Does Apple Even Have a Cloud Strategy?

Apple’s (s aapl) massive data center in North Carolina has been in the news of late, prompting more wide-eyed speculation among some analysts about its ultimate purpose. Possibilities include a music subscription service like Rhapsody, a video subscription service like Netflix (s nflx), and free MobileMe. However, the most likely service, at least initially, is a digital locker for iTunes. Music storage for a fee would be the latest online service for Apple, the first of which was launched more than a decade ago:

  • 2000: iTools offered email, web pages, and online storage.
  • 2002: .Mac adds more features, including online backup for $99 a year.
  • 2006: Apple launches blogging app iWeb, closely tied to .Mac service.
  • 2008: MobileMe introduces “Exchange (s msft) for the rest of us:” push services for mail, contacts, appointments.
  • 2009: beta ties online services to Apple’s office suite.
  • 2010: Ping social networking and music recommendation service added to iTunes.
  • 2011: iTunes storage locker expected for a yearly fee.

While that history looks impressive, the reality for Apple’s online efforts has been markedly different. Apple’s problems started in 2002, when the company began charging $99 a year for online services, going from more than two million iTool users to 100,000 .Mac subscribers in about two months. That was the last we heard about paid subscriber numbers from Apple. In sharp contrast, Google’s Gmail (s goog), which launched in 2004 with email and storage for free, now has about 200 million users.

Even more successful than Gmail is Facebook, which now has more than 600 million users for its social networking service. Apple launched Ping, the music-focused social networking service in iTunes, last year. Although there are more than 200 million iTunes Store accounts, Ping’s user experience leaves much to be desired and has done little for Apple or Ping’s users. Hardly worth mentioning is iWeb, Apple’s apparently short-lived blogging application which wasn’t updated in iLife ’11, and one can presume is on its way to becoming obsolete.

As for MobileMe itself, it remains a highly limited service centered around email and personal information management. It works well enough, at least in 2011. When MobileMe launched in 2008, push services failed so badly Steve Jobs apologized, and MobileMe users were given a 60-day extension on their subscriptions. Sadly, iDisk, Apple’s online storage, never received similar corrective attention and remains a tortuously slow service to use, unlike the marvelous non-Apple Dropbox. MobileMe also offers photo sharing via Gallery, and it works well enough, but it’s nothing special. Whatever happened to the “beta” launched in 2009? Still in beta. Apple’s online services are, at best, uneven; at worst, missing.

What would a comprehensive strategy to turn Apple’s online services around include? The first step is to fix what doesn’t work well; the second might be to generate interest and usage by offering limited free services. Besides current offerings, MobileMe badly needs document and data syncing. How frustrating is it to sync iWork documents on a Mac and iPad? Somehow, iBooks manages to synchronize across devices wirelessly. Wouldn’t it be great if Game Center synced your progress across games played on iOS devices, too? These are the kind of free services that cost little and generate interest, and interest is platform lock-in.

The next step is to add expanded services, such as an iTunes storage locker, though arguably that may not be that desirable. Video streaming certainly is more so, as Netflix has demonstrated. How about shared photo libraries in the form of an iPhoto Cloud? Cloud-based Time Machine certainly would seem to be another obvious choice. There are many possibilities, but they need to be offered as part of a package built upon a free set of limited but relevant services. To summarize, a cloud strategy for Apple in 2011 will hopefully look something like this:

  1. Fix what doesn’t work, like iDisk.
  2. Include free services, including data and document synchronization, as well as basic email.
  3. Offer expanded services like music storage, individually and as a part of a package.

If, instead, Apple launches yet another isolated online service for profit, this time music storage, well, it will no doubt make another great bullet point in Apple’s list of less-than-scintillating online services.