Apple presented iCloud as a new Internet service during the keynote presentation of its Worldwide Developer Convention last week, profiling nine different services that build upon portions of its existing MobileMe services but appear to erase the existing service's web clients, which provide direct browser access to email, contacts, calendars and shared media.
In with the new
Apple's current iCloud marketing materials make no mention of web clients for mail, contacts or calendar. The new product also seems to entirely replace MobileMe's other web clients such as Gallery (for sharing photos and videos via the web) and the company's iDisk and iWork.com services (for sharing large documents via the web rather than email attachments) with native app-integrated web services rather than a web client used within a browser.
Instead, iCloud portrays Contacts, Calendar and Mail as a push service for native apps, making no direct mention of a web client alternative to using iOS apps, Mac OS X apps, or Outlook on Windows PCs.
MobileMe's Gallery photo and video sharing appear to be completely replaced with the new Photo Stream component of iCloud, which immediately populates photos and videos to other mobile devices, Mac or PCs, and Apple TV as they are captured. Despite the presence of web-based sharing features, Photo Stream appears to be an app-based cloud service, with no elaborate web client in the model of MobileMe's Gallery.
MobileMe's iDisk and the short-lived iWork.com service similarly appear to be replaced outright by iCloud's "Documents in the Cloud" feature, which is designed to work not just with Apple's own iWork apps but third party developers' apps as well, enabling users to synchronize document edits across their devices and computers, and share them with others using a similar web-based URL link rather than having to email attached documents, a feature that originated with the iWork.com service in 2009.
While iCloud also appears to make some use of web-based sharing and event acceptance related to calendar invites (shown below), there has been no detailing of full web clients for calendaring, contact management, or email access.
Along with other new iCloud components related to syncing iTunes media, Apps, and iBooks purchases and maintaining wireless backups for iOS devices (part of a shift in strategy to support "untethered" iOS devices that don't require being plugged into a PC running iTunes), there appears to be no publicly detailed, web based component of Apple's iCloud service at all.
Out with the old?
This apparent shift patterns the company's evolution of online services from its initial origins starting with iTools in 2000. That service provided a suite of web based services ranging from "iCard" greeting cards to "iReview" profiles of websites to "HomePage," an entirely web-based publishing service.
Two years later, Apple scrapped most of its iTools services and rebranded its online services as a paid new ".Mac" program providing the same email and web hosting of iTools alongside a cloud Backup tool. Apple later added a web client for email in 2006, followed by a Web Gallery app for posting photos and videos online. Apple also released iWeb as a Mac app to eventually replace the HomePage web app for posting content online.
In 2008, Apple again rebranded its online services as MobileMe, dropping a variety of less popular services (including an online .Mac Groups collaboration tool and a web client for accessing synced bookmarks) and launching new web apps for Mail, Contacts, Calendar built using the same SproutCore technology that had been used to build Web Gallery. That service was also rebranded as Gallery under MobileMe.
Since opening the iPhone App Store, Apple has delivered a variety of custom iOS apps for accessing MobileMe services, including iDisk and Gallery, as well as adding the new "Find My iPhone" service, which introduced both an iOS app and a web client for locating and remotely contacting or securely wiping a missing device.
Is the web missing in iCloud?
Apple's current focus for iCloud appears to target native device apps rather than web clients, suggesting that the company will discontinue most of its suite of web apps next summer when MobileMe is scheduled to terminate.
The company also lists an active position for a site support engineer for MobileMe capable of supporting users and testing, among other things, "new feature implementations associated with MobileMe."
At the same time, Apple is also recruiting multiple iCloud Java Server Engineer positions that demand a "minimum of 5 years experience designing, implementing and supporting highly scalable applications and web services in Java," as well as an "iCloud C++ Server Engineer."
That position details required experience in "designing, implementing and supporting highly scalable applications and web services in C / C++ on Unix platforms," as well as knowledge of Apache and event driven HTTP servers such as lighttpd and nginx (two high capacity web servers that are used to power high transaction services such as Google's YouTube and the PirateBay).
Apple's web-like security in native apps tied to web services in contrast to web apps
All of Apple's new iCloud job postings describe "web services" as opposed to web clients, indicating that the company intends to migrate from web-based tools to native apps, leaving the web component of iCloud reduced to a more faceless background service that talks directly to apps rather than attempting to support direct access via a browser.
Such a strategy would reduce the company's efforts required to develop and maintain feature parity between its MobileMe web version of its existing native apps such as Mail, Address Book, Calendar and Gallery, enabling it to focus on native iOS and Mac apps instead.
Such a strategy would be directly opposite to what Google, Microsoft, and other vendors of consumer cloud offerings related web services have detailed. Google has focused all of its energies toward making the browser a suitable replacement for native apps, positioning Chrome OS and web-based apps as the eventual goal of the company. Microsoft recently revealed that the next major release of Windows would jettison native Windows APIs and instead offer a Chrome-like layer of web apps optimized for direct touch interfaces.
In contrast, Apple has progressively moved toward enhancing and securing the environment for native apps on both iOS and the forthcoming Mac OS X Lion, introducing new features that will allow users to install apps that are restricted by the system from engaging in malware behaviors or from accessing any user or system data without the express permission of the user, two features that originated in the sandboxed environment of the web browser.
Two years ago, Apple surprised many industry observers by releasing iWork.com as a tool for sharing documents directly from iWork apps; many had predicted that Apple would release a web client version of its iWork apps to compete directly against Google's Docs and Microsoft's Office 360 suite of web apps. Today's iCloud appears to be an extension of that strategy, moving even more aggressively to make iOS and Mac apps the focus for sophisticated app development rather than targeting the web itself.
Not everyone agrees that Apple will actually abandon all or most of its web apps however. Mac blogger John Gruber of Daring Fireball wrote yesterday, "I would wager that, sometime between now and 30 June 2012, iCloud will offer a web interface just as good as if not better than MobileMes (and quite possibly, under the hood, based on MobileMes). They just havent announced it yet, and if Apple hasnt announced it, they wont talk about it."