Apple’s iCloud Strategy: Lock-In or Consumer Convenience?

by on June 8, 2011 · 2 comments

Wired’s Brian Chen writes today about the “damage” caused to Apple’s competitors and there own developers by products announced at yesterday’s WWDC keynote, making several claims that are bit dubious, the most suspect of which was this claim about Apple’s new cloud-focused trio:

Now, here’s why iCloud, iOS 5 and Lion pack such a deadly punch against so many companies: Together, they strengthen Apple’s lock-in strategy with vertical integration.

While I don’t doubt that Apple is indeed going to deal a very deadly punch to many competitors with their version of cloud computing for consumers, I think using the term “lock-in” is going to far.  True lock-in would mean driving consumers down a one-way street where their data can’t be moved to another platform (think Facebook prior to late last year) or driving up switching costs through cancellation fees ala the telecom industry.  Apple, on the other hand, is offering consumers a truly compelling user experience, not holding them hostage.

For example, files created in Pages—one of the iCloud-enabled apps—can be exported and uploaded to Google Docs. Similarly, your iTunes downloads can be added to your Amazon or Google music locker.  Meanwhile Apple’s mail and calendar offerings use open standards and that data can also be easily moved to other platforms.

Yet Chen isn’t alone in this lock-in theory, The Wall Street Journal’s Rolfe Winkler has advanced the same thinking in a piece published yesterday:

What makes Apple’s latest product compelling isn’t unique technology; both and Google have Internet-based storage offerings. Rather, it is that Apple is doing more to lock in customers. According to IDC analyst Danielle Levitas, as they surrender more digital property to Apple servers, users become more likely to buy future generations of Apple products. Moving it all is complicated.

Certainly it’s true that moving large amounts of data from one service to another won’t be pretty, but is this a consequence of the specific choices made by Apple, or is this just part of the brave new world of cloud computing?

Aside from a few uber geeks building self-hosted cloud repositories for their own use, the world of all-my-data-everywhere-at-all-times is going to be facilitated by companies offering increasingly sophisticated and deeply integrated ways of making use of your digital detritus.  Users are bound to become accustomed to one set of visual vocabularies, functionalities, and workflows and some may find it hard to move to a competitor as a result.  But unless authorities ban product integration and force consumers to construct their own data syncing solutions piece-by-piece, these rather minor switching costs seem inevitable.

Open standards and low-commitment software-as-a-service offerings make the web an appealing place for geeks who always want the coolest, most advanced bit of software.  But, to the average consumer, getting all of those web-based widgets to work together is a daunting and often perplexing task.  If Apple can solve that consumer pain, that’s a win, not a loss—even if it falls short of the geek ideal.

Previous post:

Next post: