Why Apple in Seattle makes sense

November 4, 2014, 5:10 PM UTC

“You want cloud? Go to where it rains.” — @BrentSimmons

The rap on Apple — not entirely undeserved — is that it sucks at cloud services, especially compared with Google, Amazon and Microsoft.

So Brier Dudley’s report in Monday’s Seattle Times that Apple has opened an office in “enemy territory” and begun staffing it with networking specialists has not gone unnoticed.

Writes Stratechery’s Ben Thompson in Tuesday’s Daily Note (subscription required):

While having a ‘Seattle office’ is old hat in the valley — Google has a massive one in addition to more modest outposts for Facebook, Twitter, Oracle and a couple of others — Apple has traditionally been very explicit that essential engineering functions be based in Cupertino.”

But an essential engineering function seems to be exactly what Apple is trying to build in Seattle.

The nucleus of the new group is a team of infrastructure specialists out of F5 Networks — a Fortune 100 Fastest-Growing company — by way of Union Bay Networks, a spinoff Apple quietly acquired earlier this year.

According to a job listing on LinkedIn, Apple is looking to staff it with “multidisciplinary engineers to design and develop the core infrastructure services and environments driving every online customer experience at Apple ranging from iCloud to iTunes.”

“I really hope for Apple’s sake that this is not mere hyperbole,” writes Thompson.

He has long argued that networking engineers will never get the attention they deserve in Cupertino. The culture there is too focused on creating the next jewel-like device. If Apple is going to get “disrupted,” to use the language of Clay Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation, it’s likely to be by cloud-based services that may not be as good as Apple’s but are “good enough.”

“There is a reason why Christensen’s recipe for fighting disruption involves setting up a separate business unit that is isolated from the rest of the company,” writes Thompson. “Doing something new requires unwinding (or avoiding) the incentives that made said company successful in the first place.”

Apple has a history of cannibalizing its own profit centers — the Apple II with the Mac, for example, or the iPod with the iPhone. If it wants to cannibalize the iPhone, a pirate operation designing new cloud services in enemy territory might be just the way to do it.

Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter at @philiped. Read his Apple (AAPL) coverage at fortune.com/ped or subscribe via his RSS feed.