photo Stream was announced, as part of iCloud. Apart from “iTunes in the Cloud”, it’s one of the biggest sections of the iCloud feature set. Problem is, it’s pretty much a blindspot, for me. I might not be the only one, judging yet again from audience reactions during the keynote. But I’m specifically immune to enthusiasm about photo-related features.

I mean, I’m sure Photo Stream can become very popular. It’s almost stereotypical as the kind of feature which gets “normal people” excited. And by “normal people” I don’t mean non-geeks. I mean people who react positively to pictures. I just don’t have the same relationship with anything visual. I rarely use my phone or iPod touch’s cameras. When I do, it’s mostly about documenting something (à la Evernote) or scanning a QR/barcode. So Photo Stream is wasted on me.

The one feature I was possibly most excited about is one which wasn’t mentioned but that I still think might be part of the iCloud reality: OTA podcasts. I listen to a number of podcasts and synchronization remains an issue. It’s the main (though not single) reason I connect my iPod touch to my Mac mini. I’d really benefit from being able to synchronize podcasts while “on the road”, using any reliable WiFi connection. To be honest, if it’s not included in iCloud/iOS5, I’ll be disappointed. Not to the point of abandoning the platform. But I admit that my expectations are that it’ll happen, and I see it as relatively important.

Much of it is a convenience feature, as I won’t have to go back to my “home base” just to get updated podcasts. But it may change my relationship to said podcasts, as I’ll be getting them more regularly, the way I’m now able to follow a large number of blogs using Reeder and Instapaper. Problem is, podcasts aren’t the type of content iCloud will host and it’s possible that the omission from the keynote was purposeful. Five years after transforming iTunes into the dominant “podcatcher”, it’s possible that Apple may be marginalizing podcasts in a rather serious way. I sure hope the opposite is true, and there’s a lot which could be done to make podcasts (and iTunes U) shine in the iCloud ecosystem.

But, again, I’ve been learning not to get my hopes up.

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