Why Aren't I the Center of the Apple Universe?S

Why Aren't I the Center of the Apple Universe?S

You can sum up the most frustrating thing about being an Apple customer in three little words: "Connect to iTunes."

As a Google customer, life is easy: one log-in account; access to all your files from any computer; and soon, a smearing of the line between desktop and mobile device, as Android gains the ability to elegantly complement with your desktop browsing experience. As long as you have internet, you have Google—and every bit of data you've stored with them.

Yet when 300,000 people turned on their iPad for the first time last month, their first experience wasn't magical or revolutionary. It was depressingly retro. That little slice of the future was unusable out of the box because it's just as slavishly umbilicated to a desktop computer by the same white cable as the nearly decade-old iPod.

The iPad's embarrassing out-of-box experience is the most pointed and recent manifestation of Apple's deeper problem, one set to grow profoundly more dangerous (as Google made excruciatingly clear last week): Apple is flailing at the internet. But there's a way to fix it, right now.

How Apple Got Here

When Steve Jobs said, "We don't think the PC is moving away from the center at all" at the 2001 Macworld keynote pronouncing the Mac as the "digital hub" of a "digital lifestyle," Apple was essentially still just a computer company. They didn't make iPods or iPhones or Apple TVs. That statement would be a quaint irony today except that it's still mostly true of Apple nearly a decade later. Everything they sell relies on a Mac or PC.

Microsoft and Apple began life as computer companies. Personal computers are in their DNA. To them, the PC is "just evolving," as Steve put it. The iPad might be the future for Apple, but it's still a personal computer. Google, widely considered to be Apple's Big Bad now, is an internet company. To Google, PCs (or phones or glorified alarm clocks) are just a way to connect to the internet. The internet is beginning, middle and end. To fight Google, Apple needs to be more than Apple Inc., maker of evolved PCs. It needs to be Apple Inc., the internet company.

MobileMe

MobileMe is Apple's cloud service "for the rest of us." But it's $100 a year. The rub is that everything it does—email, contacts sync, photos, online storage—another service does just as well, or even better, for free. (Except the valuable Find My iPhone service.) Google syncs contacts and pushes email, using Exchange; Flickr has way more features and a massive community; and the seamlessness of Dropbox's file syncing and storage, across PCs, Macs, iPads and phones, puts iDisk to utter shame.

MobileMe's services, writ large, really aren't perks anymore. They're table stakes. If you buy a Mac or iPad or iPhone, it should have MobileMe. It's not unreasonable to expect built-in contact syncing, online photogalleries to share photos and a smidge of in-the-cloud storage—basic internet services—as a part of your computer package, especially from the company who's supposed to make computing easier. A computer for most people anymore is simply a way to get on the internet. Why not make that a nicer, more pleasant experience?

We don't expect MobileMe to suddenly become much richer, so freemium is the obvious way to make it happen: Email, contact syncing, and 5GB for photos and storage, free. The truly optional features—extra storage and Find My iPhone—could run $60-$100 a year. It would make the Mac experience that much more powerful, while nudging Apple toward being more of an internet company. (We're not the only one who's had this idea, it turns out.)

And if MobileMe is free, Apple has a brand new entrenchment, a starting point of something much grander.

Why Aren't I the Center of the Apple Universe?

iTunes and the iDentity Problem

iTunes has been an internet store from the very beginning; its roots are in the web. So it's not surprising that iTunes has proven to be Apple's most flexible limb, punking and bloating like a demonic anime villain from a simple online music store to music-movies-television-books-apps-and-more bazaar.

Itunes' most valuable asset, though, isn't all of that stuff. It's the iTunes ID, of which there are many tens of millions more than MobileMe accounts. You can see where this going: Unify MobileMe and iTunes ID into a single identity. (Again, it turns out, we weren't the only one with this idea.) Part of the power of Google's services is that a single core identity ties all of them together—Gmail, Reader, Talk, Search, everything—so Apple's redefined, redesigned internet services should be the same. One account for email, music, storage, photos, iWork—everything, basically.

The other big problem with iTunes is that it's grounded in an application. iTunes is the biggest music store in the country, but I can buy actual CDs from Amazon—on basically any device with an internet connection—in more places than I can buy an album from iTunes. Google's demo the other week, showing off its browser-based music store which pushed music seamlessly to an Android device, and its Simplify Media-powered service that can stream your entire library to your phone over the air, made iTunes in its current app-y state look downright archaic.

