Friday, 27 May 2011

Digital Locker or Lightener?

Apple's acquisition of the iCloud domain name suggests that their soon to be revamped MobileMe online services will be re-titled as well as re-purposed. But what purpose will the Cupertino company put its huge data server farms in the 'Cloud' to? Much has been written about the idea of a digital locker to securely store and stream content (such as music libraries) to any devices. But the cost of licences that Apple are paying for to rights holders of the content will have to be clawed back and I don't see them going down the advertisement route. So if the streaming part of iCloud is to cost users, then the value proposition will need to be very clear. I don't think the secure storage (i.e. backup) aspect of the digital locker is enough. Neither do I think that the ability to stream content to various devices will be enough. Users will compare the benefits of iCloud streaming with what they are already able to do. For most people, syncing and carrying the content they own on their devices is not an issue. It's there, it works so why pay more to achieve the same? One additional possible benefit is if the cloud based versions are better quality (e.g. higher bit rate, hence larger files). Well I'm still unconvinced. Most people cannot tell the difference in the quality beyond a point and they won't therefore see much value in paying for higher quality which is hard to perceive. That's not to say that all of these benefits would be rejected or complained about. I just don't think that the general masses will perceive enough value to pay for the service if they don't already!

But there is one thing which would cause a large number of those people who currently don't pay for MobileMe or other content streaming services to do so. If Apple were to launch a lightweight iPhone 'Nano' which has very little flash memory for content at a massively cheaper price, then it would put an iOS device in the hands of many more people, and allow those owners to effectively spread the cost of device ownership via a content subscription service. It would also fit the pattern of Apple later launching a cut-down version of successful high end products, and also be a model which is hard for many competitors to copy, requiring the server farm / data warehousing, licence agreements etc. to work. This would signal a shift, a digital device lightener, shifting content from devices towards the network. For quality to be maintained, better streaming/buffering technology will be needed than is currently used.

But I would be surprised if such a device came as soon as the revamped service ... rather it is likely to follow a while later. The initial marketing impetus for iCloud will be the benefits already mentioned as well as some additional facilities such as iWork.com finally making it out of beta status, and a family/friend location tracking service which people explicitly trust to keep them in control of their privacy, whilst letting their loved ones follow their progress.

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