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Apple is going to steal your idea

Picking up nickels in front of the steamroller

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t.  (Michael Caine as Cutter in The Prestige)

Though typically obscured in secrecy up until the last moment, Apple’s developer and media events generate the kind of speculative fervor that would make even the royal couple envious.

But this year was different, if only for what seemed the odd pre-game-time disclosure that Apple would reveal iCould, it’s entry into a crowded remote data-storage market. That Apple had built such a service can’t really be called a surprise. MobileMe has been humming along in one form or another for close to a decade now, so remotely-stored data that syncs to multiple devices isn’t exactly a new feature.

Nor can the pre-announcement really be seen as anything out of the ordinary, for it revealed next to nothing, except an ordinary-seeming, late-to-the-game, otherwise unremarkable entry into a crowded field. Something Apple had to do, but not necessarily anything ground-breaking.

The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.

It amazes me how Apple routinely takes a third-party developer’s hard work, and with a deft flip of the wrist instantly obliterates that developer’s user base by integrating the very same features into their operating system. (Twitter has done this recently, too – having told developers to focus on applications “further up the food chain.” By they gave plenty of warning, and had the courtesy to buy out two of its major developers and bring them into the fold.) And Microsoft has long been known for courting competing developers, and then squashing them by either introducing their own comparable software product, or changing the operating system APIs enough to throw said developers into complete disarray. (Joel Spolsky called this strategy “Fire and Motion.” It tend to work splendidly, up to a point.)

Although Apple is following the same basic strategy, albeit to different effect, they are following it none-the-less: pick up pieces of functionality that developers have trail-blazed, and bake it into the operating system. iOS5 does this on a stunning variety of fronts:

Now, to some extent, these developers were playing a dangerous game of “Picking up nickles in front of a steamroller.” Yes, they created apps that filled some important and unfortunate shortcomings in the iOS’s roster of baked-in functionality. The problem is, they were obvious gaps, not least of all to Apple, and leaving them to be filled in only by third parties involves a very different kind of strategic positioning. One employed by, for example, Android.

Still, iCloud is the more impressive offering, precisely because it takes something obvious and currently unremarkable (remote data storage, syncronized access) and plays a sort of vanishing act. iCould is a service (obviously), but one so tightly threaded into the fabric of the iOS and the experience that it doesn’t simply replace existing data storage services (Evernote, DropBox and even Apple’s own iDisk), it makes the experience of “cloudiness” a background experience. You don’t choose each individual file to have sync’d, or which type of data you want to have available on every device, it just happens. For free.

An entry price of “free” makes for a compelling trial offer, but as implemented the service is really more “opt-out.” As every cloud-storage operator knows, the service is not what keeps customers coming back: it’s their data that draws them back in. iCould will support not just Apple apps, but third-party apps as well.

Anyone who gushed about iTunes-in-the-cloud is kind of missing the point. Yes, your music is now with you, everywhere.

What iTunes did for iPods and music, iCloud does for the rest of the Mac product line and every other kind of data you own: by embedding multi-device synchronization so deeply in the experience that you don’t even notice it’s there, buying anything but an iOS or OSX-based device immediately handicaps you. Take a picture on your iPhone? It’s on your TV and computer faster than you can get there. Buy an app, song, movie or TV show on your iPod, iPad, Mac, Apple TV, iPhone? It’s instantly on every device you (and your family) own. Can you make this happen now, with existing services and apps? Yes, but it’s not easy, and it’s incredibly app-dependent. iCloud, by comparison, makes it all seamless.

Just as quickly as they introduced it, and along with those 3rd-party apps, Apple has made iCloud disappear.

The difference between a “trick” and “magic” is that a trick soon reveals itself to the careful observer (at least the one who wants to deconstruct what just happened.) Magic is no less mechanistic or physical in its origins, but it resists inspection. Often to the point where, should you manage to figure out the inner workings of what you’ve just witnessed, there is rarely elation at your cleverness so much as disappointment that the illusion was so obvious in the first place. “What do you mean it was just a trap-door and a body-double?” you ask, “there must be something else to it.”

But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.

Consider what hasn’t yet been revealed, a pregnant pause being necessary to heighten the tension, and the delight. By subsuming a core set of popular applications into the iOS, Apple is forcing developers “up the value chain.” The magic is what reappears as a result, and how it takes advantage of iCloud’s capabilities.

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