Kate's Comment

Thoughts on British ICT, energy & environment, cloud computing and security from Memset's MD

Why Apple Should Make iCloud Open

The recent launch of Apple’s iCloud service has done much to bring mainstream attention and acceptance to the concept of cloud storage and syncing.  But unless they adapt an open cloud standard they are facing an uphill struggle to attract business users.  Here’s why.

iCloud is a hosted storage service that will seamlessly copy and sync documents, e-mail, calendar, and contact data from a Mac or Windows PC, back and forth to iOS devices like the iPhone and iPad.

Great for those of us who are now much more mobile and face the challenge of making sure the same e-mail, contacts, calendar events, and documents are available whether you are sitting at your desk, using a tablet from home, or working on your smartphone while riding in a taxi.

Businesses, particularly small companies reliant on iOS and Mac OS X hardware, will find iCloud an appealing way to simplify file management and distribution.

However most businesses are unlikely to use iCloud until Apple adopt an open cloud standard.  The fact that iCloud won’t deliver on other platforms like Android smartphones and tablets are going to be a major hurdle for Apple to overcome.

In Apple’s defence they have done a good job with the development tools, always a key area for driving adoption of a platform technology. In a recent Appcelerator and IDC survey 51% of mobile developers said they planned to use Amazon’s cloud services in the next year, and 50% said they planned to use iCloud.

Apple also seems to be the only manufacturer that is edging away from PCs/desktop machines and encouraging greater uptake in the “cloud”. For example, MacBook Airs never came with DVD drives, and the new Mac mini range no longer have an integrated DVD drive either.  Similarly new Sandy Bridge Airs and minis can have OS X reinstalled directly over the internet rather than booting from USB or external hard/DVD drive. Apple’s mobile devices are now getting over the air updates and are no longer going to be tied to iTunes on the desktop.

Our new cloud storage solution, Memstore (in beta, live next week), uses open source software, OpenStack, combined with in-house technologies, to deliver a flexible, scalable and safe way for customers to store their data in the cloud on a pay-as-you-use basis.  The service will also be the cheapest on the market as well, in line with our “costs plus” pricing model, showing that you don’t need mega-scale to achieve low price points. According to Forbes, iCloud will be more expensive than Amazon and Google’s comparable services, which already arguably inflated.

OpenStack’s code base comes principally from Rackspace, and you might wonder why a successful company like them would give away their software? The answer is simple: Amazon. From a standing start 5 years ago Amazon Web Services has grown to an eye-watering $1.4bn in revenue. Rackspace, their leading competitor in the cloud space, is thought to have about one tenth that figure in revenue from cloud. So, Rackspace and the other out-paced cloud providers have clubbed together to create an open, interoperable cloud system. Their hope is of creating an open market for cloud resources, which would be more attractive to business users and promote innovation, and thus get bigger bite of Amazon’s lunch.

Now, last year Apple’s market valuation exceeded Microsoft, and as of this week they exceeded Exxon to become the world’s largest company valued at just over a third of a trillion dollars. So, if anyone was going to try and take on both Amazon’s somewhat open, and certainly cross-platform, cloud as well as the likely future in the form of OpenStack it would be them.

But can they really? Due to being a fairly closed system, iCloud’s success is contingent upon their iOS user base since that is the main demand area at present – personal content distribution and mobile applications. However, Google’s Android mobile operating system has over 40% of the global smartphone market in terms of devices sold/shipped and Apple only has about 15%.

Essentially Apple sees iCloud as a consumer rather than a business service – and Apple have never really been interested in enterprises or business, despite the work they done to support policies and enterprise standards like Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync on the iPhone.

In addition to the closed, proprietary, non-interoperable system being likely to put off serious business users there are two other issues. It does not look like iCloud will not come with a substantial service level agreement, which guarantees iCloud uptime or quality of service, and they don’t seemed to have paid a huge amount of attention to security. CIOs aren’t going to entrust important data to a service that may or may not be available when needed.

Still, even if it is a consumer service, Apple is a quality brand so one would have thought that security would be a priority, and these days consumers are increasingly aware of the need for keeping personal data safe, especially online.

I firmly believe that adoption of open cloud standards is one of the keys to unlock the full and global potential of cloud computing and to breaking down the duopoly of Amazon’s IaaS and Google’s consumer SaaS. Jobs & co may be making astonishing profits, and will likely continue to do so for some time, but unless they either out-landgrab Android in the smartphone and tablet market or open their doors to cross-platform services their success may be short-lived. But maybe that is not a concern. Maybe, with Jobs’ rumoured ill health, he has decided that there are few more golden apples to lay and that he should cash in while the going is good.

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