Why Box.net's Aaron Levie is wrong about Apple's iCloud

As I sit awaiting my delayed flight, 5 out of 6 people on my row are using an iPad to consume content. I am the lone holdout, but only because my iPad is in my bag while I type this post on my MacBook.

Everyone knows that Apple dominates mindshare and wallet-share in mobile and tablet (70-80% iPad market share), and Apple is of course leveraging that momentum back into huge growth in Mac laptops.

So, when I read the comments of Box.net’s Aaron Levie about iCloud in a June 22 VentureBeat article, I was perplexed.

He argues that Apple, like Microsoft before it, is at risk because of the proprietary nature of its approach and says that the standardization Apple is bringing to the table limits innovation, and runs counter to the mix-and-match openness that customers really want.

To the contrary, I’d argue that Apple is setting the stage for more innovation, and that iCloud is going to speed the maturation of cloud services by setting a foundation – indeed, a platform, that the rest of us can build around, and innovate on.

First of all, iCloud is nothing like Microsoft’s Office 365 cloud strategy (which, incidentally, is far from failing).

Furthermore, if we are all honest with ourselves, the combined annual revenue of online file-sharing companies, including my company, Alfresco — is less than 10% the annual revenue of Microsoft’s online enterprise file-sharing service, SharePoint. The reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

More importantly, though, I think Levie is missing the big point here: iCloud marks the “featurization” and standardization of the cloud file system.

Just like every computer and server has a pretty run-of-the-mill hierarchical file system, Apple is making content storage, organization, version control and synching standard features of a cloud operating environment. It’s about time.

And Apple is going to get it right, considering what it has learned from Time Machine (making version control a no-brainer, incremental synch) and iPad (eliminating the need to “save” documents) — and the fact that it is cutting their teeth on large audio and video files in iTunes.

I have no doubt it is going to figure out documents in a few short months and eliminate my need for third-party file sharing or synch tools altogether.

But that’s just scratching the surface

Just like computer OS vendors of old, Apple is unleashing iCloud as a file system-like service for thousands of iOS, OSx and even Windows application developers.

It will be just another service that you use when building an app — significantly decreasing the need for application developers to integrate with DropBox, Box.net or even Amazon’s S3 to store files.

The easiest path will be just to use iCloud services for file management. I am already envisioning that when I download certain iOS apps, they are going to say, “This app wants to have access to your iCloud files. Do you accept?” — just like they do for location services today.

And here is why I will gladly accept: Standardization in this case enables new kinds of magic on top of commoditized (and to-date, chaotic) cloud services.

Once we have a standard, things get really interesting. Levie needs chaos so that Box still has a role to play. But what if the problems Box thinks it solves simply didn’t exist in the first place? What if we could all just focus on creating high-order value, instead?

What if all this file system functionality was just a feature of a new breed of cloud applications?

That is precisely what is happening here. Apple introduced its original HFS (hierarchical file system), and it was certainly innovative at the time, but historically speaking, it only remains of note because of everything else it has since enabled.

For one, I’m hoping for a Roambi-like iPad app that, like Tableau, will be able to look into my spreadsheets in iCloud and present back to me beautiful, interactive visualizations of my spreadsheet data that I can share with my co-workers.

My own spreadsheets, always available in iCloud, become little online databases that I can control and update and allow apps to access.

Two, it’s not difficult to imagine a Flipboard-style app that would build a channel around a folder of documents or a keyword search across my documents.

It would make reading a stack of PDF analyst reports a lot more exciting and interactive (maybe it would even pull in web searches for related articles from around the web, and display those fresh articles alongside a static report).

Or even how about an app that allows me to select one of my Keynote or PowerPoint presos, select a few contacts from my iPad contact list, and start up a WebEx-style group presentation (complete with audio) using FaceTime as the delivery mechanism?

iCloud as a cloud file system has some juicy possibilities when it’s a service available to Apple’s huge community of application developers. And in a few short months, iCloud will make the use cases for online file sharing a lot less relevant.

Now, if I could only convince Apple to support CMIS (content management interoperability services) so that third parties like Alfresco could enable smart, secure enterprise document sharing through iCloud … well, I can dream.

Todd Barr is the CMO of Alfresco. Alfresco is the largest open source content management company in the world, serving thousands of enterprises in 55 countries with an open source content collaboration and document management platform. Todd is @tbarr on Twitter, and blogs at socialcontent.com — a new blog about the intersection of social and content management, sponsored by Alfresco.