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Back to the Cloud

When I bought my first iPhone, I didn’t realize I would need the cloud someday.

By “cloud” we usually mean “online sync” nowadays. The possibility to keep different devices’ settings, email accounts, app databases in persistent synchronization. OmniFocus uses the cloud, for example. Simplenote is a cloud-based note taking application. Dropbox is the non-plus ultra of cloud-connected setups.

Then there’s MobileMe. Apple’s own sync infrastructure / online drive / web-based app suite that has managed to gain quite a few users over the years but, according to many, is still struggling to find an identity. What is MobileMe? Why does Apple keep on redesigning its web interface and doesn’t ship a major overhaul of the underlying engine instead?

OS X left the desktop and landed on the iPhone to gave birth to iPhone OS. Years later, iPhone OS evolved into the 2.0 version of Apple’s original mobile vision, iOS for iPhone and iPad. The once-OSX-now-iOS is going back to the Mac with Lion.

.Mac and iTools were tied to the Mac. The newly renamed MobileMe later approached the web and iPhone as lovechilds to keep safe and constantly connected. Two years after the introduction of MobileMe, it is time for Apple to go back to the cloud.

Apple often surprises us. We wait and speculate and get angry and geek out over missing features and unannounced or delayed products but we miss the real point: Apple rolls in its own peculiar way. Various pundits and tech bloggers or journalists alike are deeply convinced Apple either ships half-baked features, or releases products that go above all our expectations. In a way, right on the surface, it is true. Apple seems to be a company you either love or hate, with major and rare surprises and regular keynote disappointments.

But then why the record sales? Why the fanboys? Why the blogs?

It’s an iteration. It’s a wheel that spins at 5 miles per hour but still, it spins. It’s the result of years of experimentations (Cupertino) and angry geeks’ forum posts (that scary place known as “the Internet”) that has somehow managed to get Apple to where it is today. A slow process that is making the company grow fast. An oxymoron. The whole thing doesn’t make sense if you stop at the surface.

So let’s go deep. Apple rolls out features over features at their own schedule when they think they’re ready. Those who think that it’s Steve Jobs who retains ultimate control over every single detail are getting it wrong. Apple wouldn’t be in the position it is today if Steve Jobs didn’t learn to delegate. Sure he’s in chief when it comes to major decisions, but as we’re talking about slow processes and iterations here, the argument doesn’t hold up.

Apple doesn’t rush things. Either a market strategy or a philosophy, you don’t get a new version of Safari every six weeks or lab features in MobileMe mail. What you get is a small feature set that’s the result of months (sometimes years) of testing, refining and putting the crap away.

Which leads me to Apple’s cloud.

Right now, Apple hasn’t got the cloud model we, as geeks, would like to set up on our devices. We can’t stream our music and video libraries from anywhere to any device, as there’s no way to upload iTunes’ library to Apple’s servers and stream it over Wifi or 3G. We need to use the cable, the DVD of the post-USB era. We want everything to be synced and functional over Wifi. As a matter of fact, jailbreakers found a way to sync iTunes and iOS wirelessly without the need of plugging the cable in.

We want sync. Apple shall give it.

Going deeper, I think the problem is we want Apple’s sync. Because if you take a look at your home screens and the App Stores, you can see we’re already surrounded and overwhelmed by 3rd party cloud-based applications. SoundHound can recognize, tag and bookmark any song by contacting its own servers, a new version of Here, File File is coming out soon with its dedicated server instance. There’s no shortage of applications capable of doing sync. But just like Steve Jobs, we’ve become accustomed to the integrated model. We want, we need Apple’s proprietary sync service because we want it to be deeply integrated with our device. First-party magic. We want iTunes and the iPod app to be hooked up to the same engine that powers Mail and iDisk, we want to let iOS extend and communicate in the cloud with everything else we have installed.

So the “cloud” we keep hearing about should be Apple’s own implementation of a couple of existing services and features. iDisk: has anyone actually used it on a regular basis to let it fit in a workflow the way Dropbox can? I’m sure some of you may have, but that’s why you’re reading tweets from well-known and respected bloggers saying Apple should “buy” Dropbox. Dropbox is good and can be integrated with other apps. Think of all those 1Password databases living in Dropbox’s system. The problem is, is not integrated at the same level an Apple Cloud service could be. Plus, it requires tinkering.

Here’s my point: Apple wants an integrated model and so do we. A cloud system integrated with the OS developers can easily plug into with their apps. Apple already has MobileMe but it’s not widely regarded as the ultimate solution to achieve a cloud-based worklflow. Apple will go back to the cloud.

The scenario is interesting: MobileMe is considered “half-baked” by geeks (admittedly, I don’t use it that much) and casual users don’t want to fiddle with Dropbox folders and symbolic links to get their apps synced and running in the cloud. But they can’t achieve this with MobileMe either, so they’re asking for Apple to come out with its own solution.

It’s really simple: what if MobileMe became the best way to sync app databases, music, videos, passwords, bookmarks, preferences, emails, calendars - iTunes, iOS and OS X in the cloud? It can already perform some of the aforementioned functions. iTunes and the OSes, however, would be a much harder goal to achieve, both in terms of costs (data centers) and user experience.

Should Apple let users manually upload their existing music collections to the cloud or release a streaming service similar to what Spotify is already offering - a premium plan with songs available for streaming and offline caching? Remember that Apple has become a consumer-driven company that wants to keep things simple. What about a streaming model with upload options for those who really want to customize their library?

But then again, think about it: letting users upload their own library would mean million of different libraries stored on servers. A centralized streaming model would save space, bandwith and DRM legal issues with pirated content being uploaded by users. Apple could keep record labels happy in their iTunes download-only nest, and carry many of them over to the new iTunes in the Cloud palace, where downloads and uploads are strictly forbidden. It’d be simple and it wouldn’t waste space on our devices either.

Let’s go even further. Imagine music, movies, TV shows stored in the cloud and streamed to the Apple TV, which will soon be able to get additional streaming features with AirPlay. Also imagine a “reverse AirPlay” with the Apple TV being capable of streaming content to the iPad and iPhone as it detects you’ve picked up a device and walked away from the TV. What if Apple is really working on a Dropbox-killer feature for 10.7?

Still, Apple slowly iterates. A few features at a time, no need to release incomplete functionalities just for the sake of being first. MobileMe has become “half-baked” because we know what we want now, but years ago we didn’t imagine we would want this stuff one day. If you know Apple, you also know they don’t announce without delivering the goods. White iPhone 4 aside, Apple is a company that delivers on its own announcements, sometimes even more.

The problem is with the announcement itself. We don’t know what Apple’s cloud strategy is going to be. We don’t know what kind of priorities they have (is music streaming more important that desktop apps always in sync with mobile apps?) and we can’t imagine what the cloud is going to look like in the next six months.

We do know, though, that Apple iterates, releases and goes back to work. We do know that MobileMe is in there but it’s not as powerful as we would like it to be, and the alternatives are fine for geeks but “too much” for anyone else.

Whatever it is Apple’s working on, it will be a comeback. Back to cloud. Full speed to the next OS.

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