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How and why Apple is taking charge of its own cloud services

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Most of us use cloud services on a regular basis — whether we’re aware of it or not. Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, and more underpin most of the apps and services we rely on, but they’re designed such that users barely notice they’re doing anything at all.

Currently, Apple uses cloud services provided by some of its biggest competitors to implement its iCloud platform. The company pays hundreds of millions to Google for these services — and previously paid Microsoft and Amazon for the same infrastructure.

As a result, iCloud has faced heavy criticism in recent years, spanning from enraged celebrities decrying hacks that saw their personal photographs splashed across the internet, to everyday users frustrated with slow, sluggish performance. Other Apple projects that use cloud services haven’t fared much better, with Maps consistently being compared unfavorably to other offerings, and vital storefronts like the iTunes Store and the App Store experiencing major outages.

Apple is ready for a change. The company is reportedly pursuing its own cloud services solution, under the codename Pie. And that’s good news for fans of Cupertino’s hardware.

The service industry

Apple is being secretive about its aspirations for the Pie project, but we do know bits and Pieces about its overarching strategy.

Apple doesn’t need to become the market leader in cloud services for Pie to be worthwhile.

In April 2016, unrest was reported among the company’s iCloud team after efforts to adapt Siri for better integration with cloud services ran into trouble. In October 2016, it emerged that Apple was preparing to move teams working on projects including Siri, iCloud, and Maps onto the same campus, rather than being spread across various locations.

This is not the typical corporate re-structuring. For Apple, the first step towards a proprietary cloud services platform is bringing its existing teams under one roof. Putting teams in the same building should help establish some continuity across the projects that they’re working on.

Apple’s success across the Mac, the iPod, and the iPhone can be boiled down to an ethos of ‘simple things done well.’ An iPhone might not offer as much flexibility as its Android equivalent, but it makes straightforward tasks like web browsing, messaging, taking photos, and installing apps as easy as possible. “It just works,” as the old marketing line goes.

Compare this to iCloud sync, which all too often stutters and fails, the too-frequent outages of the iTunes store, or the Maps app that can’t find the location you’re trying to travel toward. These scenarios are frustrating for the user, directly contradicting the carefully cultivated reputation that Apple uses to sell its products.

There’s a great deal of work to be done if Apple is serious about taking charge of its own cloud services and building a platform for its next generation of iOS staples. However, bringing this important component of today’s iPhone and iPad experience in-house will allow the company to apply the same level of craftsmanship that it exhibits elsewhere. That kind of control simply isn’t possible while Apple is reliant on third-party cloud services.

A piece of the pie

Some of Apple’s fiercest rivals already have a strong foothold in cloud services. Amazon AWS made its debut in 2006, Microsoft Azure launched in 2010, and Google Cloud Platform has been around since 2011. These companies have had several years to iron out any kinks in their services, and along the way they’ve each amassed large consumer bases.

Apple will have an uphill battle to fight if it intends to carve out its own slice of the cloud services market. However, the company isn’t necessarily looking to face its competitors head-on.

“I don’t see Apple trying to sell cloud services in the same way that we see Amazon, Azure, Google trying to do that same thing,” says Greg Arnette, the co-founder and CTO of cloud services specialists Sonian. Rather than play catch-up to seize a proportion of the existing cloud services user base, Apple might instead play to its strengths and target one sector more specifically.

“I could see maybe Apple trying to offer something there that then enhances their app ecosystem, and generates more revenue in an incremental way, and gets the mindshare of iOS developers who are out there,” explained Arnette. “Because right now, those iOS developers are using services from Google and Amazon, and Azure, to build mobile apps.”

This scenario makes it easier to see how Apple could feasibly break into cloud services. Much like Amazon, it might build infrastructure to underpin its own interests, like the iTunes Store and Siri. Then, when that’s in place, it can sell the same services to iOS developers who might be tempted by tried-and-tested solutions that were purpose-built for the platform.

“Mobile development is a huge opportunity — it’s gonna keep growing and morphing,” said Arnette. He projected a scenario where iOS developers could access a list of cloud services provided by Apple via the App Store and turn on the services they need, paying for the backend resources they use at an agreed rate.

The proof is in the pudding

For Apple, the move from cloud services provided by a third party to its own Pie infrastructure would be a massive overhaul; for iOS users, it’ll hopefully be unnoticeable.

Don’t expect to see massive changes to the user interface of the iTunes Store, or for Siri to get any new abilities because of the transition. For all the activity behind the scenes, the best-case scenario for this kind of process is that things work exactly as they did before, but with less waiting, and less downtime.

Right now, iOS developers are using services from Google, Amazon, and Azure to build mobile apps.

“I would think that would be the goal, minimal disruption or distraction,” said Arnette. “That’s typically the new operating mindset around these big shifts.” He compares the situation to his experience working with AWS.

“I hear stories that the S3 service we use today is radically different in architecture than the S3 they started off with years ago,” he said. “But as an S3 consumer, I would never know that there’s been massive change, because they did such a good job removing the users of S3 from having to be concerned about these big upgrades, or these big architectural changes that have been put in place to improve the service over time.”

As an end user, Apple’s shift from third-party cloud services to its own internal Pie should be imperceptible, outside of apps and services hopefully becoming more reliable and responsive. “I would imagine that would be Apple’s goal, that they would want the consumers of these services to not be aware that there are big changes going on,” said Arnette. “How they pull that off is probably going to be a feat in itself.”

On the surface, Apple’s decision to pursue cloud services might seem like a company jumping on the bandwagon years after the likes of Amazon, Microsoft, and Google laid their claim to low-hanging fruit. In fact, this is a multi-faceted project that’s going to play out over many years, with the potential to drastically improve one of the few weaknesses that plagues Apple today.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that Apple’s cloud services gambit could prove to be a costly failure, marred by a lack of experience in this sector, and strong competition. That would put Apple even further behind, and leave users bemoaning iTunes well into the next decade. Either way, this project will have a major impact on the company’s fortunes, in the smartphone market and beyond.

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Brad Jones
Brad is an English-born writer currently splitting his time between Edinburgh and Pennsylvania. You can find him on Twitter…
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