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Apple and a web-free cloud

Apple's approach to the cloud is business as usual, and that's what makes it interesting.

iCloudThe nature of Apple’s new iCloud service, announced at WWDC, is perhaps more interesting than it seems. It hints very firmly at the company’s longer-term strategy; a strategy that doesn’t involve the web.

Apple will join Google and Amazon as a major player in cloud computing. The 200 million iTunes users Apple brings with them puts the company on the same level as those other platforms. Despite that, the three companies obviously see the cloud in very different ways, and as a result have very different strategies.

Amazon is the odd man out. Their cloud offering is bare metal, contrasting sharply with Google, and now Apple’s, document-based model. To be fair, Amazon’s target market is very different, with their focus on service providers. If you’re a Valley start-up looking for storage and servers, you need look no further than Amazon’s Web Services platform.

Google and Apple’s document model contrasts sharply with Amazon’s service-stack approach. Both Google and Apple have attempted to abstract away things, like the file system, which stand between the end user and their data. An unsurprising difference perhaps, Google and Apple are consumer-facing companies that are marketing to the final end user rather than the people and companies who aim to provide services for those users.

But that’s where the similarity between Google and Apple breaks down. Google sees the cloud as a way to deprecate general purpose computers in the hands of their users. In the same way that their new Chromium OS is built for the web, their cloud strategy is an attempt to move Google’s users away from native applications so that their applications and data live in Google’s cloud of services. Perhaps coincidentally, this also gives Google the chance to display and target their advertising even more cleverly.

Apple’s approach is almost entirely the opposite. They see the cloud as a way to keep the general purpose computer on life support for a few more years until touch-based hardware is really ready to take over. Apple’s new cloud platform is built for native applications, in an attempt to pull users into native apps designed for their platforms. This method also gives Apple the chance to sell hardware, applications, and content that will lock users into their platform even more firmly. This is the basis of the often remarked “halo effect.”

At least on the surface things seem to be simple — the “why” of the thing is not in question. However it’s what hasn’t been said, at least openly, that raises the most interesting questions.

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Apple is fundamentally platform orientated. It’s deep in their company genetics. The ill-fated official cloning program from the mid-’90s, which was brought to a screeching halt by the return of Steve Jobs, seems to have set a deep fear inside the company about letting someone else control anything that might stand between the company and direct access to their customers.

At least to me, nothing confirms that mindset more than Apple’s return to designing their own processors in-house in Cupertino. Apple has a long history of using its own custom silicon, but it’s been more than five years since Apple has done so. With the move to Intel, the hope was to delegate nearly all of Apple’s custom chip development. Unfortunately, that proved to be a stumbling block when Apple built the first generation iPhone. The Samsung H1 processor in the original model wasn’t quite what Apple wanted, even though it was what had been asked for, and I think the return to custom silicon probably brought a sigh of relief in some corners of the company.

The link between custom chips and the cloud may seem tenuous at first glance, but I think Apple’s return to designing their own silicon is telling. Almost as telling as spending half a billion dollars on a custom data center to support their new iCloud service. Both moves show the company is now committed more than ever to controlling the verticals. From the chips inside the devices to the data centers their customers’ data ultimately resides on, Apple is committed to controlling the user experience, and the web has no place in that.

You might argue that this is because the web is “too open” and that threatens Apple’s platform. However, the continuing argument over openness, or lack there of, isn’t really relevant. Despite Google’s protestations to the contrary, neither of these two companies is particularly open. The very document-based model they’re both advocating in their cloud architectures precludes a truly open system. It’s such an obvious straw man argument that it’s not actually that interesting.

What is interesting is that there was little or no mention of the web, or HTML5, during Apple’s
WWDC keynote. I think you’ll see far less emphasis on HTML5 from Apple in the future, unless someone asks to do something with Apple’s platform the company disapproves of, and then the traditional answer of “Well, you can
always do that in HTML5″ will be rolled out again.

Apple has finally put their cards on the table. They have not yet bet the company on iCloud, but it’s telling how deep the integration into both iOS and OS X appears to be. They have for too much invested in iCloud for it to fail, if only in reputation. Whether the first incarnation lives up to its promises out of the box is still to be seen, but success isn’t out of the question. Despite MobileMe, Apple does know how to build large-scale reliable backend services. You only have to look at the App Store itself for an example.

So in the future don’t be too surprised to see Apple integrate iCloud even more tightly with both iOS and OS X. For the same strategic reasons, don’t be shocked to see more custom chips appear — I expect to see the arrival of ARM-based MacBooks and the transition away from Intel for Apple’s laptops. That’s because for Apple, It’s all about the platform.

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  • nebcfsj

    I still have a good PowerPC notebook and here Apple is intending to leave Intel CPUs for either custom designs of their own or to ARM etc…

    If this means that my software is going to become useless again, they will lose my support for certain! Let us be clear as consumers that what we need NOT have is continual spending for new software because it becomes obsolescent again!

  • Mark

    Nebcfsj,
    You aren’t the customer anyone wants. You aren’t spending money so you don’t matter to anyone’s bottom line. I highly doubt that anyone is worrying about losing your support because they don’t have it now. Apple dumped Power PC how long ago? Your computer is on life support now as it is. Enjoy it, but your self importance is unimpressive.

  • stefn

    “spending for new software…” I don’t mind since most of the money goes to developers, who in my experience are mostly supportive and independent creative folks. I’ve been known to chip in bucks for software I didn’t critically need just to support a particularly great developer; I want to see what they do next.

