Game of Services: Revenge of the cloud dragons

In a world where mobility and service-oriented access to cloud-based applications and data becomes the established computing paradigm, the politics between the Great Houses of the Internet becomes more complicated than you can ever possibly imagine.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Back in June 2011, almost three years ago, I pondered the subject of cloud interoperability in my piece "Dragons in the Cloud: Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft." 

Three years in the computer industry, particularly in the fast-evolving software and cloud services side of things is practically an eternity. A lot changes, and it's possible to make predictions that which made perfect sense before will not hold up a few years later. Or at the very least, they need re-examining.

Here's one that I have to laugh about now, for example.

I do not expect Apple to be particularly flexible as it pertains to "Appifying" cloud services from Amazon, Google and Microsoft on iOS or even the Mac App Store. That much is a given -- and I expect the App Store developer agreement's "no duplication of OS functionality" clauses to extend to iCloud, selectively, as Apple sees fit to fortify its castle walls.

Of all the Dragons, I expect Apple to protect its fiefdom and the denizens (prisoners *cough*) of its walled gardens with extreme prejudice."

So it turns out that not only did Apple eventually allow competing cloud services to set up shop in their App Store on iOS and on the Mac, but they've also made a pretty profitable business out of doing so. Microsoft's, Google and Amazon's app presence at the top of their App Store charts definitively proves it.

In June of 2011, mobile was big, but it was nowhere near as it was big an industry as it is now. The iPad itself was still a fairly new phenomenon, having been out for only a year.

There was no Amazon tablet platform (although it would be announced three months later) and Android itself had no real impact in full-size tablets yet due to developer platform unification issues that would not be resolved until Ice Cream Sandwich's release until October of that year.

Windows Phone itself was six months old and there was no Windows 8, no Windows tablet or Modern UI unified developer experience to speak of. The first developer preview of Windows 8 didn't appear until February of 2012.

I didn't approach the issue of cloud services interop again until the summer of 2013. Hence, the Game of Services.

The backstabbing, the flip-flop plot twists and the political intrigue in the Game of Services is no less interesting than everyone's favorite HBO fantasy series. And as far as entertainment value it's slightly more family friendly.

Traditional cloud storage stuff without the use of a PC or a Mac becomes unwieldy if you have to move between one service or another, or simply if you add another device to your stable that uses an entirely different platform.

Why this renewed interest in cloud interop? Well, in the Mac/PC world it's an easier proposition to retrieve and move your data elsewhere because you are dealing with endpoint devices with a lot of local storage and richer end-user tools for manipulating that data.

For example on a PC if you have data on Google Drive, it's a fairly easy proposition to move that data to OneDrive, Amazon Drive, DropBox or even iCloud (providing you are using a Mac.) 

But in the mobile world it gets more complicated. Traditional cloud storage stuff without the use of a PC or a Mac becomes unwieldy if you have to move between one service or another, or simply if you add another device to your stable that uses an entirely different platform.

Got an iPhone on iCloud? Want to move your photos to OneDrive if you end up buying a Windows device? Not so easy. Same deal with Android if you want to move it to Google Drive, OneDrive or DropBox.

Sure, there's nothing stopping you from say, installing the dedicated OneDrive or Google Drive or DropBox apps on your iOS device. But attempt to move iCloud-stored data you edited in say, iWork, when you'd like to migrate it to Office for iPad for your personal OneDrive or OneDrive for Business account? Good luck with that without a real PC or Mac.

And that's just platform-level issues of moving data around between the various Mobile OSes. The cloud services themselves have decided to declare war on anyone who would try to interoperate. Let me explain.

The first chapter of Game of Services was all about the Mobile OS platforms, and who would be left standing. I think most of us have now come to the realization that the four houses, based on the relative strengths of their offerings and who they are targeting them to will all be around for a while. 

The second chapter was all about the Services themselves, what the houses had to offer in terms of Cloud Storage, Apps, Messaging and Music/Video/Books content and how those would continue to evolve. In Google and Microsoft's case, they also have Search, Maps and a few other overlapping and competing services as well.

The third chapter is where we are today, the battle over the API access to those public Cloud Services. And that's where I think things are really going to get nasty and the pot is already starting to boil.

I started thinking about this recently when David Gewirtz brought up concerns regarding Google Voice. Like David, and about one million other folks that still use the service, I'm a Google Voice user.

I have no immediate concerns that Google is going to abandon its GV userbase, in particular the single number to multiple device call routing. I think doing that would be catastrophic for the company's reputation.

What is dying, however, is the ability to access Google's Voice API through XMPP. That capability is going away on May 15. What that means to you, as an end-user, is that only Google's "Official" Voice apps (or Hangouts, or whatever they decide to re-brand the service as) on the respective platforms will be supported.

That's probably just fine if all you care about is the basic service functionality on iOS, Android or Chrome OS. But I happen to use a very nice 3rd-party application on Windows Phone called MetroTalk. Unless Google decides to become a Windows universal app developer, I can give up any hope of using their service natively on Windows Phone come May 15.

Cutting off API access is not exclusive to Google. In August of 2012 Twitter decided to clamp down on 3rd-party Twitter clients on all platforms by setting a "cap" on how many users they could ever have. This is a shame because Twitter's own clients on Windows, iOS and Android are lackluster compared to what 3rd-party developers are capable of doing.

I myself use a fantastic Twitter client called Tweetium on Windows 8.1. Because that is being ported to a universal Windows app for phones, tablets and desktops, Twitter's user cap is going to severely restrict Tweetium's reach. 

And then there's the API war between Facebook and Twitter. Both companies have been intolerant of each other's apps making API calls into each other's services for some time now.

In 2010, Facebook blocked Twitter's apps from being able to do friend lookups, and in July of 2012, Twitter did the same by cutting off Instagram's access to finding friends on Twitter. This was then followed in December of 2012 by Instagram stopping full photos from appearing in Twitter clients.

Because of all this nastiness all we are left with is ugly click-through links instead of beautiful Instagram selfies and cat pictures from appearing in our Twitter clients. And with Facebook's recent purchase of WhatsApp we can expect probably even more and more of a cold war between the two social media giants.

There is also ample evidence that Facebook itself is moving towards more of the walled garden model by separating functionality out into discrete apps on desktop and mobile platforms and de-emphasizing the consolidated website portal.

While it has not so much as cut off or restricted API access to the service yet to third parties, it has already shown signs of feudalistic behavior by blocking certain web features to browser extensions that can modify or improve the Facebook user experience such as Social Fixer

All of these things are bad for developers, which in turn is bad for end-users. The Game of Services has only just begun, and the conflict it seems has no hope of abating anytime soon.

Have recent cloud interop problems gotten you breathing fire? Talk Back and Let Me Know. 

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