Apple has had their Icarus moment and it’s not losing Steve Jobs—though that may also prove problematic. Their Icarus moment is the inability to actually deliver on the promises of iCloud. They are now, and have always been, a device company and they are about to enter the post-device world. Try as they might, they can’t seem to execute on a strategy that puts the device second to anything else.
Let’s step back for a minute and think about where technology is heading in the next 5-10 years. It hasn’t even been 5 years since the iPhone came out and effectively launched the smartphone and in the process started us down the path to the post-PC world. We’re pretty much there at this point, but it doesn’t end there.
The next logical step is the post-device world where the actual device you use to access your data and apps is mostly irrelevant. It’s just a screen and input mechanism. Sure, things will have to be customized to fit screens of different sizes and input mechanisms willy vary, but basically all devices will be thin clients. They’ll reach out to touch (and maybe cache) your data in the cloud and any heavy computational lifting will be done somewhere else (as is already done with voice-to-text today).
The device you use more or less will not matter. As long as it has a halfway-decent display, a not shit keyboard, some cheap flash storage for a cache of some data, the barest minimum of a CPU and a wireless NIC, you’re good.
This world is not Apple’s forté. Not only is is nearly all of their profit from exactly the devices that will not matter, but they’re not very good at the seamless syncing between devices either. It took them until iOS 5 to provide native syncing of contacts, calendars and the like directly to and from the cloud. After Android, Palm’s webOS and even comically-late-to-the-party Windows Phone had implemented it.
Moreover, this is not the first time Apple has tried to provide some kind of cloud service. They started with iTools in 2000, then .Mac in 2002, MobileMe in 2008, iWork.com in 2009 and now they’re on iCloud. None of the previous incarnations have been what anyone would call a resounding success. In at least one case, it was bad enough that Steve Jobs asked “So why the fuck doesn’t it do that?”
So, who will succeed well in this post-device world? The obvious answer might be Google since they’re already more or less there by having all of their apps be browser-based, but I’m not totally convinced. They seem to be struggling to provide uniform interfaces to their apps across devices and that seems hey here. For instance, the iconography of my gmail is different from my browser than it is on my Android tablet and that’s for a device they own.
Actually, in a perverse way, I think Microsoft might really have what it takes to succeed in this world if they can execute. They have a long history of managing to maintain similar interfaces and design languages across different platforms and devices. Though, their failure to provide a clean Metro-based interface in Windows 8 is a bit of a damper for their chances.