Clients frequently ask the best methods for synchronizing email, developing and hosting Web sites, collaborating on calendars and backing up files. Firms that leverage Apple technologies, and even some Windows organizations, have begun using iCloud to perform these critical tasks. But that may not be the best bet, at least for businesses.
iCloud is an awesome personal service
Apple's iCloud is an outstanding consumer service. It's a smart choice for residential Apple computer users, especially. The ability to share audio and video files (songs and movies) between devices sharing the same iTunes account using iTunes Match is well worth the annual fee. Add in synchronized bookmarks (including on Windows systems), a basic photo backup courtesy of Photo Stream, and even cloud-based backup and sharing for iCloud-enabled apps, and the service is a steal.
But it's not a business tool.
What happened to iWeb and web hosting?
Apple is first and foremost a hardware company. The company's laptops and desktops are almost breathtaking. That's saying something, considering the blasé beige boxes from which personal computing really grew. Its Smartphones are life-changing (I listen to audio books while the unit's GPS tracks my route, calculates my split times and posts the results to the Web all while I'm checking my calendar, Tweeting and returning email and maybe even making or receiving a phone call) and changed the way millions leverage smooth intuitive gestures to navigate a stunning variety of applications on display-dominated devices.
Services, though, are another issue. Sure, AppleCare is a no brainer, and users new to Apple will find One to One services a rewarding investment. But Mobile Me proved Apple isn't successful in everything it tries. With little fanfare Apple's Mobile Me web hosting service simply ended. And what happened to those businesses that built their websites using iWeb, which published websites easily straight to Mobile Me? They're finding the application harder to find; it's not even promoted within new versions of iLife. Those relying upon Apple to provide an application to design websites and a service to host the site unceremoniously found themselves out in the cold and having to turn to third parties.
Businesses and enterprise organizations needing to synchronize email and calendars will be much better served using a Microsoft Exchange server. Or, if developing and maintaining an Exchange backend infrastructure is too burdensome, these firms can purchase hosted Exchange services from a variety of reliable providers including Go Daddy, Microsoft or Rackspace. Exchange is simply a more robust, more proven, more reliable messaging platform. That's not to say iCloud can't catch up, but I'd wait before moving my business' critical email and calendaring functions to an Apple-powered service.
As for audio, video, and file backup and synchronization, I'm not convinced iCloud can manage the rigors of a true business environment. My consulting firm employs only 25 people, yet we maintain some 25GB of critical documents and files. The total doesn't even include photos or video. My own personal audio and video library exceeds 1.1 terabytes alone, so iCloud's Photo Stream, which only tracks 1,000 of my latest images, won't work. The free iCloud service, meanwhile, provides only 5GB of data storage, although additional capacity can be purchased at reasonable rates.
The real question for businesses is do they want to try synchronizing several hundred gigabytes of data across wireless connections? Probably not. While iCloud, again, is awesome for personal use, businesses will find themselves better served by a terminal server parked in a secure data center, VPN access to a corporate server, or another cloud-based file sharing solution that ensures only authorized users securely access corporate data.
Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president of Eckel Media Corp., a communications company specializing in public relations and technical authoring projects.