Is Apple planning a big cloud announcement next week?

Apple has a gaping hole in its strategy. It needs powerful cloud computing tools to compete with Google. Next week's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), which launches Monday, would be a great time to get started on that.

Apple is committed to a strategy that emphasizes appliances like the iPad and iPhone, and de-emphasizes more flexible and powerful computers like the Mac and PC. Steve Jobs phrased it very well at the AllThingsD conference on Tuesday. He compared PCs to trucks, and tablets to cars. "When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks because that's what you needed on the farms," he said. But most people don't need trucks, they just need cars.

This doesn't mean PCs are going away. A few weeks ago, I was concerned that Apple might be de-empahasizing the Mac. But the ascendance of cars hasn't made trucks hard to find. If you want a truck, you can get a truck.

While most people will be happy using just appliances, many people will have both -- an appliance for everyday computing, and a PC for tasks where you need more muscle. Right now, I'm working at a Mac and have an iPad and iPhone sitting in front of me too; in the future, many people will have that kind of mixed environment.

If you're using multiple devices, you need some way to transfer documents from one to the other. You shouldn't have to find a PC (remember, in the future according to Steve Jobs, most people don't have PCs), connect your appliances with wires or over a Wi-Fi network, and synch everything up, which is the way Apple currently works. The synch should be wireless, continuous, and in the background -- "in the cloud." Devices should synch even if they're hundreds of miles apart. Apple devices and Windows can synch over the cloud for calendar, contacts, bookmarks, and mail, but that kind of wireless sync needs to happen with all forms of information.

Bitlockers to go

Right now, third-party solutions are emerging that can do cloud sync pretty well. So-called "bitlocker" services including Dropbox and SugarSync allow you to sync documents from your desktop to the cloud, and then to other devices. MobileMe offers some of that kind of sync for documents, but only within the Apple product line, and at lower capacities and higher cost than the competition.

Update: An anonymous commenter below notes that Apple offers MobileMe Control Panel for Windows, which syncs contacts, calendars, and bookmarks on a Windows PC. Document synch, however, is not supported on MobileMe for Windows.

On the iPad, applications including GoodReader and ReaddleDocs sync with those bitlocker services, and let you read documents locally on your iPad, and do some light editing.

The latest addition to that class of apps is DocumentsToGo, which shipped an iPad version this week. It's a Microsoft-compatible office suite for the iPad, including a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software, and it syncs documents about a dozen different ways, including cloud sync through Dropbox, SugarSync, and more. DocsToGo puts Apple's native iWorks app suite for the iPad to shame; iWork's sync to the desktop is horrendously clumsy.

Similarly, the combination of Simplenote on the iPad and the free Notational Velocity on the Mac lets you sync plain text files between the desktop and iPad.

With a combination of Simplenote, DocsToGo, Notational Velocity, and Dropbox, I can work on all my documents wherever I am: on the iPad, on the Mac, or on the iPhone, and not have to worry about version control or syncing. It all just works in the background, in the cloud.

Beyond documents

The need for cloud sync extends beyond documents. The iPad and iPhone need tools for syncing music, video, podcasts, and e-books wirelessly between devices, without the need to use a PC as a hub. I sync my iPhone and iPad to my Mac every day, but the only reason I do it is to sync up the latest podcasts; if not for that one task, I could go months between syncs.

Simplenote, DocsToGo, Notational Velocity, and Dropbox are all third-party solutions, they're not owned or controlled by Apple. It's very unlike Apple to rely on third parties for strategic technology. They're going to want to have this technology in-house -- they'll need it, because their new enemies at Google have built a business on cloud computing.

Apple seems to be assembling the pieces for its own cloud offerings:

  • The company announced last year it's building a $1 billion data center. It's a 500,000 square foot facility in Maiden, N.C., almost five times the size of its existing, 109,000 data center in Newark, Calif.
  • Apple bought Lala, a streaming music service, and shut it down May 31.
  • Apple bought Siri, a search-based personal assistant service with an iPhone app, in April.
  • New iPhones

    Next week's WWDC, which kicks off Monday, would be an ideal place for Apple to unveil its new cloud strategy. If it doesn't happen next week, count on it later in the year. I don't have any inside sources on this, but the pieces are all there. It's the direction the industry is going, and Apple needs to either go that way or become irrelevant.

    What else can we expect from Apple next week? The new iPhone, of course. I think Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster and other Apple watchers nailed the predictions in late May. We'll see a redesigned iPhone, with increased capacity, priced at $199 for 32 GB and $299 for 64 GB, the same price points as the current, lower-capacity iPhone 3GS. The new device will feature a front-facing video camera for video chat, and -- according to recent rumors -- a new, high-resolution display.

    The new device will run iPhone OS 4, the new version of the operating system, which will also be available to the iPhone 3GS, 3G, but not the first-generation iPhone. OS 4 is coming to the iPad in the fall.

    When can we expect these iPhone goodies? I've seen some speculation that they might actually be available for sale Monday, the day Jobs announces them, and for a while I believed that myself. That's unusual for Apple, they usually like to wait a few weeks after announcement for availability of strategic products. But I no longer believe the iPhones will be here Monday, mainly because I haven't seen any reports of AT&T stores being open extended hours Monday; my gut feeling now is that we'll have to wait until late June for the new devices. However, I'd love to be wrong about this.

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

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