Apple’s Not-So-Secret Weapon: How iCloud Keeps Them One Step Ahead Ahead Of Windows

Steve Jobs may no longer be with us, but his approach to building the digital experience is alive and well, and not merely at Apple Inc.

For decades, Steve Jobs extolled the virtues of "building the whole widget"--in other words, designing and manufacturing a computer or a digital media player or smartphone as an organic whole, from the molecular materials of the hardware to the abstract bits and bytes of the software. The resulting products may not always have been as inexpensive or utilitarian as the standardized machines that ruled the PC marketplace, but they did always possess the svelte and winsome quality that Apple's loyal customers love with a passion.

Earlier this summer, Microsoft tried to make like Apple. The company had never itself built computers, out of deference to its many hardware partners, but on June 18, it revealed the results of a three-year secret project: a sleek and distinctive Windows tablet PC called the Surface. No mere iPad knockoff, the Surface is Microsoft's effort to build a "whole widget" of its own. It could well be the most beautiful and best engineered Windows device ever made. And it has bells and whistles that won't be easy for Apple to quickly mimic.

Google too has concluded that it can't really compete against the iPhone long term without its own end-to-end laptops, handsets, and tablets--hence its $13 billion acquisition of Motorola's cell-phone design and manufacturing business. The Motorola patent portfolio is valuable, to be sure, but Google wants to find a remedy to the fragmented world its Android architecture has fostered. The immense diversity of Android devices and generations of not-quite-compatible operating systems are beginning to look like liabilities, especially to app developers who don't want to have to support multiple versions of their own products.

So with Google and Microsoft as emerging widgeteers, might Apple finally be losing one of its historic advantages? Hardly.

At the annual World Wide Developers Conference held June 11 in San Francisco--the first big event since the death of Jobs--Apple demonstrated how its software prowess and skill at building interlocking digital platforms is the real game changer. How? By enlarging the definition of the whole widget. Increasingly, the Mac, iPhone, and iPad do not exist alone. Instead, Apple now offers a multidimensional, integrated ecosystem of devices held together by the centripetal force of iCloud. Apple's ideal customer, who likely owns at least one of each kind of product, can now share a single user identity, and core personal content and data can be viewed, consumed, used, or manipulated in familiar ways regardless of platform, with any changes or additions from one gadget instantly available on any of his other Apple gear.

In other words, Apple can now boast of providing a complete, coherent, and consistent digital experience at home, at work, in your car, and on the go--without any conscious effort on the part of the user. It's as if just at the moment when the visiting team finally steps up to the plate, they discover that the home team has moved the fences out, raised the pitcher's mound, and increased the distance between the bases. This is a different ball game.

Apple didn't announce some silver-bullet innovation at the WWDC to make all this possible, but instead described literally hundreds of new features and data services borne of software, many of which integrate how all its hardware products create, display, and share digital information. New versions of its Mac OS X and iOS for portable devices, along with much-improved data storage and remote processing services accessible via iCloud, will all come together in the next few months to markedly improve the quality of the entire Apple digital experience. Indeed, in many ways, improvements for the Mac will result in new capabilities for customers' existing iPhones and iPads with no new hardware required.

That is what you get when you enlarge the widget, and it doesn't even reflect the inevitable hardware improvements Apple is so famous for delivering like clockwork.

Microsoft and Google clearly understand this strategy. But Apple's ecosystem is the product of carefully nurturing smaller whole-widget ecosystems in such a way that they could be stitched together. Until recently, Microsoft has always tried to contort Windows to fit just about any class of hardware--using a one-size-fits-all strategy that has never played out well in non-PC devices. Google has tried to turn its browser software into a modest computer operating system, even as it took a completely different approach to Android smartphone software, and now is trying to make coherent architectures that are intrinsically different. Software can paper over just about any incompatibility, but a patchwork is not an ecosystem.

Apple's Tim Cook knows he has to be very careful not to over-standardize these individually dazzling devices. That's why it is unlikely that Mac OS X and iOS will ever subsume each other. The masterstroke is in using iCloud to knit them together, which hides the complexity of managing and not duplicating all those trillions of bits that each of us consume or manipulate every day. For today's digital consumer, syncing data, managing your access to it, and keeping it all straight and secure is the key to a powerful digital experience that we are only now beginning to grasp. Cook, an operations wonk who is a master of taming complexity, might even be better at figuring this out than Jobs was. And since Apple usually improves any screen it focuses on, a new and improved AppleTV platform could become an intriguing fourth species in the ecosystem.