So it's heartening that Apple purchased Lala, a true web-based music service—you could buy songs, upload your music library and stream music wherever you were (an iPhone app was coming)—and has slowly moved more of iTunes to the browser. The simple promise of iTunes Live (or simply a true iTunes.com) is a music store that'll let you purchase and preview songs in any browser, without an app and a music service that'll stream your library to any device.

(A potential cloud-y Apple TV, a $99 iPhone OS box that simply streams video actually makes a fair bit of sense in this context—and further cements iTunes as the most possible pivot point for an Apple newly focused on internet services.)

The ideal iTunes streaming service, tied in with your unified MobileMe/iTunes ID and deeply integrated with the rest of MobileMe's cloud services, would incorporate all of the best aspects of Lala, stretching your personal library to span to any device, and steal liberally from the sadly-not-in-America streaming service Spotify, streaming the entirety of the iTunes catalog to your iPad/iPhone/computer. And it'd make the difference between local and streamed content as infinitesimal as possible, by doing things like caching favorites for offline play. Streaming video to iPhone OS devices would be nice, too. Of course, the expanse of a redefined iTunes depends in part on reluctant record labels to play along, but Apple should be able to make a lot of this happen on their own.

Why Aren't I the Center of the Apple Universe?S

A Very Thin Client Indeed

A minute after I pull any Android phone out of the box for the very first time, it's loaded with all of my contacts, emails and voicemails. It took some people hours to setup their iPad.

Which speaks to a more fundamental problem with the iPad and iPhone, that they cannot exist completely independent of a desktop computer, the thing they're supposed to be replacing. Fantasies of handing your parents an iPad, a very simple computer that's easy to use and handles most of the things they want to do, like browse the web, send email and share photos, are dashed by this very simple fact. It's mind-boggling, because it seems so obvious that the only big computer to which an iPad should connect is a server rack somewhere in North Carolina.

Here's where a free, universal MobileMe service would serve as the powerful connection needed byiPad and iPhone, replacing the desktop. Like Android, after typing a handful of characters your iPad or iPhone should simply fill up with all of your information. Beyond MobileMe, Facebook is the new address book for many people, even those scary Olds, so it could fill part of this role. At the very least, Facebook and Twitter should integrate with your address book, the same way they do with Android or webOS. (There is some hope on this front.)

Photos on the iPad should sync seamlessly to galleries on MobileMe, much like Google's Picasa and the latest builds of Android, making it easy to share photos and view them anywhere. And there should be a built-in Dropbox-like app that connects to iDisk, effortlessly augmenting the storage on the device is a no-brainer (there is an iDisk app; it is optional and kind of crappy). Put simply, the iPad begs to be always connected, and iTunes/MobileMe could be—should be—this glue.

Every product from Apple should expand the way you access your data and erase the trauma of configuration. More than anything else, simplicity is Apple's greatest strength.

Zoomed in a bit, the iPad, in most ways, seems like the perfect home computer. A screen designed to receive information on the fly, rather than store it. A lot of people bought a 16GB iPad with this scenario in mind, beaming movies and photos across their home network. Yet the only way to do that is with third party apps (like the excellent Air Video). It seems so obvious that you'd be able to stream your local iTunes library to your iPad—like you can to any computer running iTunes or hell, even AirPort Express—but Apple, who until recently exclusively showed the iPad being used in people's homes—has given us nothing on this front yet, even though the iPad is Apple's first mobile device to feature wireless N. So, even if Apple insists on tying it to a desktop computer, why can't it at least sync over Wi-Fi?

Big Picture

Apple is supposed to be reinventing the computer. It can't without making the internet central to everything it does. The iPad and iPhone expose Apple's fumbling because they're so perfectly designed to be always-connected information appliances, yet the services simply aren't there yet to support them—at least not from Apple. This idea that we're holding the beautiful, sculpted future of computing in our hands loses its luster needlessly.

Google's sole mission, on the other hand, is to connect every device it can to the internet. Any device, any platform, any software, anything and anywhere with an internet connection runs Google, its apps and its services. Ubiquitous computing. If Apple doesn't reinvent the computer, Google will. And the only way they're going to do that is to reinvent Apple.

Make me the real center of the Apple universe in more than silly branding alone. Then do it for everybody who owns an Apple product.

Illustration: Wendy MacNaughton