The Cloud and The Future of Files

Last week at Apple’s annual WWDC, Steve Jobs took the stage during the keynote address to unveil Apple’s latest product: iCloud. The successor of .Mac and MobileMe, iCloud was pitched as the unifier between Apple’s disparate computing devices: iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, and Macs. With it, your data would be accessible anytime, no matter which of your devices you’re using.

After giving an initial description of the service, Jobs went on to describe the his views on files and the cloud around 82 minutes into the keynote:

Now some people think the cloud is just a hard disk in the sky, right? And you take a bunch of stuff, and you put it in your Dropbox or your iDisk or whatever, and it transfers it up to the cloud and stores it. Then you drag whatever you want back out and store it on your devices.

We think it’s way more than that, and we call it iCloud.

~ Steve Jobs, June 6, 2011

A Dream From the ’90’s, Fulfilled

Interestingly, iCloud is Jobs’ response to a dream he realized over 2 decades ago. During a speech at the ’97 WWDC, shortly after his return to Apple, Jobs described how he worked. All of his files and more were stored on a server, and could be accessed from any of his computers over high speed (for that time, anyhow) network. Whether he was at home, or in his office at NeXT, Apple, or Pixar, he could log in and all of his files and settings would be there. And this wasn’t something brand new, either: he’d already been doing it for 8 years!

Steve Jobs introducing iCloud, 2 decades after he started using a similar system on his own.

The Brave New World of Computing

The world of computing has been rapidly changing over the past few years. In the past, most of us would have only used one PC during the day, unlike Steve Jobs. Our files lived on individual computers, floppies, and CDs, and that was fine back when our computer never went 3 feet away from our desks.

Today, however, it’s not uncommon at all to use a computer at your office, a laptop at lunch with a client, a smartphone on the way home, and a tablet or Internet-connected game console or TV at home in the evening. We expect to be able to check our email, grab that important spreadsheet, update our blog, or share photos to our Facebook friends just the same, no matter what device we happen to be using.

Many of us have solved the problem over the years. IMAP, iCal, Exchange, and more have let us get our mail, contacts, and calendars synced between any devices we want. For the most part, you don’t need to think about it: it just works. Then, Dropbox has solved the file end of our problem, and we can now easily sync documents, pictures, music, and more between our computers, phones, and the cloud. So many mobile apps have added Dropbox support, it’s become the de facto standard way to keep your digital life synchronized.

It’s Not Just Apple

Still, though, that’s not the simplest solution. Sure, most of us can figure out how to save our various types of files in Dropbox, and can add an IMAP account to our phones. But what about new computer users? Why should they have to figure out what a .xlsx file is, or why they need to save their files in a certain folder?

Apple’s iCloud tries to remove the idea of files, relying instead on syncing the actual things you’re working on: documents, pictures, presentations, whatever. Sure, at the end of the day, it’s the same thing. But iCloud extracts the technical parts, and just syncs what you’re working on with the correct applications. Anyone can understand that.

Google approaches data in the exact same way. Steven Levy’s new book about Google, In the Plex, reveals that Google did, at one point, plan to release a Dropbox-like Gdrive. Sundar Pichai, currently senior vice president of Chrome at Google, decided that traditional files were dated, and were simply part of the old style of computing.

“Think about it,” said Pichai. “You just want to get information into the cloud. When people use our Google Docs, there are no more files. You just start editing in the cloud, and there’s never a file.”

This was an entirely new concept to their team, but the simplicity won the team over. Today, we all store lots of data in Google’s cloud, but seldom have to think about the actual files behind it. For users, with cloud computing, traditional files may well be a thing of the past, at least if Google and Apple have anything to do with it.

Google: All of your data in the browser

Web Apps, Native Apps, or Both?

Between Apple and Google, the biggest difference is not in how they think about data. With iCloud and Google Apps, both Apple and Google treat the cloud as your data’s true home. They both also try to take away the concepts of files and saving. Instead, your data is in documents, pictures, or whatever you’re creating, and the apps used to create and edit automatically save their changes.

The difference is in how they think you should access and create it. Apple thinks you should access this data through rich native applications, such as the iWork apps in iOS and iPhoto on Macs. Google, on the other hand, feels that you should primarily use and create documents and more directly in their web apps. Apple locks you into their operating systems, but offers beautiful and advanced applications that work anywhere, even if you’re offline and can’t access the cloud. Google let’s you use their services from any browser, but for the most part, your data’s inaccessible if you’re offline.

Google Docs versus iWork Pages

That’s My Data!

Truth be told, though, Google Docs and Gmail are only applications in your browser that can access your data in Google’s cloud. There’s no reason Google couldn’t make an offline, installable Google Docs app that worked like iWork, and there’s no reason Apple couldn’t make an iWork web app (except it might be tough to replicate all of it’s features in HTML5). The difference is their respective philosophy on how apps should run, and that will be the defining difference in all major cloud products.

Storing data in the cloud is and should be separate from the individual apps used with the data, to make your own data more moveable between services. Web apps should, theoretically, be able to open your data from any cloud service, and desktop or mobile apps should be able to do the same. If our main “computer”, the true home of our data, is to be the cloud, then the cloud services we use to store our data should be able to work with any app. In an ideal world, you should be able to add your iCloud credentials into Google Docs, and use that app to edit your files just the same.

Will this ever happen? Or will the cloud continue to be a fractured mess of competing companies siloing our data off into more and more services? That is one of the major questions the leaders of cloud computing need to address.

After all, if it’s my data, I should be able to store it where I want and use it as I want. Files or no files, our data should be ours, free to use as we wish.