Some thoughts on iCloud
Sorry, all the sensationalist headlines were taken, so I had to pick something boring.
As we all know by now (read: probably 1% of the world’s population), at WWDC earlier this week, Apple spilled the beans on the upcoming iCloud, among other things. In this post, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the much hyped iCloud (not that there is any dearth of opinions and articles on the subject, thanks to the echo-chamber that is Twitterverse and Blogosphere)
First off, some quick bullets summarizing what it is:
- iCloud aims to make cloud storage painless, the idea being that your data should be available to you from all your devices, all the time.
- It’s automatic and transparent. Apple is baking iCloud support deep into 9 different applications: iTunes, Photo Stream, Apps, Books, Documents, Backup, Contacts, Calendar and Mail. And that’s just the beginning.
- It’s free. Upto 5GB — excluding purchased music, books, apps and photo stream.
- Sync over the air: iCloud can sync across devices over wireless. As a concrete example, you’ll no longer need a cable to sync and backup your iPhone with your laptop.
Here are some cool things about iCloud:
- Scan and skip upload (iTunes only): when dealing with large data sets (such as your movies and music collection), one of the main impediments to using cloud storage is the overhead of doing the initial import. With a 1Mbps uplink, a 10GB music collection will take a full day to upload. Of course, if the file you are trying to upload already exists somewhere in the cloud, you don’t need to upload it and this is exactly what iCloud does. Because of the iTunes store, Apple already has a library of 18 million songs (and counting) and detecting if two files are for the same song is a lot easier than for many other media types (say images or movies).
- Storage APIs for developers: APIs are all the rage these days. By exposing the right set of APIs, Apple could attract developers to build iCloud functionality on other platforms (Android, for example). Unfortunately, the API is fairly limited at this point (key-value store or documents).
- HP, Teradata, maybe EMC are rumored to have supplied bulk of the hardware in the spanking new datacenter that will be the backbone for iCloud.
- Despite all the hoopla around “cloud” recently, it was still grounded firmly within the tech circles. Apple has the ability, experience and motivation to take cloud computing truly mainstream with iCloud.
What is NOT so cool:
- Apple has a habit of exaggerating the novelty and efficacy of their features (remember Spaces?) Scan and skip upload is nothing new: it is just deduplication under the wraps — a well known technique in storage systems. Videos and photos will still have to be uploaded though — there’s no real shortcut for those. Of course, there are techniques to dedup arbitrary data and I hope Apple is leveraging them.
- In the same vein, syncing of Mail, Calendar and Contacts is just catch up. Ever used Google? Likewise for Docs and Books. The delivery model is different — Apple apps work with the local data and sync when there’s connectivity. They haven’t touched upon conflict resolution, disconnected clients etc.
- Implications for Dropbox: transparent, automatic sync across multiple devices is a phenomenally hard problem. Apple makes it sound like they’ve nailed it. It took Dropbox several years to address all the performance and security concerns. I’d wager Apple will run into its share of snags along the way.
- Apples all the way: despite their claims, iCloud is designed to lock you in. Sure you may be able to leverage some of the features by installing additional software on a PC. But unless you are using an Apple device, you won’t get the full experience or service. Want your “reading list” available on Android (or Chome, for that matter)? Tough luck. Want your music available to other music players (open source players like Banshee and Amarok, god forbid)? How about your photo stream in Picasa?
Finally, there’s no doubt that iCloud will drastically alter the cloud landscape. However, Apple is focused mainly on the personal cloud — which is a good thing, they are playing to their strengths. It is also a great opportunity because the enterprise cloud market is still wide open. The requirements, challenges and “killer apps” in that market are very very different than the personal/consumer cloud market. Should be fun!