Apple’s iCloud: The New Multi-presence Cloud

Article first published as Apple’s iCloud: The New Multi-Presence Cloud on Technorati.

The iCloud is a new kind of cloud where copies of data co-exist in MANY places. This is a “game-changer.”

 

Just over one hour ago, Steve Jobs came on stage at Apple’s WWDC and introduced the iCloud. This is not just a case where Apple is jumping on the “cloud bandwagon.” It is the introduction of an entirely different type of cloud, the multi-presence cloud, to the mainstream market.

Apple’s iCloud is quite different from the clouds we usually see. Instead, of hosting your data “in the cloud” (usually a bunch of remote, virtualized servers and storage) and requiring you to access it there, iCloud allows you to download your data to multiple devices. You can access your data (most likely first music, but later videos and documents) remotely (from Apple’s servers) or locally (on your Mac, PC, iPad or iPhone)—whichever is more convenient.

This difference is not a fine point. It opens a whole new set of opportunities.

You are not “tethered” to the cloud

One of the weaknesses of the traditional cloud (and remotely-accessed services in general) is that you have to be connected to the Internet. As long as you have a connection to the Internet, you can access all your information. However, if you are in place without Internet access (e.g., on an airplane, travelling to a faraway place, at your Aunt Matilda’s), you are “off the grid,” with no access to your data.

The iCloud model overcomes this. Your Mac, iPad, iPod, etc. is a mobile “piece of the cloud” that you can carry wherever you go. You have both access to your data and the software to process it—letting you autonomously listen to music, watch videos, or read documents anywhere.

Bandwidth (i.e., time) is irrelevant

Another weakness of the traditional cloud is that your access to your data is only as fast as the slowest link between you and the cloud provider’s nearest server. Traditionally, most people have said this is not a problem as broadband is “everywhere.” However, this is not true in many situations. When the hosting company’s servers are busy, you slow to a crawl. When walking and driving around you routinely leave 3G coverage areas. When downloading large media files the Internet is always slow.

The iCloud model overcomes this as well. Most of the content you will access (e.g., your music library) will be instantaneously accessible (either on your PC or on your home network). Bandwidth is not a worry (nor are 3G connections, firewalls, etc.)

Access is now nearly ubiquitous

One of the primary strengths of the traditional cloud is that you have near-universal access to your data. It does not matter if you are on a different computer, in a different office, on a different network: you can access you data from any device, anywhere (as long as you have an internet connection). Unlike clouds, iTunes did not allow this (i.e., the PC was the hub). You had to transfer your files from device to device, a tedious process.

The iCloud model ends this limitation. You no longer have to transfer data from device to device. Any device that can connect (for a period of time, not permanently) to the Internet can download your authorised data (from the new hub, the cloud).

This IS the future of cloud computing

What Apple has pulled off is not a trivial accomplishment: universal access with centralized management. It requires the complex synchronization of data and authorization to access it across numerous independent, distributed devices. It requires software that can access this data both while it is connected to the cloud and when it is off-line. All of this has to work seamlessly—and without need of customer support.

Even with these challenges, this is the future of cloud computing. The world has benefited greatly from the economies of scale and network externalities provided by the Internet. However, life does not run on a tether. We need both the benefits of both cloud-based, large-scale efficiency and the freedom of offline operation. This will become even more important as the growth in the volume of data we use far outstrips the growth in bandwidth available.

It will be interesting to see how many other cloud providers follow Apple’s iCloud model over the next 18-36 months.