Make no mistake: Apple’s iCloud, if it works, stands to be a transformative solution for the ages, but Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ promise that the PC will become just “another device” first needs to clear a couple of major hurdles – given the massive scope he has set out for iCloud.
And Jobs himself best perhaps best summarized why there may be questions about whether or not Apple can succeed in turning iCloud into a digital hub – the center of our digital lives that can automatically synchronize all of our files in real time:
“You might ask, 'Why should I believe them?' They’re the ones that brought me MobileMe,’” Jobs said during his Worldwide Developers Conference keynote.
While Apple has improved MobileMe since its horrible, painful launch, and turned it into a fairly reliable cloud-based service for email, calendaring and contact management, it is a pebble compared to the mountain-sized plans for iCloud, which is now the focal point for Apple's cloud strategy.
The two hurdles Apple will face:
• Bandwidth. Accessing iCloud seamlessly through 3G speeds or public WiFi – where bandwidth is routinely as low as 1 Mbps or less, compared to 30 Mbps or more for home or business connectivity – will be critical. Now, it can take as long as an hour or more to download a feature movie from iTunes onto an iPad or iPhone using 3G or public WiFi. Throw, all at once, as many as 50 million new people into the same cloud network, all uploading and downloading all of their vital data all day long, and latency could become a dealbreaker if not handled correctly. Some Apple apps, like its addictive FaceTime video chat, require WiFi connectivity and minimum bandwidth levels to even work at all. iCloud would support all apps, and many would face the same challenges.
• Capacity. Every iPhone and iPad will become a data-creation device, and we’re not just talking about text content. Video, audio, high-intensity graphics will all take up a fair amount of capacity – and it will grow to levels the industry has never before imagined. Will iCloud be able to support a terabyte of data per client device? Two terabytes? And, if so, how much more will it cost than the $75 a pop you’d pay for a high-capacity hard disk drive on a PC?
One thing has become clear during the technology industry’s past three decades: the market’s appetite for bandwidth and capacity knows no boundary.
On its web site, discussing iCloud, Apple writes: “When you sign up for iCloud, you automatically get 5GB of free storage. And that’s plenty of room, because of the way iCloud stores your content. Your purchased music, apps, and books, as well as your Photo Stream don’t count against your free storage. That leaves your mail, documents, Camera Roll, account information, settings, and other app data. And since those things don’t use as much space, you’ll find that 5GB goes a long way.”
You think so?
No, it doesn’t, actually. The free 5 GB is a nifty throw-in for those who buy iOS devices, but with all of the video, audio, photos, PDFs, data and graphics that each device will produce, it won’t last that long before that 5 GB runs out for most devices. Add to that data created by independent, third-party apps and Apple will be in for a rude awakening when many begin to clamor for more storage capacity, all at the same time.
Technically, Apple has iCloud right. Its architecture, the SDK that it has already made available to developers, and cross-device integration look like they were well thought-out. But capacity and bandwidth bottlenecks – not all of which Apple will be able to control itself – will bear watching.