I hesitated when I wrote the title, because comparing a new product announcement to 2007′s iPhone introduction runs a big risk of being hyperbolic. I think, though, that iCloud will end up being as important a product for the evolution of computers as the original iPhone.
In April, I argued that Apple isn’t attempting to make computers mobile. Instead, they are trying to make the technology behind these devices so transparent that users will forget they are even using a computer, and only see whatever it is they are doing. If you are reading a book, all you see is the book; if you are writing, all you see is your text; if you are watching a movie, all you see is the movie. In effect, the device becomes whatever application is being used at the moment, and the technology behind it is only there to make it work. You don’t need to think about the technology. You just use it.
That’s the evolution in computers that is important. Apple’s perspective is that whether we are moving toward all web applications and thin clients isn’t really the point—those are technical considerations. For how we use computers, this is the shift that matters. “Cloud-based” isn’t the story. That’s just the technical implementation that makes the vision reality.
The iPhone’s touch interface eliminated the PC’s layers of abstractions between the user and their content. Before, users worked through the mouse, keyboard and application interface elements to manipulate their content; now, they just touch it, like physical objects.
iCloud’s intent is to eliminate another point of confusion on the PC—the file system.
The file system still exists, of course. But what iCloud does is make the file system almost completely something developers, not users, worry about. Instead of keeping their files organized and in the right place, users just need to use the application for whatever content they want. There is no need to worry about whether you have that document or presentation or song with you. It is always there, in the appropriate application, because iCloud does the work for you.
Let’s step back and remember what using PCs is like. If you are building a presentation, you create it in PowerPoint or Keynote, and you make sure you are saving it as you go along, so you don’t lose your progress. If you need to work on it from another computer, you save the file, locate it in your computer’s file system, and either email it or stick it on a flash drive to bring with you. And you need to do the same thing whenever you need to work on a different computer, which for a lot of people is quite often.
iCloud means you don’t do any of that. There is no saving, because it saves as you work. There is no looking through your file system for the file, because iCloud handles storage for you. And there is no moving files back and forth between devices, sending emails and carrying flash drives, because that presentation will be on whatever device you use.
That is Apple’s vision: don’t think about the technology, just think about what you’re trying to do. There is a lot I could say about Lion, iOS 5 and iCloud—some of it critical—but those are all details to a much more important story, which is that Apple’s creating the future of computing before our eyes.