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If anyone mentioned iCloud at Apple’s announcement event yesterday, it went by so quickly that I missed it. And that means that a glaring hole will remain in its otherwise strong ecosystem for the foreseeable future.
iCloud does a few things reasonably well, notably syncing contacts and calendar among iPhones, iPads, Macs, and to a limited extent, Windows. It also provides a clunky conduit for moving documents created in Pages, Numbers, and Keynote among devices, along with files for some third-party offerings whose developers have found a way to work with the baroque iCloud APIs.
But this leaves Apple way behind the competition in the increasingly important area of cloud services. I use SugarSync to make sure that important files are available on all my documents. I use DropBox to share files among my devices and, on a very selective basis, with third parties. I’m an officer of a non-profit that runs on Google Apps and we use Google Drive to share documents all the time. And I make occasional use of Microsoft SkyDrive and Amazon Cloud. All of these services are more comprehensive and useful than iCloud, which I is relegate to calendar and contact sync and Photo Stream.
iCloud’s 5 gigabytes of free storage is also relatively stingy compared with SkyDrive’s 7 GB and Google Drive’s 15. Using iCloud for music storage is essentially impossible without a paid account unless you have a really small music collection. And the fact that you cannot use it to store arbitrary file types severely limits its usefulness.
At a time when Apple is both beefing up its key iOS and Mac apps and driving their price down to free, its failure to provide a better–and cheaper–iCloud remains a strange anomaly.
I’ve just spent about half an hour playing with the new Office 2013 preview, so obviously this is a very preliminary reaction. There will be a lot more to say in coming weeks and months. But I do think that in its understandable enthusiasm to bring Office applications to the cloud, Microsoft has made a fundamental mistake.
I very much like the idea of syncing copies of documents to the cloud. But I want first and foremost to retain a local copy, especially when working on a laptop rather than a tablet. Here’s how I do it now: My Office apps are set to save files by default to the Documents folder on both Windows and Mac. The Documents folders, along with its many subfolders, is set up to sync automatically with SugarSync and the non-tablet systems that I use regularly are set up for full two-way sync; when I upload a new or updated document from system A, that same document is silently, but quickly, downloaded to system B. This gives me up-to-date local and cloud copies. (You can do something similar with other sync services such as Dropbox, but I have been using SugarSync since it was in beta.)
The new Office apps save by default only to CloudDrive, meaning that no permanent local copy of the file is created (a temporary file is created to save any changes made while not connected to the network.) This makes sense on Windows tablets, though not as much sense as it does on a iPad, which lacks a real user-accessible file system. It makes no sense whatever on a laptop. You can easily override the default setting to store files locally, but then you have to manually create a cloud copy. Based on lots of experience, for reasons of both security and availability, I want that local copy.
What a really want from CloudDrive integration is something that works like SugarSync and automatically saves locally and syncs to the cloud. In fact, it could usefully go a step further and check before opening a local copy to see if there is a newer version on CloudDrive and give you the choice of which one you wanted to edit. This wouldn’t be hard to implement and would provide a much better experience.
Apple iCloud launched two months ago to huge fanfare and punditry. It’s no surprise given the huge future opportunity with the cloud. Also, it was a big deal for Apple given their past online endeavors had been so unsuccessful that even Steve Jobs issued out one of the few apologies Apple had ever made. In that case, it was about MobileMe. Two months in, Apple has done an admirable job, but it’s clear if they don’t plug some holes, competition has the ability to swoop and and deliver a much more user centric, comprehensive solution.
iCloud Problem #1: Lack of video sync
Unlike photos with Photostream, iCloud will not sync videos taken off of an iPhone and sync to a consumer’s iPad, PC, Mac, or Apple TV. So that last minute winning basketball score…. you are out of luck. Lose the video? Oops… With advanced and mainstreamers users already embracing video this is a huge hole that will be be filled by someone. Bandwidth isn’t an excuse because there’s certainly enough of that over WiFi at home or the business. This is a hole that Google could easily fill in that they get video via YouTube. And with Apple owning both ends of the pipeline, they could even develop a proprietary CODEC that shrinks and expands the files minimizing bandwidth even over WiFi. Microsoft certainly has the capability given they own the PC market and with Live Mesh could provide an solution that never touches an external server.
iCloud Problem #2: Fractured productivity pipeline
Unlike photos, iCloud requires significant user intervention to sync documents, presentations, and spreadsheets between iOS devices and PCs/Macs. If a user creates a document on an iPad and wants to pull it into Pages for Mac, the user is required to download from iCloud.com. After changes are made on the Mac, the user needs to drop it back into iCloud.com. Seems like syncing documents folder on the Mac and PC would have been a whole lot easier. Again, an opportunity for Google Docs and Office 365 from Microsoft.
iCloud Problem #3: Lack of on-line photos
Unlike Google Picasaweb and Yahoo Flickr, iCloud provides no way to go online and view, download, and share pictures from a web browser. This is a very basic feature that is surprising in its absence. Microsoft Live Mesh and Windows Live service can easily fill in this gap.
iCloud Problem #4: PDFs are books, not documents
For most consumers, PDFs are intended to be files intended to be uneditable documents. They are so pervasive that even global governments use them as standard document formats. How does iCloud treat them? As books, of course. In Apples war with Adobe they have crossed the line and have sacrificed the consumer in the process. This is easily addressed by Google and Microsoft.
Filling the Gap
Many companies can fill the gap opened by the lack of iCloud comprehensiveness, timing, and completeness. They fall into two categories; niche plays and comprehensiveness plays.
From a comprehensive standpoint, there are three options, Google, Microsoft and an OEM. Google and Microsoft solutions are straightforward, but the OEM play is a bit complex. Google and Microsoft can build cross platform smartphone, tablet and desktop apps that keep everything in sync. Google already has many desktop apps, with Picasa 3 already filling the comprehensive photo sync role to Picasa Web. Microsoft already has a comprehensive solution with LiveMesh and Office 365 but need to provide more robust smartphone and tablet integration. OEMs like HP, Sony and Dell could either build their own infrastructure or partner with companies like Box, Dropbox, or Sugarsync to fulfill that need. They could also partner with Microsoft and Google as well, but sacrifice some level of integration and control.
The niche players are in the market today, companies like Sugarsync, Box, Dropbox and even Evernote. Essentially, a consumer looking for a specific, non-integrated solution can look to these players today to provide cloud sync. While they aren’t always integrated into an end to end pipeline into the apps, they provide a solution today, and maybe even tomorrow who don’t want to get locked into a solution. Most sophisticated and experienced users will actually prefer this approach as they understand the complexity and see the downside to being locked into an app environment. Probably many reading this blog in fact.
Microsoft, Google, and Independents Fill the Gap
I believe Apple is rolling out online, integrated services as fast as it can, prioritizing what it believes consumers will want first. Services hasn’t been Apple’s core competency, as Ping and MobileMe highlight this. It’s on a slow pace which will let Microsoft and Google edge into a market leading position, regardless of Apple’s prowess in phones and tablets. Microsoft will leverage their ~95% share in PCs and Google will leverage their market share advantage in smartphones and search. The big question is, can Apple accelerate into an area rife with competition in an area which isn’t it’s core competency?