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Apple iCloud: Same old cage, new height

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Open...and Shut Redmonk analyst Michael Cote argues that the cloud is all about speed, at least in the enterprise. For many others, however, the cloud has promised much more: it has become shorthand for freedom from vendor lock-in at the device level, so that data is free to roam between devices without the chokeholds of operating systems or browsers getting in the way.

The problem with this vision, as Techdirt points out, is that cloud has simply become a new layer of lock-in, which Apple's new iCloud service stresses with a vengeance.

We haven't banished operating system lock-in, in other words. We've just renamed it "cloud."

To be clear, there's lots of money in data lock-in in the cloud. $12bn in personal cloud revenues by 2016, according to Forrester. And a heck of a lot more for enterprise cloud deployments: $35.6bn by 2015. Where there's lots of money, there's lots of incentives to lock up customers to shepherd cash into one's bank account.

But just as in the operating system wars of the past, the cloud wars are likely to leave customers stuck with whatever the cloud vendors choose to give them.

This is clear from Apple's iCloud. We rightly celebrate the increased utility this service gives us as it syncs our music over a range of (Apple) devices. But there's some fine print that constrains our usage right out of the gate, and then there are the possible legal exposure Glyn Moody highlights.

These content restrictions aren't peculiar to Apple, of course. And they're not restricted to the cloud, which free software pioneer Richard Stallman strenuously argues with regard to ebooks. Physical goods have the problem of portability and distributability. As we abstract property into the cloud, we improve on these shortcomings of physical goods but lose a lot of the rights we take for granted.

Apple is giving iCloud away for free, because locking up our content in the Apple cloud means we'll buy more Apple devices. It's Apple's way of circling the wagons around its ecosystem, according to ZDNet, and I agree. Analysts love it as a business strategy. Whether consumers will love being stamped "Owned by Apple's iCloud" isn't so clear. Funambol chief executive Fabrizio Capobianco, whose company provides open-source sync services,

If you own an Android device (just one, and keep in mind they are getting everywhere, in your TV, car and so on), or a BlackBerry, or a Windows phone... you are screwed with iCloud. This is the Apple silo. Everything will work as long as you stay within the silo.

Most won't be able to stay in the silo, and others will discover they don't want to, even if they could. Why? Because being under anyone's thumb is not much fun. Based on the nascent but growing backlash to Apple's in-app purchasing restrictions, revealed by the Financial Times opting for an HTML5 approach rather than run Apple's 30-per-cent of sales gauntlet, it's increasingly looking like Apple's control freakishness will get a slap from its customers.

As we bound forward into the cloud future - and move forward we will - we need to keep in mind the serious downsides to current cloud offerings.

This is why Red Hat's anti-lock-in for the cloud marketing has real substance. It's why so many enterprises are electing to build private clouds with open-source tools like Eucalyptus rather than cede their data sovereignty to a public cloud provider.

It's potentially less efficient. Such private cloud approaches arguably don't live up to the full promise of cloud computing. But for many, the trade-off is less risk of lock-in. Over time, the cloud - both personal and enterprise - has to open up if it's to become the massive business opportunity we hope it will be. Open standards make big markets; closed standards make big companies. We want the former. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.

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