Apple’s iCloud Is No Dropbox Killer (It’s Much More)

With today’s reveal of the next version of OS X – OS X 10.8, aka Mountain Lion – Apple is more deeply integrating its iCloud service into the operating system itself. No longer will storing your documents in the cloud feel like an extra, value-added feature – it will feel like part of the OS itself. The cloud is just another drive, Apple seems to say, and saving to the cloud should look and feel no different than saving to your Documents folder or your Desktop.

The idea, of course, is not novel. It’s what startups like Dropbox are doing today: making a drive that appears like any other, but that can be accessed from any machine. While on the surface, it’s easy to dub iCloud “Apple’s version of Dropbox,” the truth is actually more complex: it’s about building a new computing paradigm.

In testing the new iCloud integration in Mountain Lion, a file could be open in multiple locations – say, your Mac, iPad and iPhone – and when a change was made, it would appear almost instantly across all three devices in real time. You don’t have to wait for a notification, or reload the file. It just appears. While the immediate thought is that iCloud is rapidly turning into Apple’s own, improved version of Dropbox, it’s also a fierce competitor to Google Docs, and the long-rumored Google Drive.

With Google, however, the philosophy is that file creation itself can be migrated to the cloud. An online office suite is “good enough,” if not as good, as a native one. And “good enough” will win due to ease of use. With almost a completely opposing view, Apple’s iCloud is doing the reverse: bringing the capabilities of the cloud to the richer, more robust native apps. This includes not just office apps in iWork, but through the use of developer APIs, it will extend to any apps that need to be iCloud-enabled. Although today, iCloud support is more limited for third-parties, the APIs will improve in time. Eventually, any app running on the Apple platform (desktop or mobile), will have the tools to move data between its different installations.

To make the transition to the cloud seamless, Apple has embedded the cloud deep into the new version of OS X, right down to the “Open” and “Save” dialog boxes. Mac Store Apps will be able to immediately save to either the local file system or iCloud. The iCloud is also baked into the Finder, showing a realtime list of files, sorted by application. And managing those files has an iOS-like flair: you drag and drop them on top of each other to make a folder, for example. And even the background here looks like the iOS springboard.

But Apple’s iCloud is not just about building a better Dropbox – it’s about keeping everything in sync: Mail, Contacts, Calendars, Reminders, Bookmarks, Notes, Photos, Accounts, and more.

For now, the end user sees iCloud as this Internet location, as represented by a new choice to make: “save to iCloud?” As if the iCloud is merely an online storage bin! But this almost feels like a transitory step between the world we’re accustomed to  – that of physical hard drives – and a future in the cloud. The funny thing about this in-between step is that it somewhat misrepresents the cloud in its attempt at simplicity. The cloud is not actually a “hard drive in the sky” (hello, Microsoft). It’s a fabric that allows us to maintain a single computing environment, no matter where we are or what device we use.