With iCloud Launch, Apple Demotes The Personal Computer

12 Oct

The promise of the personal computer was simple: all the computing power you need, all on your desktop. Apple co-founder Steve Jobsdelivered on that promise first with the Apple II. He delivered on it better with the Macintosh. And for the last decade Jobs has worked to expand that franchise, turning the Macintosh into a ‘digital hub’ that linked cameras, printers, and music players into a personal digital ecosystem.

No longer. On Wednesday Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of software and services will lead the public launch of iCloud, a suite of online services that will demote the computer on your desktop from essential to nearly inconsequential. Digital books, documents, applications, photos, and music will all be stored on Apple’s servers, for free. Not to mention email, contacts, and calendaring information.

Where do you get this product? If you use any of Apple’s products, even just iTunes, you’ll soon be soaking in it. Support for iCloud has been built into updated software for Apple’s desktop computers, mobile devices, and even the iTunes digital media management software used by tens of millions of Windows users. iCloud, of course, hasn’t been baked into Windows as it has all of Apple’s software, but if you buy a piece of music or a TV show on your Windows PC, you can download that media to other devices running Apple’s software with just a tap.

The most dramatic change: Apple is cutting the cord — literally — between the Mac and the iPhone, iPod, and iPad. The latest version of Apple’s mobile software, iOS 5, available as a free download Wednesday, will allow users to synch directly with Apple’s cloud services. Photos, for example, will be scooped up into Apple’s server and pushed out to all of a user’s devices. No more need to synch these devices to a personal computer for software updates or to get copies of a user’s movies and music. No more need for a personal computer at all.

Google, of course, is taking steps in the same direction. The laptops built around Google’s Chrome operating system boot quickly and are built around the web browser, and push all their data to the cloud. Apple’s approach is much more radical. Rather than stripping everything but the web away from the personal computer, as Google has done, Apple is pushing the Internet into every nook and cranny of what its devices do.

While Google becomes more of a competitor, Dell is becoming less of one. Both Apple and Dell compete in the personal computer market, but both are finding growth in very different slices of the cloud. Apple is building a polished, consumer-class cloud-based service, while Dell wants offers the high-margin building blocks businesses need to assemble their own. For Dell, rack-mounted servers are just a start. Apple, by contrast, quietly ended its rack-mounted server business last year.

The only question now: how well will Apple’s plan work in the real world. Apple has no doubt tested its new services thoroughly. But the size and scale of its user base is enormous: there are now more than 60 million Mac users and more than 250 million iPhones, iPads, and iPod’s running Apple’s iOS operating system. It took a while for Apple to get its far less ambitious MobileMe suite of services right. Even if iCloud doesn’t work as planned, or work at all, someone — maybe Microsoft, maybe Amazon — is going to get this right. And that means the personal computer is going to get left behind.

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