At the 1997 WWDC, Steve Jobs described his vision for the future (video): a world of multiple devices all connected and sharing data seamlessly through the network. This year we’re seeing this vision come to life with iCloud.
The dumb terminal model of connecting devices that are essentially just interfaces to a server that will do all the work provides two big advantages: your data doesn’t need to be synchronizes between various devices since it lives in the cloud, and the devices themselves can be cheap since most processing is outsourced to the server. This is the model that Google is refining right now with its ChromeOS. Give people devices that run a Web browser, and let the Web act as the OS with Web apps as the software.
But the problem with this model is that you lose the advantages of native apps that rely on local hardware, advantages that Apple at first ignored when they tried to get developers to use Safari as the development platform for the iPhone. People wanted to create native experiences, and they wanted to take full advantage of the hardware their software ran on. Native apps proved to be much more successful as they simply provide a better experience to the end user. But while the apps themselves on individual devices were great, the problem of keeping everything synched remained.
But now, iCloud is the final piece of that puzzle. The thing about the above two models is that there is no reason to pick one or the other, instead, we can take the best of both and combine them into a hybrid model that is iCloud. Apps are native, but the data always gets synchronized with the cloud. In this way all your work, videos, music and purchased apps are always available, on whatever device you pick up, and you get the benefit of running things locally to make full use of native hardware and its features.
Of course this technology was already available to those who sought it, but it was never available to the layman. There were always plenty of ways of setting up a “dropbox” on your machine, but then Dropbox came along and made the whole thing so easy that everyone would use it. The technology was there, it just wasn’t accessible. The developers of Dropbox had to take out every form of setup and just put one magic folder on your disc that just worked–in effect they created an easier interface by taking out the interface. This is what Apple is doing with iCloud. They’re taking away all the setup and making the back-end completely invisible to the end user. If it works as advertised, this will be huge for Apple, and in some ways I think this was an even bigger announcement than the iPad as it solves a very real problem that many people have.
But what about ChromeOS? Google’s model still has it’s advantages, e.g. low device cost and the openness of the Web as a development platform, and so will be a very viable option for many devices and users. I don’t think there’s any reason why the two models cannot coexist in the future or even work with each other (for example, Dropbox has a Web app). There is overlap in a lot of the functionality here, e.g. Picasa vs iPhoto, which means the two models will definitely compete, but I don’t think one model has to lose in order for the other to succeed, just like Apple has grown successful without having to “defeat” Microsoft.