What the iCloud will cause to happen next

There’s always a danger, when a company like Apple comes up with a sweeping move like the iCloud, of viewing it in isolation. But the responses from Apple’s rivals will be rapid.

That, of course, is exactly why Steve Jobs has just tried to stake out the territory in his own inimitable way, months before Apple is actually in a position to launch a service. Sound familiar? It’s the same game plan that Microsoft followed for so many years.

Two counter-moves are inevitable.

One will come from Google, and is likely to be rapid. Building automatic syncing into the Android platform is now essential, and must happen soon. Apart from anything else, it is one way to use the company’s astounding smartphone success to stimulate flagging sales of Android tablets.

You can be sure that Microsoft would dearly like to respond in the same way, and this has to be a core feature of Windows 8. That, though, is still some months away.  It is now vital that Microsoft gets this into the early test version of the software that it is likely to put into developers’ hands at its September PDC conference.

The second counter-move will come from other device makers looking for ways to defend themselves against Apple. They need to build more of the same back-up and syncing features into their own families of devices – and they need to exploit their relative openness as a way to counter Apple’s powerful, but closed, device universe.

One way to do that is to align themselves with cross-platform services that have already gained a critical mass of users, like Dropbox, whose service is used to spread content between devices. What they lose in “stickiness” (there will be less reason to buy more devices from the same company) they will gain in usefulness.

This is already starting to happen. Dropbox, which is on the way to becoming one of the first shared utilities on the new device Web, last month came up with its first distribution deal, with handset maker Sony Ericsson. Many more are likely in the next few months, Drew Houston, the company’s CEO, said when I spoke to him on Tuesday.

But to really rival Apple, other device makers will have to match the extreme simplicity of the iCloud. That is the real innovation that Apple came up with this week: there is no need to mess with moving files between folders or “sharing” data, it just works.

That means deep integration. Particularly with media, users want “their” content to be available automatically, on whichever device they are using.

Dropbox,  which is still stuck in the file-and-folder structure of PCs, is now working on just that idea, says Houston:

It’s a pretty complex problem. But people expect to interact with their media and files in different ways. You’re not going to be navigating deep into an MP3 and then coming back each time to listen to another song.

 

The shortcomings of the iCloud, meanwhile, are likely to become more apparent as it comes closer to launch. Those shortcomings include:

- iCloud doesn’t reach beyond Apple devices.

- It only works with one Apple ID, so there’s nothing at all social about it (by comparison, half of the 25m Dropbox members have at least one folder where they share data with others).

- It is unclear how information created with other applications can be moved into the iCloud – whether a Word document, for instance, can be brought into the world of iWork.

Apple has shown the way, but expect plenty of creative responses from others in the coming weeks.