Before the iPhone existed, I used Microsoft's handheld devices for a number of years, and syncing data was often a nightmare. Their ActiveSync software inspired a considerable amount of loathing among users.
Compare that to Apple's MobileMe service which launched in 2008. The two experiences couldn't be more different.
MobileMe automatically syncs your contacts, calendar, and e-mail. You don't need to think about it, you don't need to connect your iPhone to your computer—it just happens automatically in the background. The beauty of MobileMe is that all this information is available on any computer anywhere in the world—not just your iPhone or your personal desktop computer.
MobileMe was developed as a "cloud computing" solution, where everything is available wherever you are on any computer or device that you're using. However, MobileMe is currently limited. For example, if you've purchased a movie in iTunes, you can watch it on your iOS device or your home computer, but that's it.
Why not put everything in the cloud? That's the vision of Google and Microsoft. Google has introduced its Chrome operating system, which is essentially a Web browser that accesses applications and data that reside in the cloud. You don't need to install applications, you don't need to buy external hard drives, and you don't need to back up your data. Everything is out there in the cloud. The beauty of this is that you spend more time computing and consuming media—and less time on housekeeping chores such as managing your data.
Apple's data center and plans
Apple is definitely up to something: as this is being written in mid-December, they're putting the finishing touches on a new 500,000 square foot, $1 billion data center in North Carolina. This facility is almost five times larger than their previous data center, located in California. Rumors are swirling that Apple is about to start building yet another 500,000-sqaure-foot facility on the same North Carolina site. Many analysts think that the purpose of the data center will be to broaden its cloud offering. Some say that it's logical that Apple would make all of your iTunes content available in the cloud. The big question is, how far will Apple go?
Last October, Apple announced an App Store for the Macintosh and launched it in January. It's likely that the North Carolina facility will host it. Apple is rumored to be developing software that it will offer in the App Store in addition to hosting apps from other developers. The logical next step would be for Apple to serve up a suite of apps via the web, just as Google has done.
Apple has always been known for tight integration: of hardware and software, of portable devices and the desktop. The cloud is the next step: seamless integration of data and apps and media across all computers and devices, including TV and stereo.
The devil in the details
In practice, there are a number of hurdles to overcome. First of all, cloud computing entails being connected to the cloud. What if your Internet connection goes down?
The approach Google is taking is to let you use their online apps when you're offline, probably as a subset of the full online application. Apple should probably emulate that approach.
However, the truth is that connectivity is becoming ubiquitous. The phone carriers are rapidly rolling out their 4G networks, which have data speeds as fast as most home Internet connections. And they offer devices like Verizon's MiFi, which is a shirt-pocket-sized wireless router that connects to their data network and lets you create a wireless hotspot wherever you are for up to five computers.
If the Internet is always available wherever you are—and that's the direction we're heading in—then cloud computing makes perfect sense.
Still, such speeds are a long way from the speed of data transfer associated with a local hard drive. Until the network gets incredibly fast, working with data-intensive applications such as video editing will need to be done in the conventional way.
More powerful network; lower-cost hardware
Another advantage of the cloud is that you need less computing power locally. Tablet computers can become essentially a LCD screen that's a window onto the cloud. The computing power and storage are provided by the cloud. That means less of an investment in hardware and software. Microsoft is very worried about Google's Chrome OS and cloud offering, and the prospect that computer users may no longer need their Windows OS, which is why they're very focused on their own suite of cloud services.
The issue of security
Do you want all your data in the cloud? Some people are indeed concerned about this. However, you're already connected to a worldwide network, and you're already transferring data back and forth on this network every day. The cloud isn't that different from what you're already doing.
The trend, therefore, is toward seamless synchronization; lower cost local computing; having data, apps, and media residing in the cloud; and the integration of all your media and all your electronic devices. Google and Microsoft are moving full speed ahead. Apple will be the third major player in this arena.
As always, Apple will make it elegant, simple, and fun.