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Why Apple wants the cloud to disappear

Illustration: The New York TimesIllustration: The New York Times
Illustration: The New York Times

If “vapor” wasn’t already a computer industry term of art,  it would a good word for what’s happened to “the cloud” — a buzzword stretched so thin it’s all but lost its meaning.

Case in point: The 10-page special section in Thursday’s New York Times on cloud computing that reads suspiciously like something ordered up with no other purpose than to carry three full-page ads. Nearly every time “the cloud” is invoked in Quentin Hardy’s lead story, he could as easily have substituted the Web, the Internet or — perhaps  more accurately — a bunch of servers attached to a network.

Three years ago, Apple (AAPL) was making a fuss about what it called (and trademarked) iCloud. Steve Jobs himself introduced the concept in 2011, at what was to be his last keynote.

At last week’s WWDC keynote, it was barely mentioned. Yet as Quartz’ Dan Frommer noted in The “Apple doesn’t get the cloud” era is officially over, the event was packed with cloud-centric announcements: A Dropbox-like iCloud Storage folder, a nearly infinite Photo Stream library, a text messaging service that finally syncs properly, iTunes accounts whole families can share, the ability to start a phone call on an iPhone and finish it on a MacBook, etc. etc.

“None of this says ‘CLOUD™,” Benedict Evans wrote last week. “And none of it is done in a web browser.”

Evans believes the omission is purposeful — and that it says a lot about Apple and its biggest frenemy: Google (GOOG).

“Apple is moving innovation down the stack into hardware/software integration, where it’s hard for Google to follow,” Evans wrote. “And Google is moving innovation up the stack into cloud-based AI and machine learning services, where it’s hard for Apple to follow. This isn’t a tactical ‘this’ll screw those guys’ approach — it reflects the fundamental characters of the two companies. Google thinks about improving user experience by reducing page load times, Apple thinks about user experience by making it easier to scroll that page.” (See Digesting WWDC: cloudy.)

That about sums it up.