Apple’s iCloud: Why should we care?

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In the technology world, cloud computing seems to be the new black. This was recently underlined by Apple’s announcement of iCloud at their recent developer. This could be considered great news for the Cloud industry. You know you’ve arrived as an industry when a consumer giant like Apple brings the concept to the consumer space and invests heavily in building mindshare around cloud computing. Cloud is already a large umbrella that describes a multitude of different technology implementations; the danger is that Apple’s touting of its iCloud risks confusing enterprise customers. Apple’s new iCloud essentially enables its software-as-a-service (SaaS) for consumers. That’s it, and nothing more. In fact it might well have been branded as as MobileMe version 2.0 had that not been such a monumental failure. If you are not familiar with MobileMe, it was Apple’s earlier attempt at a subscription-based SaaS offering that enabled contacts, calendar, and email syncing. At $99/year it was a tough pill to swallow. Having personally attempted to swallow that pill, I quickly canceled my service after a year. Apple actually apologized for MobileMe during the iCloud announcement.

Ok so maybe I’m being a little unfair. As you would expect from Apple, it actually does a good job of enabling software-as-a-service and in many ways sets a new bar for others to follow. Apple has demonstrated the power of the cloud and what can be enabled when you have the availability of vast amounts of scalable computing power and potentially limitless storage. So from that perspective, we hope to see greater adoption of cloud-enabled applications which is good for the cloud industry (there I said something nice).

Let’s take a closer look at what Apple has enabled using the iCloud. First as you would expect, Apple has enabled users of iPhones, iPads, and Macs to synchronize their contacts, calendars, and mail (just like MobileMe). The contents of the entire device can be backed up to the cloud, which makes recovering from a lost phone a lot less painful. Any purchases in the App store, iBooks, and iTunes can be easily synchronized between Apple devices using the iCloud. With the photostream service, photographs taken on one device seamlessly arrive on the other devices. Finally, and probably most significantly, documents (Pages, Numbers and Keynote files) can also be easily synchronized between devices by using iCloud. Apple is also making available the storage API so that other developers (on the Apple platform) can use the iCloud for their applications. The real seller of all these iCloud enabled SaaS offerings is that they are free (or rather, you pay for them when you buy an Apple device). There is an optional fee-based service named iTunes Match, which enables users to store their non-iTunes purchased music in the cloud. An interesting feature of this service is that any MP3s that are in the iTunes store will provide you with a premium quality 256 Kbps version of your MP3. This provides users with a high quality MP3 of their music, but more importantly means that the iCloud does not need to store your MP3 file (only your eligibility to play the MP3s you own). Think about the potential storage cost saving in that implementation. Clever.

So, you’re wondering ‘why the iCloud commercial?’ There are a couple of reasons why Apple’s new iCloud is of interest. The first as I have mentioned is because it is an interesting SaaS offering that can unlock the gates for other SaaS providers, just as the iPhone lead to the explosion of touch-based smartphones. Second, it is an ambitious cloud offering that has many people wondering about the technical implementation. During the iCloud announcement, Apple made a big deal of showcasing its new data center in North Carolina. However, much speculation exists about whether Apple has its own data center running the iCloud or if it is making use of other public cloud offerings. I’m sure we’ll learn more as Apple rolls out its iCloud later this year.

Apple is a master of innovating technology for enhancing the user experience; as I mentioned previously, I think from a SaaS perspective Apple is pushing the envelope of how cloud computing can be exploited in a way that brings value to the consumer experience. Although Apple is not the only company or even the pioneer in bringing SaaS to market, I do believe Apple is making strides in using cloud technology to enable consumer value that translates directly to business value (and profits).

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