    I have no whine about Apple’s take on app sales nowadays. Nor do most developers as I understand it.

  • Terri Cobb

    It’s amazing to see where we are headed next. With technology bursting in leaps and bounds, knowing how to access and impliment, will be something to struggle to keep up with.

  • http://www.geise.com PXLated

    I’ve been describing the approaches as Apple being “internet” focused and Google being “web/browser” focused.

    It doesn’t seem to work to refer to apps vs html/browser because there is usually a local app running inside the browser. That app just happens to be written in another language (javascript probably) and needs to be downloaded when needed. Both approaches run a local app. The data is stored in the cloud with either approach. With Apple, that data gets automatically downloaded/synced to devices. With Google it always needs to be accessed from their server.

  • Ed

    So Google’s cloud is accessible on the web which means pretty much every device on the planet has access and Apple’s cloud is accessible by late model Apple devices running current versions of Apple approved or supplied purchased apps…

    And you think the difference is not that interesting? Seriously?

  • http://radar.oreilly.com/aallan/index.html Alasdair Allan

    So Google’s cloud is accessible on the web which means pretty much every device on the planet has access and Apple’s cloud is accessible by late model Apple devices running current versions of Apple approved or supplied purchased apps… And you think the difference is not that interesting? Seriously?

    To be honest? No. I don’t think that’s interesting….

    People that have documents in Apple’s Cloud will own Apple devices, and when they want their document they’ll use that device (or devices) to get to it. When they want to share it outside their immediate personal ecosphere of devices, it looks like iCloud offers publication endpoints to the web, they’ll do that…

    But I don’t really see much difference to the Google cases where people who have documents in Google’s Cloud will own a device, and when they want their document they’ll use that device to get to it. When they want to share it outside of their own devices (laptop, phone) then they’ll publish an endpoint to it on the web.

    What’s the difference except that one of the two people has chosen to buy their device from Apple? They both use document based models, there really isn’t an interesting difference there…

  • TC

    They see the cloud as a way to keep the general purpose computer on life support for a few more years until touch-based hardware is really ready to take over.

    Who at Apple told you this?

    Almost as telling as spending half a billion dollars on a custom data center to support their new iCloud service.

    Did Steve say the only purpose for new data center was iCloud?

    What is interesting is that there was little or no mention of the web, or HTML5, during Apple’s WWDC keynote.

    Wow. You’re really adding two and two and thinking it’s interesting you didn’t get 27. Is it possible they didn’t talk about HTML5 because it wasn’t relevant to the products or product features they were introducing? Schiller said there were 250 new features in Lion; he showed 10. Does that signify that the other 240 new features aren’t important, or that the hundreds of old features that stick around aren’t going to be important to Apple? Maybe it would have been good to check http://developer.apple.com/wwdc/schedule/ to see if perhaps Apple talked about HTML5 in sessions (hint: you can still do this).

    For the same strategic reasons, don’t be shocked to see more custom chips appear — I expect to see the arrival of ARM-based MacBooks and the transition away from Intel for Apple’s laptops. That’s because for Apple, It’s all about the platform.

    Why just the laptops? Why not the desktops as well? Answer: because on the desktop side, the ARM architecture isn’t great. And unlike offerings from some other vendors, the MacBook Pro line is now just about as powerful as most of the standard desktops (so much so that with the advent of Thunderbolt, we’re starting to see full HD editing environments based on MacBooks). So your assumption that ARM-based MacBooks will appear is tenuous.

    I don’t mean to come off as completely negative. I realize this is an opinion piece – but you could at least go back and check some of your assumptions by reading other respected columnists/bloggers. Because in the Internet echo chamber, those assumptions will be repeated and/or debated as though they were fact – and there are some serious factual holes in this article.

  • hank

    > You aren’t the customer anyone wants.
    > You aren’t spending money so you don’t
    > matter to anyone’s bottom line….
    > Power PC how long ago? Your computer
    > is on life support now as it is. Enjoy
    > it, but your self importance is unimpressive.

    Self-importance: using hardware for a long time
    Market-importance: buying new crap and dumping stuff

    Profit:waste

    If the amount of intentional waste generated is subtracted from “bottom line profit” — is Apple even above zero? They used to be.

    I still have a 512kE with Pinball Construction Set on it. Kind of an electricity hog, but works fine and gives valuable entertainment.

    Yep, customers like us sure don’t matter to anyone.

  • Matt Hammerstraw

    The last time a Performa was on retail shelves, there were like seven people using the World Wide Web, Clinton was in the White House, and Kurt Cobain was still upright.

    Apple is most interested in the “support” of people who… you know… buy their products more regularly than once every fifteen years. Now users like me who buy annually are the reason Apple is the largest tech company on earth. With “supporters” like you, it would have ended up like Amiga or Commodore. A company who people regard with fond memories and little to show for it.

    You can’t pay your employees with fond memories.

  • Matt Hammerstraw

    Too funny.

    The last time I did a double post was prolly 1994.

    Today’s theme is the 90s.

  • Zerolocity

    Alasdair, looks like you’ve jumped to the wrong conclusion about Apple yet again (the last time was when you claimed the company was tracking iPhone users movements, remember?).

    Have a look at http://www.apple.com/mobileme/transition.html where it says: “Web access to iCloud Mail, Contacts, Calendar, and Find My iPhone will be available at icloud.com this fall.” Oh well.

    Also, look at where Apple makes its money – the vast proportion of its revenues comes from hardware sales. If you prefer Google’s approach of making money by plastering the web with advertising then you’re welcome to it!