The road to winning the cloud will be paved with developers: Who has a head start and who’s playing catch up

cloud ecosystems

Yesterday, we were all busy comparing Google Drive to its various competitors (no exception here). The anticipation has built over the past six (six!) years, so the fury over the compare and contrast was to be expected.

The usual players appeared in most charts: Dropbox, SkyDrive, Box, and Amazon took their seats for obvious reasons. And the general consensus has been that they have a formidable opponent in Google Drive. By the numbers and other easily comparable information, that makes sense. Google Drive is relatively affordable, offers similar features that its competitors have in their corner, and some impressive weight to leverage in the form of Google Docs.

But one thing to consider when it comes to cloud data products is their developer platform, and there are some surprises about who might have more to offer than you originally thought.

And the head start goes to…

Dropbox obviously has developers in its corner — that’s a well known fact. It has an impressive arsenal of apps for users and it’s strengthening that platform everyday. Its veteran status and popularity (in the form of 50 million users)  has helped it reach such standing with developers, and it’s going to help see them through the Google Drive hype.

As a hilariously side note, Dropbox founder Drew Houston says of all competitor hubbub: “In other news, Dropbox is launching a search engine.”

The dark horse in all this might be Evernote. Hear me out: While Evernote largely wasn’t part of the conversation yesterday, it should have been. It began as a productivity, to-do app, but it long ago transitioned into much more. So it’s not a plain and simple storage center like Drive or Dropbox are – it doesn’t have to be. It’s solving a problem – efficient, cloud-based note-taking – while simultaneously introducing a rich app platform.

TrunkEvernote just announced its second annual worldwide developer competition. With the DevCup, the company is investing $100,000 toward new apps for its ecosystem – users, rejoice! That’s what you should want from a platform. And these aren’t throwaway add-ons: Hello, Food, Skitch, and Clearly are just a few of the products that have seriously increased Evernote’s productivity and bettered the user experience. The service now has 10,000 developers and 300 apps, Seth Hitchings who heads Evernote’s platform development tells me.

“This was part of our original vision,” he says. “Our goal was to allow you to remember everything, and our tagline has been that we’re the platform for human memory.” He acknowledges that the open platform is a big part of how Evernote is able to really offer its users such a fully-featured product — a product that just received a $100 million round in fundraising.

Evernote has a strong background and a few other crucial things to offer developers: namely, 25 million users, and a vision. “It’s a unique service. It’s deeply personal; it’s for an individual unlike a lot of more social applications today. Evernote taps into that set of personal information,” says Hitchings.

Box is also building its barricade. Right on cue, it’s stepping up its game with a new ecosystem push. Yesterday, the enterprise-friendly service announced that it is cleaning up its API to make it easier for developers to use, and launching a product called Instant Mode for lightening quick app integration (a really nice, fluid sign-up system workaround) and a new iteration of the Box OneCloud App to App Framework.

That’s all well and good – great, really. But Box has taken a less predictable step by teaming up with General Assembly and TechStars, two New York-based tech startup firms. It’s an effort to connect with young entrepreneurs and foster that innovation from the get-go, and it’s a smart move.

Drive’s early efforts

By all accounts, Google Drive is making an attempt to invite developers to its party. At launch, 18 different apps announced they would integrate with the new service. Here’s just a few of them:

  • Aviary – image editing
  • Docusign – signature saving and storing service
  • HelloFax – sign and fax Drive documents
  • Pixlr – image editing
  • Nivio – open and edit Microsoft Office docs

The list (in full here) features a nice variety, from creative tools and editing applications (one notable service being video editing tool WeVideo) to very practical products for enterprise collaboration — all in addition, of course, to Google’s own Google Docs suite.

There’s plenty of impetus for app makers to attach themselves to the Google name. “The relationship between Nivio and Google Drive allows Google’s worldwide user base to quickly become productive and get more out of Drive, through our transparent and integrated solution,” the Nivio team tells me. “For Nivio, it allows us to introduce the benefits of our service to a whole new set of users.”

It’s a noteworthy step in the right direction, but there are some restrictions with this early catalog. The APIs are only available to Web apps, which means mobile-only apps are off limits for the time being.

iCloud: Walls and clouds don’t mix

Now it’s important to understand that iCloud is good for some things. For iOS and iTunes purposes, it works really well, and I think that most iPhone and Mac users could say it’s provided a better user experience. But as a cloud storage and sharing catch-all, it does not. Like all things Apple, it comes with a big, glaring caveat: the walled garden. There is no integration with outside platforms or welcoming of third party developers. iCloud works with one system and one system only, and your data will flow on Apple’s terms.

Not only is Apple taking its traditional impenetrable walled garden approach to iCloud, it’s also doing a relatively poor job of provided interested developers with a friendly platform. MacStories recently took inventory of iCloud’s progress since launch and found that it needs a fine tune to win developers’ work.

iCloud“The past six months have also shown that, without proper developer tools and a clear explanation of how things work in backend, things don’t ‘just work’ — in fact, quite the opposite: some developers have given up entirely on building iCloud apps for now, others are wishing for new APIs that would make the platform suitable to their needs, while the ones who did implement iCloud in their apps are torn better the positive feedback of ‘it just works’ users, and the frustration of those struggling to keep their data in sync on a daily basis,” writes MacStories’ Federico Viticci.

Yes, developing for iCloud means you can tap Apple’s user base, a very loyal audience. But you can’t build a better future for your users if you don’t flesh out your developer platform — especially when you’re trying to build a solution for giving consumers access to their data anywhere, from any device, and letting them do whatever they want with it.

And that’s what the eventual cloud winners know. It’s a long game, but they’ve been playing it for awhile, and soon those early efforts are going to pay off.