The cloud and its promises of web-based software, near limitless storage, and streaming media services, has long been predicted as the next arena for the tech industry’s heavyweights to do battle. While Google and Microsoft have been offering cloud services for years, each company has focused more on advanced or enterprise users. Then, in June, Apple unveiled iCloud, which, when it launches this fall, will attempt to do what the competition has failed to do: make the cloud ubiquitous without being intimidating.
So what is the cloud in 2011? What do these companies stand to gain by winning over the most users? And who is in the best position to win?
Although the cloud and the various services it supports have been around for quite some time, tech companies have done a fairly poor job of explaining exactly what the cloud is. “When you say cloud services, it’s pretty broad,” explained Michael Gartenberg, research director with the technology research firm Gartner. “Are you talking about digital lockers? Are you talking about cloud-based applications? Streaming music services? Cloud sort of becomes one of those catch-all phrases that becomes hard to define.”
In truth, the cloud is a nebulous term to describe the Internet and the various ways it can be leveraged by users.
For example, cloud storage allows users to upload and access their data via the web, much like an Internet-connected hard drive. When you upload a document or photo to Dropbox, you are storing it on the company’s servers, which allows you to access your files from any computer. Playing a game on Facebook? That also uses the cloud as a backbone.
Cloud-based applications, such as Google’s Docs productivity suite and online music services such as Grooveshark and Pandora, give users access to programs that they previously would have had to install on their PC. Such services save precious resources on users’ computers. However, most of these cloud apps require an active Internet connection. If you’re offline, for the most part you’re out of luck.
Unlike the desktop software of the past, which usually generated revenue through one-time purchases, the cloud carries with it the prospect of yearly subscription fees based on the types of services users sign up for. According to industry analyst Danielle Levitas of IDC, the cloud offers companies the chance to lock in users for a previously unprecedented amount of time.
“What everybody in the Internet space hopes for is getting some sort of annuity,” Levitas said. “There is a distinct advantage to getting people to sync and store to your cloud service, because it’s a major pain to move from one platform to another.” The hassle of moving to a different service, Levitas said, helps to ensure that users will stick with one company for a fairly long amount of time. The notion that users will stay with one service over another to avoid the hassle of moving all of their files to new service could have a huge impact on Apple, Google, and Microsoft’s overall mobile strategies.
Each company either currently offers or is working on integration of their cloud services with their mobile operating systems, with a majority of those services being made available free of charge. Apple, for instance, is deeply integrating iCloud with iOS 5 and OS X Lion, which will make transfering files between your Mac, iOS device, and iCloud fairly simple. Apple, however, has no plans to release an iCloud app for Android or Windows Phone 7 devices, meaning that if you rely heavily on iCloud and want to be able to access the service on the go, you’re going to opt for an iOS 5 device.
Microsoft is banking on a similar strategy with its Windows Phone 7 and Windows Live integration, which allows users to upload photos, songs, and documents from their phones directly to their Windows Live Skydrive accounts. Without a Windows Phone 7 device, uploading your data from your mobile device is out of the question.
Google, meanwhile, ensures that most Android devices ship with a slew of shortcuts to the company’s various cloud services. By doing this, Google gives users incentive to purchase an Android device. Of course, you could always access something like Gmail through your mobile device’s web browser, but having the service fully integrated into your device makes the process much quicker.
Taking all of this into account, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that the cloud wars could help determine who wins the mobile platform wars. With so much at stake, it behooves tech companies to offer users exciting and worthwhile services to keep them coming back for more. So how exactly are Apple, Google, and Microsoft trying to accomplish this?