In Defense of iCloud
You can’t analyze the industry as I do and not evaluate platform specific strategies to meet consumer needs. I study closely the platforms, ecosystems, and cloud services strategies of many companies. Right now the discussion is focused on Google and Apple for good reason. Google’s solution, similar to Microsoft’s, is hardware agnostic. Meaning the solutions can run on any hardware that allows it. Apple is unique in that many of their software and services solutions are available only to Apple hardware. Apple’s approach is rare, and rare is usually valuable, unless you work on Wall St.
Apple’s services strategy with iCloud has taken a beating from the media the past few months. Some of the criticisms are fair. One of Apple’s biggest challenges is to compete with other platform providers on cloud services and I think many of us agree Apple is not there yet. But, keep in mind Apple is an aspiring services company and I am confident they will get it right eventually. It just may take a little time, and the way market adoption cycles work, they do have time.
That being said, there is a cloud service that Apple provides that I think does not get enough attention. This feature happens to be one I personally find extremely useful. It is synchronization.
Change and Detect Engines
Sync has taken many forms through the years. I was first exposed to its power with the first and subsequent Palm Pilot devices. If you recall, sync played a key role on Palm devices. You had all your contacts on your PC, and if you wanted to access them on your Palm, you synched them. If you add a contact on your Palm Pilot you don’t want to re-enter it in your contact list on your PC so you sync them. The software knew what has changed and what has not changed on either piece of hardware and voila, the data stays consistent.
My company, Creative Strategies, worked with many sync services in those days with Intelli-Sync being the most public. They had an extremely useful bit of software that let your Palm Pilot sync with Microsoft Outlook. This was useful beyond measure at the time. As profound an experience as this was, the synchronization service that really got me thinking was developed by Microsoft and is called ActiveSync.
I first set Creative Strategies up with an Exchange server in 2000. It was one of the first things I did just after I joined the company. The whole experience sunk in when I started setting up the many Microsoft powered Pocket PCs I was using at the time. I would simply open up Outlook, put in my data, and boom, all my email was there. Wirelessly keeping my email in sync on all the screens in which I used email was and still is useful beyond measure. For years after that I told everyone who would listen that someday we will have the equivalent to ActiveSync for consumers that will keep all our digital stuff synced on all our devices. iCloud is exactly that.
Apple has heavily promoted the synchronization features of iCloud in many commercials. The idea of taking a photo on your iPhone and having that photo almost instantly show up on your Mac or iPad. Starting writing a document with Pages on your iPad and it picks up right where you left off with on your Mac. Any and all changes on one device are mirrored on all your other screens. When I only had one primary compute screen–the PC–this was not an issue. I only used one screen. But once I started bringing a number of compute devices into my life, cloud synchronization of key data became essential.
Currently there is not a single bit of critical information that I rely on for my day job and family life that is not synced across all my devices and those of my families screens through the cloud. For some of this key data I use Apple’s services and for others I use third party services. What matters is that I know I can get that document, photo, video, ebook, etc., on any screen at any time.
This is an extremely strong value proposition for consumers. When we interview first time customers to Apple’s ecosystem, often iCloud synchronization of things like photos come up as a highlight of their experience.
Are We There Yet
Of course this whole experience still has a way to go. But Apple has attracted the attention of many third party applications that are using cloud for data synchronization. My favorite, by far, is Tweetbot. I use Tweetbot on my iPhone, iPad, and Mac. I can be scrolling my Twitter timeline on my iPhone. Then when I move to my Mac or iPad, Tweetbot knows where I left off reading my Twitter timeline and takes me to the place right where I left off. For a Twitter addict like me, this experience is useful beyond measure.
I am, of course, not saying that Apple is the only one doing synchronization. Amazon syncs media, books, and more using WhisperSync. Google syncs data through drive, apps through the Play store, and more. What I am saying is that of all the platforms and ecosystems I have tried, Apple’s synchronization is the most encompassing and perhaps the most tightly integrated.
Cloud services and certainly synchronization is not easy. On all platforms I’ve used there are issues and sometimes things don’t work. People may say Apple is behind in some areas of their cloud services, but I can make the case that other companies are behind in theirs as well, namely platform integrated synchronization. And while I certainly don’t expect competing platforms to stand still, I don’t expect Apple to either.