Computing.Next: Google IO and WWDC

I’ve refrained from posting my thoughts on Google IO, which took place last month, because I felt it would be better to wait and see what came out of Apple WWDC. The two companies have been fierce competitors in the past and my bet was that this year would further strengthen the competition. Well, the WWDC keynote wrapped up this week and sure enough–Apple’s production brought some very interesting new products and services to the table that seek to challenge Google’s counterparts.

Desktop OS

I won’t say much regarding the traditional desktop-class OS market. Apple has OS X Lion hitting digital shelves in July while Google Chromebooks are shipping right about now. Yes, they’re competitors, but Google’s cloud OS is such a new player in the market it’s unclear how it might affect Windows and OS X. Chrome could take off for consumer and enterprise users that don’t currently need access to traditional applications like Photoshop, AutoCAD, standalone collaboration tools, and so on. For now though, OS X and Windows will continue to hold their place in the market.

Mobile

Next up is the mobile device space. On one side you’ve got iOS. On the other: Android. This “battle” is a bit less exciting this year than it has been in years past because both platforms are near parity. Features on one generally match features on the other, and both have proven to be quite usable for just about any type of user. Notably absent from this year’s WWDC keynote were snarky remarks about Android from Steve Jobs. It’s doubtful that he’s gotten over his grudge against Android; however, Steve demonstrated that copying features straight out of other systems was no problem! New iOS notifications are practically a direct copy from Android, while iMessages takes quite a few queues from Blackberry Messenger.

An age-old issue is that of copying features from one OS to another. Apple and Microsoft copied from Xerox, after all. So, while Android fans are making fun of iOS playing catch-up, Android has been required to do some of the same in times past.

One issue I must take with iOS 5 is that of iMessages. Apple has created yet another proprietary messaging platform. While this is not terribly surprising–Apple has a sordid history of building their own proprietary systems when excellent open protocols were available–it’s pretty disturbing. In addition to iMessages, we previously had proprietary services like Blackberry Messenger, Kik, LiveProfile, Beluga, and several others. That’s in addition to old standbys AIM and MSN Messenger. But what I really would’ve liked to see is Apple integrating directly into the existing open messaging protocols like Google Talk and Facebook Chat. Both of those are based on something called XMPP and are insanely powerful for text, rich media, audio, and video.

I’m sure Apple made this decision because they are more interested in consumer lock-in and bringing as many users as possible to their platform than they are at furthering innovation and the industry at large. While corporations certainly have the right to make money and the responsibility to be good stewards to their stockholders, proprietary technologies are not required to do so. Google and IBM are prime examples of companies that make tons of money by using and supporting open source. Apple made the wrong call here and will hurt the industry as a whole if this catches on.

All that said, I am 100% ready to kill off expensive text messaging plans and move to data-driven messaging. But I want that to happen via open protocols used across any device on any carrier. This is the age of the Internet, after all.

Cloud

The main area I want to focus on is that of Internet-based products and services.

Google has been a huge provider of these services for some time now and continues to expand its offerings. Web apps such as: Gmail, Calendar, Books, Picasa Web, Talk, Voice, and the recently released Music service are notable in their lineup. Many other lesser known services are also available that integrate directly into Search. All in all, Google is almost 100% “cloud-based.” They tend to only offer native app solutions when it supplements an existing web offering, a la Android and Chrome OS.

Apple, on the other hand, has traditionally focused more on native solutions than web. Their first foray into the web space came as MobileMe (and its individual ancestors), but most people (Jobs included) would agree that it failed in quite a few areas. iCloud is Apple’s complete rewrite of the platform and huge tie-in to existing iProducts and infrastructure. It features things like data backup from Apple’s mobile products, wireless syncing for documents/photos/books, mail, calendar, music, and photos.

On the surface, Apple’s offerings have become almost identical to Google’s. They both provide multi-device syncing, backup, productivity apps, and more. Both store your a copy of your data in the cloud. But there is one extremely huge difference. With Google services, everything can be accessed from a web browser practically anywhere in the world. Just hit the Google app URL of your choice, log-in with your username and password, and access your stuff. It’s easy and ubiquitous. In many cases these web services are supplemented with a mobile app on Android (and often on iOS as well). This is especially relevant with Gmail, Music, Docs, and Talk.

