Apple is making a big deal about how its newly-announced Mountain Lion operating system comes with built-in iCloud syncing and storage. But if you cut through the deafening hype, iCloud is still a woefully limited solution that most consumers and businesses should not take seriously yet.
As much as I commend Apple for prioritizing the cloud by integrating iCloud into Mountain Lion, the company is only shining a bright spotlight on how it’s still way behind the competition when it comes to cloud services. Competitors such as Dropbox, Box, and SugarSync all have a serious edge on iCloud when it comes to file management, platform availability, and sharing files. Google is also likely to enter this fray soon with its own Drive cloud storage product, which we expect to become competitive, too.
Before we delve into just how iCloud is lacking, a little more background on the service: iCloud essentially helps complete Steve Jobs’ vision of a truly connected Apple ecosystem. iCloud users have an automated system for backing up photos, documents, bookmarks, and other files — as long as they stay within Apple hardware and software. To start an iCloud account, you can enable the service in iOS 5 on an iPhone or iPad or inside of Lion OS X. There is also an undercooked Windows-based control panel that works for Vista and Windows 7 OSes. More than 100 million Apple users have signed up for iCloud thus far.
Now, iCloud is getting more hype than before because it will be integrated inside Apple’s next OS. iCloud gets name-checked in the third sentence of Apple’s press release announcing the new Mountain Lion OS, saying, “Mountain Lion is the first OS X release built with iCloud in mind for easy setup and integration with apps.” The company also notes: “Mountain Lion uses your Apple ID to automatically set up Contacts, Mail, Calendar, Messages, FaceTime, and Find My Mac. The new iCloud Documents pushes any changes to all your devices so documents are always up to date, and a new API helps developers make document-based apps work with iCloud.”
Sounds pretty decent so far, right? Yes, until you realize the limitations. First, to get any serious benefit, you must have all Apple devices and not a mix like the majority of users. Those documents that sync across your Apple devices, at this point, have to be from Apple’s iWork suite, which not everyone has or wants to use. And, how long before the document creation or editing app you want to use will have iCloud support? Who knows.
Limited device support
In terms of helping consumers with devices, iCloud is wildly incomplete. Let’s compare iCloud to Dropbox for a moment, just for clarity’s sake. Dropbox, which was once a service Steve Jobs wanted to buy, installs its software on nearly any device (Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry, etc.) and keeps files available no matter where you access them. I’ll admit Dropbox isn’t perfect — having a “cloud” service taking physical storage space on my computer is a bit frustrating — but it is one of the best solutions available on the market.
But iCloud doesn’t work across platforms, generally keeping you locked inside Apple’s garden. If you have a Samsung Galaxy Nexus and a MacBook Air, for example, iCloud can’t help you stay in sync. If you have an iPhone and a Windows 7 desktop (an extremely common combination), you can’t reap the full benefits of the pairing, even though there is minor Windows access. Basically, to get the best iCloud experience, you best buy an iPhone and a Mac.
Dropbox was unable to provide anyone to talk in-depth about iCloud on short notice, but the company did at least tell me it appreciates what Apple has accomplished but feels its solution is much more complete. “iCloud is a step forward for Apple, but what our tens of millions of users love is that unlike iCloud, Dropbox keeps all your files in one place and lets you access and share them from anywhere,” the company said in a statement to VentureBeat. “Our users also love that Dropbox works with all kinds of devices and apps, not just those from Apple.”
Non-starter for enterprise
And if you delve into the enterprise realm, iCloud is a complete non-starter. Sitting next to enterprise-cloud-solution Box, for example, iCloud is lacking so severely that Box CEO Aaron Levie told me it is acting like a marketing platform to interest users in cloud solutions that it can’t deliver.
“On the enterprise side, iCloud has never been a threat,” Levie said. “Apple doesn’t deliberately go after businesses with this. 90 percent of computers in the enterprise are Windows, while maybe 5 percent of phones are running Windows. You fundamentally have to be open and device-agnostic.”
The often-outspoken Levie makes the case that iCloud is a personal solution only, which is fine for his Apple-loving mother. Levie said it is fine for backing up your photos and music, but when it comes to sharing files with a URL or passing a document back-and-forth, you’re out of luck.
“iCloud is remarkably unsophisticated for sharing and collaboration,” he said. “At this point, iCloud is just data floating between applications.”
Unquestionably, iCloud is an important product for Apple the company and Apple the ecosystem. But until it gives users access to better file management, sharing tools, and multi-platform functionality, the solution is still short-sighted and over-praised.
I have no doubt the service will get better during the course of the next year. Apple is walking a fine line to meet the needs of novices and power users alike, and it will make steady improvements, as it does with all its software. It’s unlikely Apple will provide iCloud support for rival mobile OSes like Android or Windows Phone 7, but I do believe it will offer more powerful support for Windows 7 and maybe even Windows 8, mostly because it knows how hard it would be to get people to stop using PCs.
“When Tim Cook says this is a long-term bet for Apple, I believe him,” Levie said.
Storm clouds photo: MAMJODH/Flickr