Through cloud, Apple circles wagons on ecosystem: 10 proof points

At WWDC 2011, Apple announced new features for OS X Lion and iOS 5 and pushed content to the cloud with iCloud. Is the company finally able to close the loop?
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

In a keynote speech during its Worldwide Developers Conference event, leading tech company Apple announced new features for "Lion," the next version of its desktop operating system OS X; the next version of its mobile operating system, iOS 5; and a new service, iCloud, which stores content in the cloud and automatically syncs it across multiple devices.

In doing so, it demonstrated how quickly the company is circling the wagons on its computing ecosystem, shutting out outsiders unless they play by strict rules -- and nearly doing away with alternatives altogether.

This is hardly the first article ever published about Apple's distaste for working with partners on any grounds but those it sets ahead of time, but in today's keynote speech, chief executive Steve Jobs made it expressly clear that if you want to reach a significant portion of the market for laptops, smartphones and tablets, you'll have to play by its rules.

It's good to be the popular girl, isn't it? Here's a list of 10 proof points, based on Apple's announcements today:

  1. Software, via the App Store. The Mac OS X App Store was announced months ago, but Apple reinforced it with numbers this time: it's now the No. 1 channel for buying computer software, ahead of Best Buy and Walmart. With the Mac installed user base growing 28 percent year-over-year -- the PC is declining -- and MacBooks occupying almost three-quarters of all notebook sales, that means Apple is increasingly able to pressure developers through its App Store chokepoint, just the same as the App Store in iOS. Which means a cut for Apple and rules as to what kind of content can be sold there. That includes its own operating system -- OS X Lion will be sold exclusively through this route, locking down the channel for that and making it a little harder to make a Hackintosh.
  2. E-commerce, via iOS Accounts. Apple said it had more than 225 million accounts with credit cards and one-click purchasing. That's a serious customer base for any kind of e-commerce endeavor, and it means anyone who uses an iOS device -- or Mac App Store-enabled PC -- is in this boat.
  3. Advertising, via iAds. If you want to show an add anywhere on this platform, save for the World Wide Web (and even then, Adobe Flash just won't do), you'll need to use Apple's advertising platform.
  4. Books, magazines and newspapers, via iOS Newsstand. Any of these that you subscribe to, you can now do through Apple's offering. It instantly gives publishers a way to get in front of iOS users, particularly those with iPads -- under Apple's rules, of course.
  5. Music, movies and TV, via iTunes in the cloud. This is a big one: no more multiple downloads/payments for the same piece of content. My CNET colleague Greg Sandoval has been doggedly reporting on Apple's sparring with record labels over royalties for this kind of thing -- let's just say the legal kinks aren't all worked out -- but the bottom line is that it's the last damn time you're paying for Led Zeppelin I.
  6. Games, via Game Center. iOS is now the world's most popular gaming platform, besting console makers by a significant margin in terms of installed customer base. And it's social, thriving on more usage by others around you.
  7. Contacts and calendar, via iOS sharing. Now you can share your contacts and calendar with other users, allowing iCal the potential to make significant inroads against Google's offering. Still, without significant enterprise support (most shops are using Exchange or Google Apps), this is more of a consumer play -- and contacts without Facebook seems to take the teeth out of this.
  8. E-mail, via iCloud. MobileMe is now absorbed into iCloud. And it's for free. Fans of MobileMe shelled out $99 a year for a suite of helpful services, including the @me.com e-mail service. Now it's open season -- anyone can have this.
  9. Documents, spreadsheets and presentations head to the cloud. Pages, Numbers, Keynote -- all of the files managed by these are traditionally Microsoft territory (with Google Apps leading the resistance charge) and that company has resisted letting Apple's iWork suite make any inroads against it. But if these apps are easily available on any iOS device, can they begin to turn the tide?
  10. Direct messaging, via iMessage. Think of it like BBM for the Apple set: direct messaging for iOS users only, over Wi-Fi or 3G.
  11. Peer-to-peer file sharing, via AirDrop. Replacing the run-across-the-room-with-a-USB-stick phenomenon.
  12. Photo Stream. Share and sync photos across devices, in conjunction with iPhoto.

So let's review:

If you're a business and want to sell software, music, movies, TV, books, magazines, newspapers, video games or ads to the growing mobility-minded population that also happens to be increasingly favoring Apple products, you'll have to play by Apple rules.

If you're one of the millions of consumers who use an iOS device and want to send a short message, e-mail, photo, file or business document of any kind -- or want to buy something online -- Apple has solutions that are not just available, but preferred on your chosen ecosystem. You have to go out of your way to find an alternative, assuming it's available through the channels I've outlined above -- after all, Apple's the gatekeeper.

It's a services world, baby, and you're just livin' in it.

A lot of this isn't new. Apple has for a long time offered products that compete with dominant solutions made by rival tech firms. The difference here is that with ubiquitous connectivity, Apple can far more effectively police its network -- that's too strong, perhaps merely "enforce its preferences" -- on a very large group of customers. Facilitating and reinforcing it all is the new iCloud, which keeps all devices in sync and by extension ensures consistency and upgradeability across devices.

Since its inception, Apple has been a walled garden company in many ways. But it was always the minority, far behind the PC in market share, especially so in the age of the Internet. But then a funny thing happened: its computers started becoming popular again. That's not a big deal on its face since the populace looked to the lawless Internet for functionality -- but then Apple rapidly blew past the competition in the mobile space, riding the success of the very-closed "app." Now, the dominance of the mobile platform is seeping in. The iPad isn't a product that no one knows what to do with; it's the new magazine, the new day planner, the new GameBoy, the new in-business-class-and-reviewing-my-presentation device. And now it syncs seamlessly with all the other devices in your life.

The mobile world is moving away from the chock-full-o'-content web and increasingly becoming a world of closed pipes of content, with Apple, Google, HP and Microsoft regulating the flow. Tech fiefdoms scattered across a vast open land have expanded into warring nation-states with adjacent borders. The Mac vs. PC vs. Linux argument from the early days of consumer computing has lost a great deal of its luster in recent years with the development of cloud computing on the open web, but the concept of platform wars is quickly making up for lost ground with the development of cloud computing in the closed mobile space.

Every tech company wants users to use its solutions over those from other companies. But with such a sizable lead in phones, tablets and (lately) computers -- plus the syncing tentacles of the cloud at its disposal, and the inherent nature of the mobile platform -- Apple is making it very hard to offer alternatives from within.

Which nation will you choose?

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