Apple and Google now dominate the world's smartphone and mobile device markets and both are now pushing quickly into the cloud. While Apple this week finally acknowledged the cloud as the future of computing -- and will finally allow iPads and iPhones to be set up and backed up without being tethered to a computer running iTunes -- many Google fans accurately note that Apple's iCloud doesn't bring a lot of new features to the table.
The truth is that Apple seems a little late in endorsing the cloud as the new center of our digital world. After all, cloud computing has played a growing role in the tech industry for years.
Apple, however, has characteristically taken a common concept, pared it back to the core functionality the company sees as important to its users, and taken pains to deliver those features in as effortless and seamless way as possible. The result is a service that offers a striking contrast to Google's approach to cloud computing and mobile devices.
Google's Web-based approach
Google's concept of cloud computing is largely Web-based, as are most of the company's initiatives. This has some distinct advantages. Chief among them is that any device with a Web browser and an Internet connection can access the vast majority of Google services: GMail and the related contact manager; Google Calendar; and Google Docs, where you can view, edit and collaborate on Office-style documents. Google's system also allows you to purchase and read ebooks, for instance, or listen to your DRM-free music (once its been uploaded). The sheer number of services that Google offers is staggering.
Although many applications can directly interact with your Google hosted data, the services are always designed for simple Web-based access. Google made this abundantly clear when it created Chrome -- a browser that prevents other companies from walling off access to Google's array of services. Essentially, Google took the Web-based cloud concept even further with Chrome OS and the upcoming "Chromebooks" that run no local applications save an OS that's really nothing but a browser.
Among the advantages: Access to your data isn't device dependent in any real way. Yes, you can run the Docs app on your Android phone or Galaxy Tab but you can also access documents stored in your Google Docs account using QuickOffice on your iPad or Firefox running on a PC in your local library.
This approach isn't limited to Google. Amazon has taken a similar tack with the Kindle and Amazon's own music service. Dropbox can be accessed using the company's Web site, from software installed on a PC or Mac, through dedicated mobile apps, or with third-party apps like mobile office suites that serve other purposes, but store documents in your Dropbox.
Apple goes all in for apps
Apple's approach with iCloud is different, because it's clearly app-centric When it comes to syncing your core personal information, the apps involved can be iOS apps -- Contacts, Calendar, Camera, iTunes, iBooks, App Store -- Mac apps such as Address Book, iCal, iPhoto and iTunes, or Windows apps like Outlook, the Photos folder and, again iTunes.
While syncing core information like contacts and calendar isn't that different -- you can sync the information from Google to Apple's Mac and iOS apps as well as to Android and Windows apps -- working with actual documents and data shows the differences in Apple's approach.
iCloud's document sync capabilities aren't designed to use public sources like the Web. Instead, Apple provides developers with a series of APIs that they can embed into their apps. The result: documents and other data created in an app that's largely tied to that app.
On one hand, you get much better control of your documents. Since a file will predominantly be tied to the app that created it, you'll have pretty much the same set of editing tools no matter where you're accessing it.
Apple's iWork apps are a good example in that formatting, image placement, transitions between presentation slides and spreadsheet functions will carry from one device to another. The results should look, play, calculate and print the same anywhere. You don't have to worry about formatting being stripped when going from Office to the Web to a mobile app and back again.
That enables a lot of app-specific features to be universally applied. Since Apple is making the APIs for iCloud storage and sync available to all its developers, it should offer an impressive editing experience from iPhone to iPad to Mac or PC and back (assuming the app has a Mac/Windows counterpart). It should allow data and document access to be seamless. And with the sync capabilities of iCloud baked in, it should also be effortless ; there's no need to move a file using some other app or a clunky Web-based upload form.
On the other hand, your actual access to documents becomes more limited. You need to have specific apps on each device and you need to access your stored documents using Apple's solutions. In other words, it's a more closed system.
Two approaches, one goal
The interesting thing is that both Apple's app-based approach and Google's Web-centric mindset point in the same direction: instant access to your data, whenever you want it, wherever you are.
But the core values about what's important in achieving that goal are radically different and that leads to vastly different experiences. Apple is focused on keeping the experience of viewing and working with documents and data the same while providing ubiquitous access from a smaller set of solutions. Google wants to make your documents and data available from the widest possible array of sources, with the expectation that your hands-on experience may vary greatly from one device or app to the next.
You can criticize either approach for the tradeoffs made to achieve those core values. Apple does keep you in a walled garden. Google doesn't deliver a seamless and effortless experience.
The truth is that neither company is entirely right or wrong. Each is simply showing what it believes is most important to users, and it'll be up to the users to choose which cloud approach we prefer. That will vary, depending on what types of data you work with and how you want to work with it.
Perhaps, iOS users will have one advantage: they aren't limited to iCloud. I have no doubt that some of my favorite iOS apps, such as QuickOffice, will adopt Apple's iCloud APIs. That won't prevent them from accessing Google Docs, Dropbox or other cloud services. In other words, while iCloud will become an option for me on my iPad and iPhone, I won't be limited to it.
On the other hand, I won't have access to iCloud -- or some other solution fundamentally baked into the OS -- on my Android phone, even if I wanted it.
In any case, this week's discussion about the official unveiling of iCloud and how it compares to other, more established cloud providers, does seem to prove one point: we're just at the beginning of the "post-PC" era, in which your data becomes the important factor and the device devolves into just a means of access.
As this new vision of computing evolves, it's noteworthy that the two companies leading the way are Apple and Google. Both are creating mobile technology that is influential and are defining the ways in which we store, share and work with our ever-growing set of personal and professional data. Perhaps the term post-PC is particularly accurate, and a bit ironic, given that Microsoft, with its ties to conventional computing, seems to be relegated to a background role despite its efforts with Windows Phone 7 and Office 365, which launches this summer.
Then again, we're only in the first inning of this new ball game.
Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Peachpit.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009). You can find out more about him at RyanFaas.com and follow him on Twitter (@ryanfaas).