I said a while ago that the days when a significant electronics category can be launched without an ‘ecosystem’ look numbered. The master of building an ecosystem to exploit and develop hardware has probably been Apple with its iPod/iTunes, iPhone/iPad/apps approach to the market.
This week, Apple announced the iCloud, an attempt to unify these services with some online services from the Mac world and bring them all together under one service heading and with ‘everything available in one place’. It seems to me that this is a very big deal if Apple can make it anywhere near as good as it promises. This is, of course, not a given. I have been very aware of what Apple is doing since the late 1970s when I had an Apple ][ and was chairman of the UK Apple User Group. Apple, and especially Steve Jobs in his talks, has always painted a rosy picture of how seamless and simple life would be with a Mac, although the reality hasn’t always matched up. (A designer friend told me that he loved his Mac because at least when it crashed it gave him a cute cartoon rather than the ‘Blue Screen of Death’!)
Nevertheless, the iCloud concept seems to be a very good way of dealing with a fundamental issue of architecture – the choice between distributed files and resources, which works very well if you don’t have a connection to the network, and the cloud/remote working model that works so elegantly, but fails when you are out of reach of a network. As someone that travels a lot, I am always conscious of the fragility and cost of the network once you get away from your home Western city (and don’t get me started on the robber barons of international network roaming!).
The Apple promise is to combine cloud back-up and support with seamless downloading of content to any of your devices. If Apple can do this and manage to avoid the kind of proprietary restrictions that have strangled previous initiatives from them and others (and it looks as though the promise of allowing DRM-free copies of music sold from the iTunes store may offer this), it could have a real success on its hands. The idea of having all of my ‘stuff’ in sync would really make me think hard about how I could move to an Apple environment as keeping my notebook, netbook, eBook and smartphone even remotely synchronised is a challenge that I have pretty well given up on.
The Japanese CE brands have understood this concept for many years – I remember hearing years ago that many in Japan thought ‘ubikuitousu’ (ubiquitous) was a native Japanese word because it was being used so often – and we have reported on strategies from Sony, Sharp and others for six or seven years. However, it is hard for these companies to break down the silos between the different divisions of the company. For example, Sony has its Playstation Network for games and then there is the Qriocity service for music and video and it abandoned its ImageStation photography service. Sony has to work with Sony Ericsson on smartphones.
The Koreans understand the concept and appeal too and Samsung is clearly trying hard to develop its service and ecosystem concepts, but as I have written before, it has to overcome a lot of the management and cultural traditions that have made its current business successful to get there and that will be difficult.
Google is among those that has a chance and Microsoft (or some at Microsoft) really understand this idea, but each has its own challenges in delivering what Apple might (Google is too heavily in the cloud and Microsoft is entrenched in the client).
Apple, in the week that its market capitalisation passed the combined value of Intel and Microsoft, may have reached its golden moment in the sun. This could be Steve Jobs finest moment in changing the paradigm away from the PC industry that he helped to build.