Apple did something ridiculous this morning: It outlined what it would announce at next week’s Worldwide Developers Conference. In a press release, it both quieted months of speculation by listing the products it plans to introduce at WWDC:
Lion, the eighth major release of Mac OS® X; iOS 5, the next version of Apple’s advanced mobile operating system which powers the iPad®, iPhone® and iPod touch®; and iCloud®, Apple’s upcoming cloud services offering.
Telling people what you’re going to talk about may be how most other tech companies operate, but not Apple. The Cupertino, Calif., company would rather play it coy–it asked journalists to witness the iPad’s unveiling on eight days’ notice in an e-mail vaguely headlined “Come see our latest creation.”
Knowing what Steve Jobs will show off during Monday’s keynote takes some of the drama out of the enterprise, but at the same time it also frees people to speculate even more about these particular products.
There’s the least mystery overall about Lion: Apple described its features last fall. The iOS 5 software for the iPhone, the iPad and the iPod touch shouldn’t involve too much guessing, since it ought to be obvious what Apple needs to fix: its notification system and its now-obsolete maps app, for starters. (Rumors also suggest that Apple will do the smart thing and offer some iOS equivalent of the widgets that let Android users tap into features of their applications from the home screens of their devices.)
But then there’s iCloud. Over the last few years–and especially since news emerged of the massive data center Apple has been building in North Carolina–this Web-based service has been seen as a 2.0 version of Apple’s $99-a-year MobileMe contacts/calendar/e-mail service, an overdue fix for data transfer between a Mac and an iPad, Apple’s response to the cloud-based music-streaming services of Amazon and others or, at its most ambitious, an ambitious suite of free and paid services that could finally give Apple an answer to Google’s array of Internet-hosted services and apps.
Any or all of those things could be true. But before you start daydreaming about the prospect of Apple taking on Google, remember that Apple isn’t Google.
I don’t mean that as an insult. Where Google often launches things in an unfinished state–as advertised with its usual “beta” label–Apple ships completed products. You usually don’t have to hope for the 1.1, 1.2 or 1.5 release that will bring the thing to fruition.
But at the same time, Apple products are less likely to improve over time than Google’s. There’s no better case for that than iCloud’s predecessor MobileMe: Although Apple tackled the reliability problems that made it unusable at its debut, it’s ignored numerous other opportunities to upgrade that service. Three years later, it has: no increase in its stingy 20 gigabytes of online storage; no mobile site to let you view your MobileMe data on a non-Apple phone; no Dropbox-elegant file synchronization; no sync tools to let you connect contacts or calendar apps besides Apple’s own Address Book and iCal and Microsoft’s Outlook; no options for third-party developers to write their own.
Apple’s other recent venture into Web services, the underwhelming iTunes Ping, has also quickly gone stale.
This represents a distinct contrast to the steady stream of iterative improvements you see in such Google Web apps as its mapping service and software–and in how Apple has built on each new advance in Mac OS X, its computers and its mobile devices. Apple’s inattention to MobileMe reminds me a lot more of how Yahoo has squandered the potential of its Flickr photo-sharing service.
I fully expect that, when spotlighted in a Steve Jobs keynote, iCloud will look great. It may even wow a lot of users when they can sign up from home. But unless there’s been a major change to Apple’s developmental DNA, that may be as good as iCloud will get for a long time.