So while it's certainly a bonus for consumers that Microsoft and Google have joined the game, Apple's lead could conceivably widen before they can even begin to play. There will be glitches as Apple moves into its post-Jobs era, but Microsoft and Google have so much to learn that the company has plenty of time to figure out how to live without Steve.

Illustration by Matt Dartford

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16 Comments

  • Brennanyama

    Certainly nothing less than a well thought article. A tad bit baised, but I'll grant you that since its necessary to effectively entertain an analysis such as this. Most people commenting simply do not understand the power (and scope) of cloud computing, and just how far ahead of the game apple is she when comes to this. Never in history has there been a company that is so well versed in the hardware business as apple is, and on top of that, they are the king of the hill (from a single hardware manufacturer standpoint) in the ARM based market. There is absolutely no doubt that icloud will be the "invisible forefront" of apples future market strategy, where no one--not even microsoft--can compete on a parallel plane. I would mention Google, but I fell their aims are too different from those of apple to effectively compare--they distance themselves too far from the hardware side, and android and chrome remain side projects in their overall marketing campaign.

    That being said, I feel that you under warrant the huge problem posed by the ARM-X86 split, which I believe will be one of the biggest transitions in the technology world over the course of the next decade. The two architectures are too similar in scope, but too different in operation, and by the looks of current technological development, ARM based technologies continue to emerge as a variable, and plausibly superior alternative. While I don't believe OSX will be phase out anytime in the immediate future, I strongly believe this was one of Steve jobs future goals, on that cook is ideally placed to execute. This transition is bound to occur soon, even without apples help, and judging by apples dominance in the arm-based market, Microsoft's piss-poor attempts (if any at all) to innovate with the x86 platform and absolutely embarrassing attempts to break into the ARM space, and googles increased push on the android platform, I wouldn't be surprised at all to see the end (or merging) of osx sometime within the next 10 years.

    And by the way, the surface tablets will flop. Mark my words. If Microsoft had marketing brains enough to push on arm tech, and actually do a great job with it, instead of doing so only out of obligation, they would have done so with winmo 6.0, three years ago. Two operating systems later, they have almost nothing to show for it (if not less)--other than the fact that hardware is coning directly from microsoft from the first time in history (which could easily be a bad thing), there's no reason at all that windows 8 will be any different (other than the fact that perhaps, they realized that they, again, failed to innovate, and are playing catch up with the rest of the industry). Any user curious enough with enough money to blow will walk into best buy, pick up the thinner, sleeker, better battery life, RT (ARM) flavor of the surface tablet, go home and realize that they can't run windows apps (then WTF is the point?!?!orly omgah), unless they buy the fat, expensive, battery hog (x86) version, and all they have is an inferior, cheapo ipad with a piss poor app selection and ecosystem, in all likely hood going back to best buy and buying into the apple or Google ecosystem... go figure. Maybe I'll surprise some comment readers as well.

  • Wgaf

    You have some odd info there.
    ARM != Apple.
    ARM sells majority of its processors to.... <drum roll=""> NON Apple. Apple is only 15% market for ARM. Samsung buys 3x that market share of ARM chips for all its range of devices (electronics through to mobile).
    Also Win8 RT runs on about 8 variants of.... <drum roll=""> ARM!!! Thats right you seem to have mistaken that Win8 RT is x86 only - wrong. In fact Win8 RT is specifically designed to be as platform agnostic as possible. With manufacturers like Samsung, LG, Toshiba and others all jumping on the ARM + Win8 RT band wagon, I think you probably shouldn't be writing MS off just yet. If you knew anything about the new .NET RT integration you should actually be worried, because it has the potential to change many things. And as MS has shown MANY times in the past - HW isnt the problem to solve, its Software. Do it right in Software ... then you win.
    Oh. On app selection.. how do you think MS got where they are? If Apple is so "amazing" why do they need to have MS versions of Office for it? Trying to write off MS is like asking for a punch in the face standing in front of Mike Tyson. He may/may not swing.. but if he does, you better watch out.

    Things you got right: Yes ARM is now looking like a serious desktop / main platform contender due to the mobile tech race (especially in the heat/power/perf area). But it is NOT being driven by Apple. There's around 300 Android ARM variants that are being supplied to all sorts of companies (many from china and india). There is also a massive embedded Linux ARM market. With local SE Asian markets selling many millions of ARM devices majority non-Apple (Apple barely 2-3 % in this market).

