iCloud: Tale of Apple's lock-in strategy

In my last posting, I blogged about whether cloud computing will survive the storm, where I concluded that the cloud is not going to go away despite some high-profile outages that have hit the headlines recently.
Written by Edwin Yapp, Contributor

In my last posting, I blogged about whether cloud computing will survive the storm, where I concluded that the cloud is not going to go away despite some high-profile outages that have hit the headlines recently.

What's interesting to note is that about three weeks after that posting, one of the most high-profile announcements in the tech world came courtesy of Steve Jobs, who announced at the Apple's Worldwide Developers' Conference that the company will be bringing its version of the cloud to the world this fall.

Dubbed Apple's iCloud, the service is a revamp of an earlier online storage offering which the company called MobileMe and has been tweaked to be able to offer, among other things, music on the move through the cloud.

Unlike its rivals Google and Amazon, both of which launched their version of their cloud offerings a couple of months earlier, iCloud doesn't require users to upload their digital music collection before using it. The reason for this is that Apple has cut deals with all major music record labels, thereby, allowing users to download on any device any song they have ever bought.

Many commentators have since hailed iCloud as the next big thing that Apple is heading into and expect consumers to lap it up.

The New York Times quoted Mike McCue, a veteran Silicon Valley executive who now heads Flipboard, a popular news app for iPhone and iPads as saying: "This is a milestone in computing. The fact that you no longer have to think in terms of files and folders is a big deal."

In that same article, Gartner analyst Mike McGuire was quoted as saying that Apple's service was superior to its competitors. "When you buy something new, it's now automatically on all of your devices. You don't have to think about it."

But for me, the most interesting observation came from a Wired Magazine article. In it, Brian Chen, the author noted that the biggest thing about the iCloud service wasn't about how cloud computing is taking hold in the consumer world, neither was it about how groovy Apple's iCloud music service was but rather that Apple has now achieved vendor and device lock-in like never before.

Chen noted the new feature set introduced by Apple tightens its vertical integration of its software ecosystem by amplifying its "lock-in" goal. "The idea behind this strategy is: If you're an iPhone customer today, how can you resist buying a Mac or an iPad now, and why would you buy a Windows PC or an Android device? And if you're already plugged into Apple's cloud ecosystem, why use a cross-platform solution like Dropbox or Google Docs to store your media, when the Apple-only experience is bound to be more optimized for you?"

An interesting point indeed.

In the battleground for dominance in the next frontier in computing, Apple is setting new bars and throwing down the gauntlet at its competitors, and I must say, doing a good job at it.

By providing an avenue for Apple users to extend its applications onto an online storage service via iCloud, and to do so with the seamless simplicity Apple is known for, Jobs is effectively challenging the paradigm of the day--that computing and multimedia revolve around devices that have been for years localized in homes and offices.

With iCloud and a host of tightly controlled devices [Macs, iPads and iPhones], apps via iTunes and its huge developer ecosystem and iCloud services, Apple is seeking to break that paradigm.

However, while I can understand Jobs' proposition and Apple's strategy going forward, I'm not entirely convinced that it's a good thing for end-users such as you and me.

Being an Apple user for the past four years, including going through three iterations of iPhones, I can tell you that Apple's tightly-controlled ecosystem, while very functional and user friendly, is also extremely rigid.

From how you handle files and move them between devices, managing your applications, to what kind of file formats they play, Apple products can be a real pain if you're not subscribing to the rules set by them.

By acceding to how Jobs is positioning iCloud, users will invariably be subjected to Apple's control of how data is managed and how services are rolled out. Ultimately, such moves limit the choices of consumers, and enforce more lock-in on the part of the consumers, which I believe is not necessarily a good thing.

If the history of computing has taught us anything, it's this: Vendor lock-in became a bane for the industry because such moves only limit the choices consumers' have and this also means that they are at the mercy of everything that a particular vendor--in this case, Apple--dictates.

But thankfully, Apple's iCloud isn't the only way to go for consumers who still want choice. As Times columnist, Verne G. Kopytoff , noted in his blog, the Apple iCloud may not be a threat to online storage services as yet.

Kopytoff argued that there are still some uncertainties over the iCloud promise such as pricing, interoperability with other software formats and other feature sets such as sharing across different platforms.

At the end of the day, Apple's iCloud may turn out to be a paradigm shift in how consumers move away from the PC and laptop as the center of their computing universe.

But the jury's still out on whether Apple will be able to knock a number of innovative companies offering cloud services off their perch yet.

And the good thing is that is that with so much at stake, you can bet that these companies certainly won't be standing on the sidelines but will instead constantly innovate and provide more options for us consumers to turn to.

And what of consumers who do go the way of Apple's iCloud?

They would do well to note that they would need to dance to Apple's every tune and be prepared to face with perhaps the mother of all lock-ins.

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