The Seeds of Apple's Cloud

Apple has always sucked at the internet. With Ping and the new Apple TV, Apple sucks a little bit less at it. But Apple could be good at it.

Apple's finally starting to reward people for buying into the Apple ecosystem, but everything they're doing is only a half-step toward what it could be, should be doing. It launched two social networks, and showed us how it's going to wirelessly connect iOS devices with AirPlay. And with the rental-and-stream-only Apple TV, Apple's slowly starting backing away from downloads—or at least pay-to-own content. These are the first shuffling, awkward steps toward an Apple whose products are neatly tied together by a common thread—the internet.

Apple's strongest asset for building a unified, puffy cloud-based ecosystem is your iTunes ID. There are tens of millions of users like you, waiting to be the perfect identity glue for a whole suite of interconnected Apple services. As I've argued before, it'd make a lot of sense to unify iTunes IDs with (free) MobileMe accounts, creating one uber ID for every connected service that Apple has—much in the same way Facebook's sought to establish itself as your sole credible identity on the web.

But it's obvious now that's not how Apple's thinking. Apple effectively launched two separate social networks yesterday—Game Center for the iPhone and iPod touch, and Ping for iTunes—and while both of them tie into your iTunes ID, they're not connected by it. They're two distinct networks; your iTunes ID only lurks in the background. You have separate identities on each network, with Game Center letting you pick out a different nickname.

Even if there's a case to be made for keeping different sets of friends in each network—my gamer friends have terrible taste in music, while the music nerds suck at gaming—it's hard to see why Apple effectively forces you to be schizophrenic, iterating different versions of yourself across services run by a single company. It's two more networks, two more statuses, two more identities to maintain. And if you have a MobileMe account, that's a third. (Why isn't MobileMe free again? It would make this all so simple.) Even Google, notoriously allergic to the word "cohesive," has you maintain a single identity across all 10 bajillion of its products, from Google Talk to Tsunami.

Apple doesn't even approach the middle ground of letting Facebook or Twitter offer deep integration—although there was nominal Facebook Connect support that's since disappeared. Apple simply apes some of those social networks' tropes: following friends, celebrities, and brands; liking, commenting, and posting status updates. What, you're not having enough trouble keeping up with your other social networks?

It's awesome that Apple's trying to add another layer to iTunes, a social layer that could in fact add a lot of depth. Imagining the possibilities of a social, free-wheeling iTunes—especially if it was built more around a streaming model like LaLa—is kind of spine-tingling. But Ping is just too half-assed the way it is right now; the scope is too limited. I don't buy music from iTunes, and neither do most of my friends. So, even though I use iTunes everyday, because of its singular integration with the iTunes Store, Ping doesn't actually tie into the way I use music at all. That renders it slightly better than useless.

The iTunes Music Store itself is fundamentally unchanged, at least when it comes to music. It hasn't undergone the radical, LaLa-inspired reformation it needs to be modern, transforming it into a massive streaming music repository like Spotify, beaming music to any iOS device with an internet connection. (Could you imagine how amazing an iTunes re-oriented around streaming would be with Ping, in terms sharing music with your friends and discovering new stuff?) Nope, it's just the same old iTunes. Still just an app. Still just a fat vault of music, stuck on my hard drive like it's 2002.

On the other hand, iTunes in the context of Apple TV is vastly more interesting—in fact, Apple TV is by far the most enthralling thing Apple announced this week, a model for what Apple products should be more like. A palm-sized plastic box filled with little more than a cellphone-sized processor and a wireless card, the new Apple TV doesn't download movies or TV shows to own. You can't buy movies. You can only rent them. Or stream them via Netflix. (It should be noted that Apple opening up to another content service that's effectively a competitor is promising all by itself). It's a tiny shift on a single front, but a shift nonetheless, deeper into the techno-philosophical territory where you never "own" the content you pay for, where you only license or borrow it. The kind of territory that you'd be in with an iTunes music streaming service. It's hard to pronounce the download an endangered species, given that the one-click download is still a huge component of Ping, but a quick glance around the media landscape should spin your head in the right direction: Things are moving toward effervescent (if omnipresent) streams, not files.

Apple TV's integration with AirPlay and an upcoming, more powerful new Remote app soothes a lot of the anxiety about the inexplicable sense of disconnect between various Apple products. With AirPlay, you can wirelessly stream music, photos or video from any iOS device to Apple TV. Duh. Obvious. The new Remote app turns an iPhone or touch into the amazing multitouch remote control we've always wanted it to be. You can rent movies and TV shows, scan Netflix, browse your media collection, input text and do everything else you'd expect from a remote. Apple TV and iOS devices just go together, and it's a feeling you should get more often from owning tons of Apple products. Right now, buying an iPhone doesn't make owning a Mac orgasmic.

Now that the Touch is legitimately an iPhone 4 minus the phone—and the only iPod that matters—a combined, more deeply integrated MobileMe/iTunes that streams music to iOS devices, slurps up photos and videos to a free account and expands storage into the cloud with a built-in, Dropbox-like app makes even more sense. It would make the iPod touch an even better proposition. And it'd open the door to the kind of synchronicity between Apple products that would make it feel like you're wrapped in safe, puffy cushion all the time. The cloud would be the stuffing. That sense of being comfortably smothered is still not quite there. But it's a little cozier than it was last week.

Original art by guest artist Chris McVeigh (AKA powerpig). You can catch all his work at flickr.com/powerpig, and follow him on Twitter @Actionfigured