Like a Hollywood movie studio trying to bring back an ailing superhero franchise, Apple today killed off one of its products by resurrecting it with something else that promises to fix many of the original's shortcomings. At the same time the company acknowledged that MobileMe has been a dud. Can iCloud put the bad memories of MobileMe in the past? Apple sure hopes so.
iCloud, in case you missed it, is Apple's new cloud sync service. It succeeds MobileMe, the $99-a-year service Apple introduced three years ago, which will close down on June 30, 2012. iCloud syncs files, apps, app data, and media across iOS devices, Macs, and PCs. It also syncs your music across devices, though it won't do that for video content.
The service systematically goes after the criticisms people had with MobileMe. Is $99 a year too hard to swallow? Now it's free. Only works with some apps? Now it works with many more, and iOS and Mac developers can tap into it too.
When introducing iCloud earlier today, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said the idea behind the service came out of necessity. The PC's long been the hub for digital media, yet over the years people were capturing and viewing that media on portable devices, Jobs said. That meant getting data from computers to devices, and vice versa required ferrying it over. With different device makers using their own systems for making this happen, chaos ensued. More importantly it was placing all the responsibility on hardware that would be changing every few years, forcing users to move things once again.
Apple's solution is to put data, and the ferrying process, in the cloud, providing a system where devices effectively become vessels. You buy a device from a store, plug in your Apple ID, and it syncs up with iCloud to tweak every setting, add every song, and every app just as it was on your other devices.
But this big solution still centers on a walled garden approach that critics have taken aim at with the company's other products. You're fine as long as you're in Apple's ecosystem, but step out and your data does not come along for the ride. In other words, Apple's replaced one set of data behaviors with another.
To some degree, Apple appears to have at least acknowledged the importance of building this system into PCs, something MobileMe was decidedly light on. For instance, you can now have photos you've captured on your iPhone or iPad show up in the pictures folder of your PC. That's a big step up from MobileMe's PC sync of contact information, calendars, and Web bookmarks; all things that lacked a certain sexiness or selling power for a PC user with an iOS device to buy into Apple's MobileMe ecosystem.
The big question then is whether Apple intends to extend those same privileges to PC software makers to take that one step beyond the bare-bones implementation it's put forth in its plans. Today the company said it would be offering APIs for its own app makers to plug into iCloud and ferry data, including things like documents and key-value data. Offering the same thing to developers on other platforms could extend the reach of iCloud. If not, this not so secretly encourages developers to build on Apple's platforms so as to tap into iCloud, and get that data flowing, making apps on iOS the conduit to make that happen.
Are there problems with this approach? For one, if you decide to go with a non-Apple device in the future, data you have in these apps does not leave that ecosystem without a third-party service if it doesn't have a Web or desktop software counterpart of its own. Apple's got a business to run, so it's not going to become a big data dump for companies, though it's offering it free to developers who buy into the system.
There's also the question of what happens when Apple's system goes down or experiences hiccups, as was a problem when MobileMe launched. Jobs noted that the company is serious about making iCloud as rock solid as possible, due in part to its new data center in Maiden, N.C. But as we've seen with Amazon's cloud services, downtime can happen to even the biggest companies.
One thing is clear: iCloud seems a whole lot more like a step into cloud infrastructure than MobileMe was. Even though Apple is effectively ditching its try to compete with some slick-looking Web apps, it's come back with something that plays to the company's strong suit, which is hardware and software integration. With iCloud behind the scenes, Apple's not only trying to make its portable devices easier to set up once you buy them, but easier to own several of them at once too. Like a big movie opening, we'll know how well it all works when it hits screens.