Just in case you hadn’t heard, Google is nearly synonymous with the cloud. From Google Docs suite and Google Picasa Photos to Gmail, Google Maps, and YouTube, the company has been offering free web-based software for years. And, as Levitas points out, none of Google’s software offerings require users to purchase a particular piece of hardware, as iCloud does. As long as you have a compatible web browser and an active Internet connection, you can access any of Google’s web-based applications. Mobile users have a nearly equal amount of access to Google’s services as well, via the company’s Android- and iOS-compatible apps, or through their mobile device’s browser. And yet the majority of Google’s apps are built into the Android OS, which makes accessing them on an Android device faster and easier, and makes purchasing an Android device much more desirable for users of services such as Gmail, Google+, and Google Talk.
Recently, Google launched Google Music Beta, a cloud-based service that allows users to upload 20,000 songs from their music libraries to Google’s servers and stream those tunes through a web browser or Android phone. As the name suggests, the service is still in beta, and there is currently no fee for the service, but don’t expect that to be the case when the finished product goes live. Like iCloud, Music Beta syncs your music across your computer, smartphone, and tablet, allowing you to access it whenever you want (as long as you have an Internet connection).
Unfortunately, uploading your music collection can be a very time-consuming process. Apple’s iCloud, on the other hand, doesn’t require you to upload your music. The difference goes back to Apple’s ability to strike deals with several record companies, which gives iCloud access to the labels’ libraries. Google was unsuccessful in reaching those deals in time for launch.
Overall, Google’s approach to the cloud is to make it fully customizable for each user. While iCloud integrates the cloud as part of already-existing programs, Google has developed a multitude of programs specifically for the cloud. However, each of Google’s cloud-based programs are separate. This disconnect between applications is one of the biggest criticisms analysts have leveled against Google’s cloud strategy.
“Google has been the cloud, but it’s all of these disparate capabilities,” Levitas said. “I think for the consumer that’s a nightmare. It may be fine for small businesses, but I think for individuals, it’s ‘Wait, what are all of the different things I can do depending on which service I click on?’”
The fact that Google has so many separate properties may allow it to offer best-in-class verticals, but in order to make cloud-based storage, synchronization, and streaming a reality for the mass market, it has to be integrated, and it has to be easy. “You need it to be stupid-simple, and with Apple the notion is that you take a picture and it automatically syncs to the cloud,” said Levitas.
Google+ could be a very important step toward making things simpler for users. Google’s new social-networking service has many of the same features as Facebook but offers integration with Google’s other web-based offerings.
For example, photo sharing is heavily integrated with Picasa, which will soon be known as Google Photos. Because of this integration, Android phone owners who install the Google+ app can automatically upload their photos to the cloud. So far the automatic upload feature is only a part of the Google+ app and not fully integrated with the Android OS, but that’s likely on the way.
Microsoft Goes Live
Microsoft’s cloud strategy is somewhat of a hybrid of the approach being taken by Apple and Google. The company is offering online storage, streaming, and syncing under one suite like Apple, while still giving users the type of customization offered by Google. A large part of Microsoft’s cloud strategy revolves around its Windows Live suite, which includes the recently revamped Skydrive, as well as Hotmail, Office Live, and Windows Messenger. Microsoft is hoping to offer users a complete cloud experience without drawing them away from their tried-and-true desktop software offerings.
With Skydrive, Microsoft allows users to upload and store data to the cloud, including documents, photos, and videos, while the company’s Live Mesh helps users sync up to 200 files, each with up to 50GB of data, across multiple Windows computers. When a folder is synced between computers, changes made to the folder on one PC are automatically made to the synced files on the other PC, as long as both systems are online. Windows Live Photo Gallery and Movie Maker give users access to web-based photo and video editing tools.
Office Live offers a web-based—albeit slightly stripped-down—version of the company’s desktop-based Office suite, and it allows users to access and edit their documents online via Microsoft’s Windows Live service. Office 365, on the other hand, is available in two versions and is specifically tailored to the needs of small and medium-sized businesses. Office 365 for professionals and small businesses is a $6 per user per month subscription service for businesses with less than 25 employees and no IT staff or experts. It provides users with access to their e-mail, documents, calendar, and contacts from most mobile devices. Office 365 for midsized businesses and enterprises is designed for companies with more serious IT needs and includes Active Directory integration, e-mail archiving, and 24-hour tech support.
Like Apple’s iCloud, Skydrive syncs with phones (on the Windows Phone platform). This means that the first time you turn the phone on, you can download your contacts, e-mail, calendars, photos, and music. Dharmesh Mehta, Microsoft’s director of Windows Live, explained that the service also automatically pushes photos taken on your Windows Phone to your Skydrive folder. Android and iOS users can also upload and download files to Skydrive, but they will have to use their devices’ web browsers to do so.
Despite its cloud offerings, Gartenberg says that Microsoft is still somewhat hamstrung because of how much the company relies on its desktop software offerings as a source of revenue. “They are certainly cognizant of the effort [to move to the cloud], but at the end of the day they built their business on PC-based software, and I think these things [Office Live] are adjuncts to that; not necessarily designed to replace them, but designed to complement,” Gartenberg explained.
Still, Microsoft deserves credit for integrating the cloud more deeply in the upcoming Windows 8 operating system. The Mail, Calendar, People, Messages, and Photo apps will all be in sync with online services. Microsoft is also connecting apps to one another so you can share info via the cloud with friends and family on the fly.