Google and Apple are taking fundamentally different approaches to cloud computing. It's important to understand the differences. Here's a quick summary.
At the end of TechRepublic's live commentary of the Apple WWDC keynote on Monday, after Apple had unveiled iCloud, I had a conversation with the participants in our live chat in which I explained that Apple's cloud was a "store and forward" cloud as opposed to an "All your base are belong to us" cloud. Goofy Internet memes and technical jargon aside, that's a pretty good description of the difference between the Apple cloud and the Google cloud -- even though I was half-joking at the time.
Let's look closer.
The Google cloud
Google's entire strategy and approach to the cloud is based on the future, and not the Internet as it is today. Google is betting that the world will have low-cost, ubiquitous Internet access in the not-too-distant future, including fiber connections in offices and homes and super-fast mobile broadband in virtually every nook and cranny of the planet.
It is building its cloud for that world, and it's hoping that by the time it has its application stack refined and running like clockwork that broadband will be everywhere. That's absolutely necessary, since all of Google's apps are connection-dependent and all of the data is stored on Google's servers in the cloud. You've got to be online to take advantage of many of the best features, like simultaneous editing of Google Docs where you can see your co-workers' edits happening in real time.
I love Google's optimism about the future of broadband, but it's not going to magically happen on its own solely based on free market forces. There are too many places where it's just not financially profitable to deploy high speed access -- and probably never will be. In order for Google's vision to come to light, there will need to be more competition in the big markets and much stronger public-private partnerships in the smaller markets.
Google has started talking about making critical apps available offline, especially for Chromebooks. The company has already taken a few baby steps in that direction with Google Gears. However, the fact that offline access is an afterthought and not an intrinsic component of Google's solution tells you where offline and local syncing rank on the company's priority list.
The Apple cloud
Apple's approach is not to use the cloud as the computer-in-the-sky the runs all the cool stuff. It doesn't want or need everything to happen in the cloud. Instead, it views the cloud as the conductor of Grand Central Station who makes sure all of the trains run on time and that they make it to the right destinations.
With iCloud, announced on Monday at WWDC 2011, Apple uses the cloud to orchestrate data streams rather than control them. This is the cloud as a central repository for apps, music, media, documents, messages, photos, backups, settings, and more. A decade ago, both Apple and Microsoft talked up idea of the Mac and the PC, respectively, as the central hub of our digital life and work, with a variety of devices relying on it to coordinate content. On Monday, Apple clearly stated that's no longer the case. For it, iCloud is now the hub.
"We are going to demote the PC to just be a device," Steve Jobs said.
In this way, Apple is taking an approach unlike Google (which essentially mimics the old mainframe approach). Instead, Apple is doing something similar to what the popular startup Dropbox does. It is allowing users to sync their personal data and media purchases from their computers and mobile devices up to a personalized central repository. Then, that central repository on the Internet syncs all of the data and media files back down to all of the user's devices, so that all of them have the same data. Users no longer have to worry about constantly managing their files and music libraries in order to keep them up-to-date across a bunch of different machines and devices - a computer, a tablet, and a smartphone, for example.
Geeks, technophiles, and IT pros tend to love this approach because they still control their own data and have local copies of everything. However, syncing can also get a little complicated, especially if you choose to not automatically sync all of your devices (to save on performance and bandwidth). It remains to be seen whether mainstream users and business professionals will grasp the syncing concept and easily make it work.
Still, Apple's approach is probably more practical for the Internet as it exists today. But, in a world with ubiquitous ultra-fast broadband, will syncing still matter in 5-10 years? That will depend on whether users prefer to have local copies of their data for performance, security, and peace of mind.
Naturally, there have been heated debates about Apple iCloud in social media since WWDC. The most poignant comment I saw came from Lessien on Twitter, who said, "In Apple's vision, the cloud makes native apps better. Others see the cloud as a substitute for native apps."
All that said, let me try to boil this down into two sentences that shouldn't surprise you. For Google, the Web is the center of the universe. For Apple, your device is the center of the universe.
Can they both be right?