Will the future for Apple v. Google be decided in the iCloud?

Internet services are the backbone for the mobile era but in the words of at least one ex-iPad engineer, Apple [AAPL] has a big problem keeping up with competitors when it comes to these, because: "Almost everything Apple does that involves the Internet is a mess."

iCloud: iSucceed or iFail?

Patrick B. Gibson thinks Apple has a blind spot when it comes to the Internet, and he believes the company's lack of innate understanding of how to deliver effective online services is giving Google an advantage in the technology arms race.

You have to take the criticisms of any ex-company employee with a huge pinch of salt, but Apple's history does show provision of Internet-based services as one of its weakest points:

  • .Mac and MobileMe clearly missed the mark, with Apple's decision to decimate its .Mac user base by levying a sudden charge causing a lot of damage to that company's early lead in provision of such services.
  • iCloud is a more effective service, but lost and delayed messages, service unavailability and other foibles show just hard Apple finds it to maintain a service that's set to be at the heart of everything any Mac or iOS user does. And where's the iCloud file browser?

Gibson adds a few extra criticisms, such as why Apple can't seem to update its retail store without taking it offline and questioning why the company still uses WebObjects (created long ago by NeXT) to drive its iTunes and App Stores. You may have noticed the company take its online store offline this morning as it prepared to introduce its always beaten by Amazon Black Friday deals.

Gibson, whose company website reveals he took part in the design of the original iPad, also seems to believe Google's getting better at product design, which I find hard to accept. Though I'll be interested to see what comes out of Motorola Mobility in future.

The crux of the developer's argument is a plea for Apple to acquire Twitter in order to fill out its capability to put together social network style services, though he does feel a deal isn't going to happen.

Though Gibson's colleague, Tom Dale, another ex-Apple employee thinks if Cupertino were to purchase Twitter lots of engineers would leave, citing Apple's "poisonous", "top-down" disempowering managerial style.

At the core

While I don't agree with everything Gibson explains in what seems very likely to become today's best read Tumblr post, I can see it feeding into another observation.

It is clear the smartphone is a connected computer that's always with you. It should also be clear that cloud-based services should eventually become more important than the devices you use. It's inevitable that the majority of tasks you currently use any form of device to transact will be made available as Web applications.

This was certainly part of the vision that fed into the creation of NeXT.  The vision of a visual object-oriented development environment was revolutionary when it first emerged in the min-90's, it was seen as a good way to build solutions for the kind of computers that company planned. Steve Jobs and NeXT eventually passed to Apple, but Steve at heart was a product guy.

What's changed is the time. The nature of products has changed -- a product isn't just the device but also the software inside of the device -- Apple's very good at that side of the equation.

However, as Internet services become ever more important, so too does Internet logic, a world in which data is free, apps are easily available and almost every aspect of an OS is user-configurable. That's a little more of a Google advantage.

At least on the face of it…

Can Apple culture change for iCloud?

Gibson believes lack of Internet-focused engineering talent is Apple's big problem when it comes to shipping cloud-based services that work. That's probably true, but it's always a little easier to attract leading talent if you also have an innovative vision for what you want that talent to achieve.

Apple is developing its vision. CEO, Tim Cook, set out his vision earlier this year when he said: "I think Siri and iCloud are profound. I would view iCloud not as something with a year or two product life; it's a strategy for the next decade or more. I think it's truly profound."

I'd argue that this is correct, given that the online services you can access from whatever device you can get your hands on will, to all intents and purposes, define your computing experience. You'll note that I say "whatever device". That's because I don't think it's appropriate for users to be locked to any particular platform when it comes to access to data they already own.

But Gibson says Apple's bad at Internet services, and that Google's grab is growing. It seems clear to me that before the two firms went to war, they both understood this, with Apple focusing on making the best hardware, and Google maintaining its focus on Internet services. That's a détente cordiale that would have worked, but then the Android thing happened and the wars began.

The thing is the Android thing did happen, and now lots of people are focused on making great mobile devices. Apple still has lots of advantages within this environment, and will maintain a good customer base, but it needs to apply the same levels of exactitude on its Internet services as it does on its hardware products, perhaps more.

Profound change required

As Cook put it when discussing iCloud and Siri: "They're not these things that will not mean anything a year or two from now. They're things that you will look back at, that you'll talk to your grandkids about, that were profound changes."

While I'm not really certain we'll be telling our grandkids about it, I do believe these services are profound, as they mark a moment in time when it isn't just about the device or the things you can do with it when you own one, but about how well that device integrates with other devices, PCs and the rest of the world.

If Gibson is right, we could be approaching the moment when Google finally defeats its smartphone rival, but if he's wrong, then we're on the edge of witnessing the arrival of new families of future-focused Apple Web services designed to rival those of its search-engine foe.

But for Apple to deliver such services, it may need to refine its internal culture in order to make the home of the future social network more inherently social. To grab the cutting edge Web services talent its plans inherently demand, Apple may need to change its corporate soul. And that is indeed a profound change.

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