iOS 5 and iCloud Are Great, But What About Video?
I was on my way into the inaugural Wired magazine conference in London when I saw the announcement that iOS has been updated to 5 at last. Fortunately, I picked it up on Wired so I feel it's justified to hook the two together!
At the start of the year this year I predicted in these pages that Apple would finally realise that iTunes was its Achilles heel. Well it would seem that my advice has [as so often is the case ;)] been taken on and they have placed iCloud at the core of the iOS 5 release.
Let's have quick look at this: iCloud offers the user the ability to move to a network computing model. Some 20 years ago (15 at least) the iPad and iPhone would have been called "thin clients." The "fat" part of the workload was at the core of the computer network paradigm. The industry has oscillated from having fat clients to thin clients on several occasions in its evolution.
The Windows story was arguably the heyday of fat client computing, and it's still interesting that even as the iPhone 4S is released the big selling points are on the device's power and the range of features that are "on board." The notable fact, though, is that more and more parts of the features that are commonly required are being pushed back onto network services, or as today's marketeers would tell you, "the service has been pushed onto the cloud."
So iCloud is effectively providing storage for data that all your computing devices can share. They cache a little bit locally (the stuff you use recently) on the thin client's limited storage, but really this is just the tip of the iceberg, and the rest is stored deeper in the network. I say deeper since upstream from your device there will be caches in your ISP, in the service provider's global network, and so on. In fact—and this is why this is so interesting from a Streaming Media perspective—most of this distributed computing model not only looks like a typical video content delivery network, but it increasingly is a CDN.
So iCloud is, in no small way, Apple's storage as a service cloud, and the software that runs between this cloud, and the client machines, is a CDN.
Much of the functionality has been available, even to on iDevices prior to iOS 5, through Google, Dropbox, and other such providers. In terms of document sync and core communications such as email and calendar sync, I don't see iCloud as doing anything groundbreaking beyond taking these computing principles via the Apple brand to the mass market (which is reason enough to do it; don't get me wrong).
The Wired article, however, highlights iCloud's photo management (called Photo Stream), and as someone who has struggled to find a quick, reliable and manageable online photo management system, this is appealing in principle, providing I don't want to import my existing 60GB of photos. iCloud gives users 5GB of free storage, with upgrades available for a yearly fee, but the limit is 50GB.
And this got me thinking. What is not mentioned in the article is video. Video uses much more bandwidth, so if Apple offers the ability to stream your video from iCloud, that is going to place infrastructure demands on the network, which will have a related cost and ultimately need to become a managed cost. (You can currently store video in your Photo Stream, and back up your iTunes TV shows to iCloud, but you have to watch them locally.) If I make a GB of video and share it to two of my other devices that's going to represent a distribution in the same way two users watching a YouTube video does. However if I want to play it back on a plane in flight mode then I need to have my video cached on my iPhone and my iPad. I'll have to sit in the airport syncing my movies, which—if it's on a cellular network—is likely to cost me in data transfer fees.
Not to mention the fact that, as anyone who tried to update to iOS 5 yesterday found out, Apple's network capacity doesn't appear to be quite ready for that kind of strain.
So while I think it's great that iCloud is helping to break the 'tethering' to a PC that iTunes has always required, I foresee—for high bandwidth video content at least—a few commercial challenges beyond Apple's control, before the video world moves onto iCloud in an effective and affordable way.