iCloud is Apple's chance to take cloud mainstream

Stephen Pritchard

Apple has, in effect, operated a consumer cloud computing service for several years now, in the shape of its .Mac and current Mobile Me service. This supports services such as online calendar sync, online document sharing and storage, photo sharing, and remote wipe for iPhones.

But the appeal of Apple's devices presents an opportunity for the company to do what few other technology brands can do: popularise cloud computing.

Google is popular, but most people still associate it primarily with search. Gmail, and Google Docs, for all their usefulness, are just not as slick as an Apple product is likely to be.

Nor are other cloud services, such as Microsoft's BPOS, likely to grab the public's attention. Again, there is nothing wrong with BPOS, and it has plenty of features that appeal to IT professionals. In many ways, that is really its greatest shortcoming: it is designed to be deployed by IT professionals, and that requirement makes it just that bit less accessible to the consumer.

There's also the name, of course: BPOS or iCloud? Which would you choose?

The downside of Apple's approach, for business users, is in part its consumer-friendly features. iCloud potentially has some great technology, such as daily, Wi-Fi-based backup for iOS devices. Although this is not a new idea, Apple has clearly thought through some of the issues that cause pain for consumers. An iPad or iPhone can be replaced; the photos or recordings on it might well be irreplaceable.

But mixing in consumer services such as online access to iTunes or iBooks might not appeal to IT departments, not least because of worries about payment card security and unauthorised use of the company credit card to pay for entertainment content, rather than, say, storage or authorised apps.

Storing apps online and allowing them to be used across multiple iOS devices will save companies both cost and complexity, but how well will iCloud Storage and iCloud Backup work, in practice, if thousands of consumers opt to download a new series of The Wire? Apple has three data centres supporting iCloud, but that might not be enough. Businesses want reliability rather than features, and ideally, priority for their traffic over consumers' usage. That is not part of Apple's current plans.

Then again, Apple has succeeded where others have failed in pushing consumer products and services into the business mainstream. The iPhone has done that, the iPad even more so. The fact that Apple has a one size fits all approach, rather than creating separate business versions of its products, only seems to add to its appeal.

In some ways, iCloud represents a low-risk way for organisations to try out the cloud, because of those consumer features. If you want a backup for your personal devices (assuming that they are from Apple), online music storage and streaming, and photo sharing, then iCloud already looks attractive. Add calendar and email sync, document backup and sharing and a repository for iOS apps, and it could be compelling.

If business users decide, further down the line, that the business services are better provided by a specialist, Apple is probably gambling that the music and entertainment services are "sticky" enough to keep the subscriptions flowing in. Will iCloud do for cloud computing what the iPhone did for smart phones? It could be unwise to bet against it.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT PRO.

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