    People should not be confused with ARM and Intel/AMD. These hardware systems have very different purposes and profiles. ARM has come from an embedded systems world where heatsinks and fans couldnt be used, so the chips run cooler by LOSING some capabilities. ARM chips for example are not very good with large precision mathematics. Which is where Intel chips perform better - at a heat costs. Additionally Intel chips are backward compatible with x86 ABI.. ARM.. runs very specific code built usually for the specific ARM variant. And you can get ARM chips in huge amounts of variants: With/Without FPU, With/Without secondary cache, and so on. So they are generally built specifically for a specific job, where Intel is more generic to tackle a wide range of jobs. ... however.. ARM is growing more generic chips :) .. these are the ones to watch out for in the desktop world.

    hope that helps.</drum></drum>

  • David Caron

    iCloud is still not that great. It's not quite as functional as Dropbox but it is certainly handy. Surface was a really lame presentation - if you can't get your platform to not stall on the launch day - what makes me want to but this? Apple is in a good position but it will be interesting without Steve. I've already noticed a lack of quality control on some new products. Maybe it's a lack of Steve or maybe it's just growing pains.

  • chupchap

    iCloud is great but it's not the best I have seen. I prefer the way dropbox syncs my pics across all devices (irrespective of the manufacturer and OS) to Apple's approach. Microsoft takes sycing to the next level with Windows 8. I have been using Windows 8 for a while now and when I logged in using my live account in a friend's computer I was surprised to find the same layout and content as I had in my system. Cloud is not just about files anymore, it's also about the experience and the software one uses. Apple still has some way to go on that front. 

  • Steve

    This is interesting. I typically find Fast Company to have great and very unbiased content. The author here didn't seem to do his research. The features that he touts give Apple a lead have been available for more than a year with Microsoft and as one other poster mentioned it is cross platform. I can use my iPad, my computer, my phone and all of my data is sync'd. Seems odd that they missed that one. The Xbox companion even allows me to control what is playing through my media center. AppleTV vs. XBOX...XBOX wins every time.

  • Whatthespam-tempemail

    One word, DropBox. They did it first and Jobs tried to buy the company, butt they wouldn't sell. Just saying let's at least mention the company that really set the example and beat the big players to the punch.

  • Staysa Linres

    Apple has the most effective marketing: word of mouth from happy customers.

    The whole industry (minus Apple) seems to miss one important fact, if you make excellent products that people like, you will be successful. Everything Apple product I buy I enjoy and want more of.Cost is only part of the concern.

  • Gene Jaleski

    clearly Apple plays a better media game. Even though the Galaxy III S is the highest rated phone, and even though MS technology has a much larger user base, and even though Android phones far outsell IPhones, one would think that all the people creating internet buzz all work for Apple. I love all my Apples devices! 

  • D.E.

     Apple definitely plays a better MARKETING game than everyone else. They've created a huge base of fanatically devoted followers who would never consider any other alternative.

    Personally, I'm happy when there is technology innovation but claiming Apple is somehow way ahead of the game would be misleading at best (unless you mean the marketing game- then I have nothing to say)

  • Dustin

    Microsoft has skydrive, which effectively does what the same thing as iCloud. The only difference is microsoft is already breaking into the tv space with the xbox, with rumors of the next xbox releasing next year I can only imagine microsoft to take more advantage of the groundwork they've been laying out. Until apple gets serious about a console and/or the tv space, I can't consider them ahead of microsoft. Because the one thing microsoft knows more than apple is that "everyone" has a tv, so they poise a box that can possibly replace your cable subscription box, which sidesteps cable companies, and it plays games.

  • Thecoco

    The article is about integrating all of your digital devices and experiences into one. You have sliced off 1 subset of the 'digital lifestyle' in which Microsoft has an advantage. Until you can take a picture with one Microsoft device and have it instantaneously show up on your tablet, computer and TV (Apple TV is alive an well), your argument is invalid as it relates to THIS story.

  • Dustin

    Well, with skydrive I can take a picture with my device (usually my phone) and have it show up on my computer, tv, and soon tablet(unless it works with my ipad, have never needed or wanted to test this out). The beauty is skydrive works with macs, rather than icloud which is proprietary. All I'm trying to say is that there seems to be a hype around iCloud that seems unjust. Also in regards to all cloud based services, I don't like the idea of someone being able to wipe all of my data if my account gets hacked, they all need to up their security game

  • Skydrive User

    Totally agree. Author of article should research more on full capability of Skydrive before reading article.