Courtesy of a software developer friend, I had a chance over the weekend to play with the Mac OS X 10.7 preview release. As with previous versions, I felt that Apple is spending a lot of time solving problems people don't have. You can now quickly revert to older versions of files, for example, but how many times have you wanted to do that?
What's astonishing is how little attention Apple is paying to the cloud. That's a shame, because Apple could deliver a kick up the derriere that cloud computing really needs right now.
To be fair, there is some cloud integration in Mac OS X. Apple's MobileMe service provides online storage and calendar and address book syncing. But MobileMe is more about sharing data between different Apple products. It doesn't encourage collaborative working, for example.
And that's a shame because, as with every other aspect of computing it turns its hands to, Apple could demonstrate how cloud computing for desktop users can be done simply and effectively.
There are arguably two roadblocks cloud computing has to overcome. The first is usability. What's the best way to work in the cloud? Google reckons we should get to the cloud through our web browsers or its Chrome OS, which is essentially an overblown web browser. However, this is a clumsy approach.
Secondly, people are worried about data security. By its very definition, the Internet is a publically accessible network, and operates on the principle of folks having instant access to data stored there. How can we be sure that a stranger won't end up with our personal data once we embrace the cloud?
Apple could solve both problems. For example, the new revisioning system that's built into every app within Mac OS 10.7, which allows you to revert to older versions of files, could be cloud-enabled.
It could also allow collaborative working. I have no idea how this would work in the simple and intuitive way Mac users expect, but that's the point. What's needed right now is for Apple to come along and apply its superb software engineers to the problem. Like they've done countless times before, we need Apple to clear a path for others to follow. It's a well known fact that Microsoft closely watches what Apple's up to, and has done so for years. If there had been no Macintosh, Windows 95 would probably have been a very different product.
As for the security issue, one of Apple's greatest strengths is that its users implicitly trust the Apple brand. In short, Apple wouldn't have to do a single thing above and beyond standard security (that is, data encryption). Instead, all it would take is for Steve Jobs to mention in a keynote address that Apple takes security very seriously, and maybe that Apple has patented a couple of security innovations. That would be enough for most Apple fans, who don't really care that much about the nitty gritty.
We've reached an impasse when it comes to cloud security. Vendors have security systems in place, but aren't prepared to work any harder to reassure customers. Instead, they expect customers to somehow swallow their concerns and switch over regardless. However, survey after survey proves that end-users aren't prepared to do this.
It's a stalemate.
We need to learn how to trust the cloud and, with its tech-savvy and early adopter user base, Apple could show the world how to do so.
Yes, any genuine cloud service from Apple would probably be expensive. Yes, it would probably only work on Apple products, although Apple might adopt open standards, as it has in the past.
But that's not the point. We're not looking for Apple to create a service the world can use. We're looking for them to show how cloud computing can be done simply and intuitively.
Whatever the case, the fact that Apple appears to be shying away from a full cloud offering might be a sign that Apple management considers the cloud to be a fad, or simply unworthy of attention. I suspect that if Apple truly believed in the cloud as a working platform, it would have brought to market pioneering cloud offerings two or three years ago.
Then again, cloud computing tends to be linked with business and Apple is squarely a consumer technology company (it even ditched most of its server offerings recently). However, in the same way that the iPhone is working its way into business after proving a hit with consumers, Apple could make a consumer-oriented cloud offering that would work its way up the food chain to corporations.
There are some rumours that Apple might be embracing the cloud, but in the Apple universe you'll find a rumour supporting just about any theory. However, it's something I'd really like to see, and something that's arguably overdue.