Apple assembling pieces for big cloud platform

While iTunes and the App Store have been big wins for Apple in cloud computing, Apple doesn't have a deep bench of cloud offerings; its online office suite and email are severely deficient compared with Google, and online storage and document sync lag behind startups like Dropbox. As the company moves toward a thin-client business model, with the iPhone and iPad emerging as its most strategic products, cloud computing is a severe strategic inadequacy for Apple.

But that could be changing -- and soon. Apple seems to be assembling the pieces of a strategic cloud platform, with a big new data center and new language for writing clients.

What follows is a mix of fact, rumor, and speculation. I've tried to make it clear which is which.

Cloud computing requires huge data centers. Apple announced last year that it's building a $1 billion data center in North Carolina. That facility is a 500,000 square foot data center in Maiden, N.C., almost five times the size of Apple's existing, 109,000 square foot facility in Newark, Calif.

What applications would Apple run in its cloud? How about iTunes? TechCrunch's MG Siegler sees iTunes inevitably moving to the cloud. Your media would be stored in the cloud instead of, or in addition to, being on your desktop. That would make your media library device-independent and eliminate the need to sync with the desktop to transfer media between desktop, iPods, iPads, and iPhones. A cloud-based iTunes offering would also mitigate the storage needs of video; a single season of a TV show requires tens of gigabytes of storage, and a few purchases like that will tax the resources of even today's storage-rich desktops. Note that TechCrunch wrote about this back in September, prior to Apple's last big iPod announcement, so this speculation has been around a while.

I've been frustrated by the inability to sync my iPhone and (more recently) iPad media wirelessly. I can already sync my calendar and contacts wirelessly, but not media. I subscribe to a lot of podcasts, and that means I have to remember to connect my devices to my Mac daily to be sure I have the latest episodes. It would be nice to forego that little annoyance.

Apple bought Lala.com, a streaming music service, and announced last week that Lala is shutting down May 31. Lala might be the foundation of a new iTunes-in-the-cloud, and shutting it down might be clearing the way for the new service.

What would the new service be called? How about iTunes Live? Apple filed for the trademark recently, reports Robin Wauters at TechCrunch. TechCrunch says the trademark would be used for concerts Apple occasionally has in its Apple Stores, rather than a cloud offering.

Cloud services require rich user interfaces that run in the Web browser. Many companies use Adobe Flash for those clients, but Apple hates Flash. Instead, Apple is developing a Flash competitor named Gianduia, according to AppleInsider.com's Daniel Eran Dilger. Could Giandiuia be the new front end for Apple's new cloud services?

If Apple is preparing a big cloud strategic shift, when might we expect to see the first big announcement? How about next month? The Apple Worldwide Developers Conference is June 7-11, and the WWDC each year is where Apple makes one of its big strategic announcements for that year; in recent years, the company introduced new iPhones at WWDC, and we'll probably see a new iPhone at this year's WWDC as well. Big new cloud services would nicely complement a new iPhone.

Mitch Wagner is a freelance technology journalist and social media marketing consultant. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner.

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