General business services: Google vs. iCloud
Examining the various services on an apples-to-apples basis is a bit tricky at times. It's very easy to think of Google's cloud services and Apple's iCloud services and compare them to each other. But can a service such as Dropbox fit in this equation? In some respects, Dropbox's file storage service (and all the other storage services) can provide functionality that with just a little work, can emulate the features of Google's and Apple's services. But, not only does that take work, it also can fall short of everything each particular service can do.
For now, it's clear that comparisons must be made for services that have direct feature comparisons out of the box; there's no need for extensive lash-ups to get things to mimic someone else's services.
So, how do these services stack up?
From a business IT standpoint, the fastest way to compare the big cloud services is to review them as a cohesive whole. Specifically, how do Google's core services compare with those of Apple's iCloud?
At first glance, it seems that iCloud makes a strong effort to match the services found within Google's services. If you look at the table of core component tools within each service, then it appears that you can get many of the same features within both sets of services. In fact, it even seems that iCloud has an extra feature Google doesn't.
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But while the basic functionality of each of these services matches each other very nicely, there's a hidden weakness within the iCloud set of applications, illustrated in this notification window shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2: iCloud: OS X or iOS only
The error message shows the problem clearly: it's not that you are required to set up the @me.com address; that's perfectly equivalent to needing a Google ID to get access to any service. (Though having to get an @me.com address on top of your Apple ID is cumbersome.) Rather, the problem is that each of the iCloud services must be started, or set up by an application running on OS X or iOS.
The iWork service is a perfect example of this concern: my initial log in brought up a similar notification saying I would have to go to my iOS (5 and above) device and turn on iCloud connectivity in that iWork app I wanted to use (see Figure 3).
Figure 3: To see iWork documents in iCloud, you must turn iCloud functionality on
This is not to say that you can only use iCloud within an Apple-made platform. As you can see in Figure 4, you can install a plug-in on Windows' Internet Explorer and then have the capability to upload and download documents.
Figure 4: Installing a Windows plug-in for iCloud.
You should be able to, in theory, use iWorks on iCloud without activating an equivalent iOS app. But when I uploaded a PowerPoint presentation from my Windows machine to iCloud's Keynote, I was unable to download the file from iCloud until I opened the presentation in Keynote first. (This was repeated when uploading a PowerPoint file from an OS X machine). Once files were opened in Keynote, then they could be downloaded from iCloud in an iWorks format, Microsoft's format, or PDF, as shown in Figure 5.
Figure 5: You can download iCloud files in one of three formats
This dependence on a native application somewhere in the workflow reveals a big flaw for iCloud, when compared to Google's services, which provide the ability to edit documents, spreadsheets, and presentations right in the cloud. In the iWorks collection of services, you must have the apps to utilize the iCloud functionality.
Once the document is opened in one of the iWorks apps, though, it's very much available on any platform: OS X, Windows, and Linux (as seen in the Fedora 16 instance of Firefox shown in Figure 6).
Figure 6: Using iCloud in Fedora Linux
For users of OpenOffice.org or LibreOffice, you're going to be out of luck: iCloud's iWorks does not recognize any of the Open Document Formats.
Contrast these hurdles with Google's equivalent services -- Gmail, Calendar, Contacts, and Google Docs. None of these require any native applications: you can create documents within Google Docs, for instance, and either keep them up in the cloud for additional editing, or download them to any of a number of formats for local editing (including Microsoft Office and OpenDocument formats).
In Gmail, your Google ID is your e-mail address, so there's no need for an additional e-mail/login combination. Contacts and Calendaring are completely cloud-based as well, which means you can start, edit, and view any piece of content within Google's services on any connected device with a browser, anywhere.
There is one service that iCloud has and is missing from Google: the "Find My…" service. This is a very useful feature, but let's face it: even though you can access the Find My service from any browser on any platform, you're still using it to find a device made by Apple. So, it's useful, but again only for Apple device owners.