The next big problem Apple wants to tackle: Your data

Apple is very picky about the opportunities it goes after, but it appears it is about to make a big new bet on the cloud. See what iCloud might look like and the challenges Apple has to overcome.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief

At their core, most technology companies are glorified toolmakers. The biggest difference between the large ones and the small ones is primarily the size of the problems they're trying to solve.

For Apple -- one of the biggest and hottest companies in the tech industry -- it can afford to be picky about the opportunities it goes after. That's also part of the company's ethos. Steve Jobs once said, "I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things [we] have done. Innovation is saying 'no' to 1,000 things."

However, Apple is about to say "yes" to another big opportunity. It's going to tackle one of tech's biggest problems: Your data.

On Monday at its World Wide Developer Conference, Apple will unveil iCloud, which it calls its "upcoming cloud services offering." What will Apple announce? What is iCloud likely to be? There are lots of guesses: An online storage locker, a subscription music service, a cloud-based media streaming service, a wireless data syncing service. It depends on who you ask.

Two of the best sources even have conflicting predictions. Leander Kahney, author of Inside Steve's Brain and veteran Mac columnist, says his sources indicate the coming of a new AirPort Express/Time Capsule that will serve as a personal server connecting to the cloud and allowing users to seemlessly connect their data between multiple computers and mobile devices.

Meanwhile, Jon Gruber, who regularly comes through with reliable tips from inside Cupertino, argues iCloud will be an Internet-based replacement of iTunes that will allow computers, iPhones, iPads, and iPods to sync all of their media with the cloud instead of over USB.

Before I share my predictions, let's not forget that Apple doesn't have a stellar reputation in cloud services. Whatever form iCloud takes, Apple will have some important obstacles to overcome.

Apple's cloudy past

As excited as people seem to be about iCloud, it's easy to forget that Apple has wanted to be a cloud services provider for a long time and has done multiple bellyflops.

Apple has been in the cloud business for over a decade, long before we ever started calling it "the cloud." In 2000, Apple introduced iTools as a free service for Mac users. It offered a mac.com email address, a basic Web site (called HomePage), an online storage locker (iDisk), and a few more hokey services (like a online greeting card service called iCards). Since it was free, users didn't complain too badly about it, although many of them hoped Apple would do more with it.

In 2002, Apple renamed the service .Mac, turned it into a paid subscription, and upgraded the @mac.com email service, iDisk, and HomePage. It also added a backup service and a McAfee antivirus scanner. However, Apple let the service languish and did little to develop it, other than a nice update to the email service in 2006 and a new Web Gallery photo sharing service in 2007. Overall, only a small subset of Mac users adopted it, and many of them complained about the price and rightly questioned Apple's commitment to the service.

In 2008, the company turned the service into MobileMe, focusing on expanding the email service to include more advanced features as well as calendar and contacts. Apple dubbed it, "Exchange for the rest of us," referring to Microsoft Exchange Server, which most corporate employees used at the time. Apple wanted MobileMe to be a viable Exchange alternative for individuals and small business professionals. However, Google stole its thunder by enhancing Gmail and Google Apps, which even most Mac users prefer over MobileMe as an Exchange alternative. It didn't help that MobileMe suffered from a number outages and sync problems. Steve Jobs even admitted in an internal Apple email that MobileMe "was simply not up to Apple's standards."

With iCloud, Apple looks ready to take another shot at relaunching the service. This time it will have to overcome its reliability issues, come up with better features than Google and Microsoft, and solve the issue of effectively syncing apps, data, and preferences across computers and mobile devices.

What to expect from iCloud

For two years, Apple has been building one of the world's largest data centers -- bigger than almost any single data center we've seen from Google, Amazon, or Microsoft. This much-reported 500,000 square foot behemoth in Maiden, North Carolina came online this spring, just in time for the iCloud launch.

Building something this large and ambitious says a lot about the scope of Apple's cloud plans. It's doubtful Apple would build something on this scale just to continue selling songs and videos on iTunes and keep MobileMe alive. It's much more likely that Apple has a series of plans for moving to cloud-based services in the years ahead, and we'll only hear about the beginning of those plans at WWDC 2011 on Monday.

I expect to hear about a cloud-based music service, since Apple has reportedly already signed streaming deals with the major music companies. Users are tired of managing their music libraries. That's why services such Pandora, Rdio, Last.fm, and Spotify have become so popular in recent years. It's also why services such as Amazon Cloud Player and Google Music, which require users to upload their libraries, are cool but ultimately don't solve the problem of having to manage a bunch of files. Apple is likely to launch a service that will scan your library to give you access to all the music you already own, while also offering a subscription fee to listen to new music and to get a taste for other stuff you don't own.

However, the more interesting question at WWDC will be what Apple does with MobileMe. The most potent thing Apple could do would be to take iDisk (a component of MobileMe) and expand it into a storage service that rivals Dropbox, but with much deeper integration into iOS and Mac OS X. And then, turn the MobileMe email and calendar into cloud-based services that offer the Google Docs-like capability of having the same messages or files open on multiple devices at once and enable real-time collaboration and syncing. Put those two services together and add in cloud hosting and access to multimedia files seamlessly across computers and devices and you've suddenly got a much more powerful way to handle your data. That's what I'm looking for with the launch of iCloud at WWDC.

Of course, that would have serious implications for business and IT. For small businesses, this type of iCloud offering would streamline data management and reduce the need for systems integrators. In the corporate IT world, the iCloud service would have to be handled with kid gloves to make sure employees don't use it to store sensitive company information and cause data leakage.  Still, Apple has the opportunity to connect the dots on data in a way that no other company has been able to do yet, and that could ultimately benefit professionals as well as consumers (especially if Apple pursues an enterprise version of the service).

Finally, even if Apple introduces a bang-up cloud service at WWDC, the company is going to be forced to become more transparent and responsive to customers in order to be a good cloud provider. In an outage, it won't be able to act like it did with the iPhone 4 antenna issue or the recent Mac malware problem, where Apple hung back for a long time before even acknowledging the problem and then talking about a fix. In short, if Apple becomes a major cloud provider, it's going to have to change its ways. But, I have to think Apple would see that as a fair trade-off in order to solve a problem as big-and-hairy as this one.

Also read

This was originally published on TechRepublic.

Editorial standards