iCloud still stores all of your data in the cloud, but at present, you can’t get to it with a web browser. (Perhaps email and calendar are an exception, but it’s unclear from Apple’s website.) Instead, you’ll need an iPhone, iPad, or Mac in order to access most of your data. Photos are also available to Windows machines. But you won’t just need an Apple device. You’ll need your Apple device. iCloud is designed to pair with a specific device and connect it to your cloud account. But if your battery is dead or you’ve left something at home, it sounds like you’ll be stuck. Good luck getting that Excel document for the big meeting. Your cloud extends only as far as your battery. This seems like a huge downside to a set of services that otherwise has a lot of value. Within the next decade, web apps will become as powerful if not more so than native apps. Apple will have to evolve their offerings to keep up. Google has some shortcomings when it comes to things like editing documents, but they’re way ahead on the web front. iCloud does have some public APIs, so we’ll see what 3rd party developers can do with those.

Another significant difference between the competitors lies in the music services. Google is currently unable to sell music and match existing downloaded and ripped songs to a huge online library, so full uploads of your music is required. This usually doesn’t take weeks as Apple claims, but it can take a significant amount of time–certainly a few days–to get a large library uploaded. The upload process also slows down other Internet-based activities due to limited upload bandwidth.

On the upside though, once the music is loaded, any modern web browser can stream it from any machine. It’s literally music on the go from anywhere. The Android mobile app also supports this stream-anywhere philosophy and is available on any Android 2.2+ device. In addition to streaming, songs can be downloaded to the device as desired.

iTunes on iCloud works a bit differently. Initial setup is faster since you’ll have immediate access to iTunes-purchased music past and present. For a nominal yearly fee, you can quickly match all ripped music to anything in the master iTunes library. Anything that can’t be found there is uploaded the manual way just like Google. The music is available on up to ten devices.

That’s where the fun stops, though. First, users are still required to use iTunes (whether on desktop or mobile) to purchase music. There’s no web interface. This means that Apple failed to address the glaring issue of iTunes being incredibly bloated. I run across more and more users each day that are looking for a way out of the garden. Unless you’ve got a high-end machine, iTunes will be a pain in your side and Apple just expects you to deal with it. It runs far worse on Windows than Macs to boot.

The other issue relates to music storage. While you can download anything you’ve purchased or uploaded as many times as desired, the fact remains that the music must still be stored on a device. There’s no streaming whatsoever, so downloads are required. If a device’s space gets low, you’ll have to manually delete content in order to make room for new songs. Additionally, unless you keep your entire music library downloaded to every iDevice you own, there’s no guarantee that songs from one will be on the other. A manual search and download will be required. If you’ve got a lot of music, this could prove unwieldy. In the music store arena, Apple obviously has the lead, but in the convenience and tech department of the actual service…Google takes the cake.

One final caveat related to the iTunes cloud service is that their privacy policy states that they’ll willingly hand over information regarding your iTunes Match data to record labels if threatened with a lawsuit. In so many cases its going to be hard to determine if certain music files are legit or not. Nobody keeps all of their receipts, people lose original discs, and yes of course, there are pirates out there too. But what’s going to stop legitimate users from getting sued by RIAA and the like? I suspect TechDirt may have some insights here, but it’s a little disturbing to say the least.

All-in-all, I think parts of iCloud will be a very hard sell to users. Yes, everyone will benefit from app and data backups, OTA updates, and so on, but many users are already tied in to existing 3rd party services like Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, and so on. The ubiquity of those services (read: doesn’t require an Apple product in hand) makes them extremely lucrative. Switching to iCloud might not be worth the trouble–easy or not. Also, while details are still forthcoming, I wonder if certain data can be excluded from the cloud sync. Some documents, photos, and so on might not be appropriate for global cloud transference…especially to a family Apple TV or some such. Privacy conscious users may also balk at just shoving everything into the cloud. What security, integrity, and such are provided or guaranteed for uploaded data?? And finally, with capped data plans in vogue and no clear way of switching away from iCloud if desired, Apple will need to provide tools in order to track data usage and export content into industry-supported formats. Something they might not be willing to do.

Apple definitely has provided a huge upgrade from the MobileMe of the past few years, but it remains to be seen if they’ve really hit something good yet. It’ll be hard to beat Google at it’s own game. And with Google releasing the next major Android version this Winter, it may bring to significant upgrades and UI adjustments that trump iOS 5 in some important ways. It remains to be seen what’s up their sleeve. There’s even room for a Google Music refresh, so don’t count the music store out yet.

At any rate, the Google/Apple competition is definitely turning out to be a fierce one. The remainder of 2011 promises to be quite interesting indeed.

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