State of Sync: Revisited

Posted by | October 11, 2011 | Apps | No Comments

Several months ago, I wrote this piece regarding the then-current state of syncing among Mac apps and their mobile counterparts. What I didn’t know at the time was that Apple was toiling away in the forges of 1 Infinite Loop on what we now eagerly look forward to as iCloud. In case you’ve been living under a rock, iCloud is Apple’s latest attempt at a cloud-based sync service. Though we all saw the tragic end to .Mac and MobileMe, iCloud shows quite a bit more promise.

Today, I’d like to explore what iCloud means for third party developers. Specifically, I want to outline the potential I see in iCloud, and where I would like to see it go with regard to third party software.

As Usual, Apple Sets The Standard

If we’re to believe what we’ve been told about iCloud (and I see no reason why we shouldn’t), all of the standard, native Mac apps that you use every day will be kept in-sync across all of your devices. This means that your calendar appointments and contacts will stay up to date on your Mac, iPhone, and iPad. It means that the songs and movies and TV shows and apps that you download on one device will automatically download to the other devices you own. And perhaps most excitingly (for me, anyway), it means that the documents you create in Pages, Numbers, and Keynote will stay in sync, letting you pick up on one device where you left off on another.

All of your data, media, and documents wherever and whenever you need them, without you having to do a thing. Sounds pretty great, right?

What About The Third Party Love?

If the Apple that we know and love were truly a completely closed ecosystem, iCloud as I’ve just described it seems right on the nose. But what about third party developers? Most of us use third party apps on a regularly basis, and probably rely heavily on their data staying up to date.

If you’ll voyage back with me for a moment, to those halcyon days of yore (about 3 years ago) when MobileMe ruled the cloud, we can see that Apple likely had the same intentions as they do this time around with iCloud. Perhaps they hadn’t worked out the kinks, or perhaps the technology simply wasn’t available in 2008, but MobileMe turned out to be the antithesis of the smashing success I expect from iCloud.

There are a few factors that I believe Apple got just right in designing iCloud that will put it miles beyond MobileMe.

  • Free price point
  • Effortless syncing
  • Third party incentive

MobileMe was a relatively closed service. Like .Mac, it was still shrouded behind a hefty price tag that a majority of Mac users probably didn’t want to cough up. Likewise, Apple didn’t seem to have the interest in providing a third party syncing platform as much as it was attempting to move your basic data (calendar, contacts, photos) to the cloud. As a result, MobileMe didn’t have the appeal necessary to drive third party developers to want to use it.

On the other hand, iCloud seems to be precisely the platform that developers will want to use. The first two factors I listed above create the third: an incentive for developers to utilize the platform.

How Things Have Changed

As I look back to March (several months before iCloud’s initial announcement) and reread the article where I first discussed the sync options available to developers, I notice that my conclusion began with this:

“My perfect scenario would be a free MobileMe that synced all of my applications to the cloud.  Obviously this is a little on the dreamy side, but the desire for simplicity and reliability still remains.”

Today, I will willfully and joyfully eat my hat, because iCloud seems to be exactly that for which I was longing.

In that article, I also pitted wi-fi and cloud sync against each other in a grudge match–a showdown that, in hindsight, now seems petty and immaterial. With iCloud having an inherently large user base at launch, as well as the “free” and “easy to use” factors, I think that there will be a lot of pressure for third party developers to use the platform, and abandon their paid sync service.

Since the publishing of that post in March, Potion Factory finally released an iPhone version of The Hit List (my preferred to-do list app) along with a $2/month cloud sync service. I can’t say I’ve been thrilled to subscribe to this paid model when a simple wi-fi sync isn’t even an option, but I will admit that it is a solid and reliable service. I also can’t say for certain that such services will buckle under pressure and utilize the iCloud platform (or that I’ll stop paying if they don’t), but I would certainly like to see this happen across the board.

Conclusion

The performance and reliability of iCloud remain to be seen, but will likely be brutally evaluated upon launch, much like MobileMe was. My guess is that if it survives that initial scrutiny, iCloud will be far and away more useful than any of Apple’s previous attempts at such a service.

What do you think? Is this the cloud platform that will break the mold? Will Apple have to give it another go in a few years?