iCloud is one of Apple’s biggest challenges in 2017

Apple’s fast-growing Services business is also its weak spot.

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Apple is fond of talking about its secret sauce, about the things only it can do because of its unprecedented combination of hardware, software, and services. But for all that it has been very successful with its strategy of making the whole widget, from soup to nuts, it’s pretty clear that all three of those areas aren’t exactly on equal footing.

Hardware, sure. The company’s been making computers since the late ’70s, and it’s never seriously moved away from that—let’s not talk about the awkward fumbling of the clone years. Likewise its software, which has gone from revolutionary operating system to also-ran back around to venerable and respected veteran of the computer industry.

But then there’s services. Services have and continue to be a weak spot for the company, and its biggest challenge in 2017. This chink in its armor has left Apple vulnerable to its competitors, for many of whom services are a strong suit.

iCloud

Oh, iCloud. At some point you probably held such promise, but these days, it feels a bit like you’ve wandered off on your own in the supermarket and can’t quite remember what you came in for.

Take, for example, iCloud Drive. I’ve been using it to store some data over the past couple years—invoices and other documents where I work primarily in Numbers and Pages—and it’s made some small strides in that time, such as allowing users to make more or less arbitrary file hierarchies, just as they would anywhere else in macOS. But lately I’ve run into issues, like files that will never quite finish syncing to my computer, or documents that aren’t downloaded when I need them, typically in iWork for iOS.

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When iCloud Drive makes your Desktop and Documents files harder to find, that's a sign it still needs work.

iCloud Drive’s conceptual problems have been compounded by Apple’s recent attempts to “simplify” matters by offering to move the Desktop and Documents into the cloud. Just the other night, I went to save a PDF for my dad, who rarely stores files locally on his Mac at all, and figured I’d just drop it in Documents. But when I went to show him how to access the Documents folder in the Finder’s sidebar, it took me a few minutes to find it, because it was listed underneath iCloud.

Look, the idea of storing files in the cloud isn’t inherently a bad one. Dropbox has done this for years now, but it manages to pull it off because it also treats those files like they are local to the computer, making the cloud and sync portions of the service more or less transparent. (Part of the problem is that iCloud Drive seems to be Apple’s attempt to free up disk space on the less capacious solid-state drives it now offers across its line.) But Apple hasn’t necessarily earned the trust in its cloud services that I place in Dropbox.

The same goes for Apple’s iCloud Libraries for music and photos, which have hardly been bulletproof themselves. I spent parts of the last week coaxing Photos on my Mac to download pictures from my trip to India last year—pictures that should have been automatically synced. And while I’ve generally been pleased with the iCloud Music Library, it hasn’t been without its share of problems in mismatching music or losing data.

Sticking together

Here’s the thing: at the end of the day, hardware and software are the bricks in the wall that Apple is building. Services are the mortar that keeps everything together. And that mortar has been showing its cracks for a while now. Over the last few years, Services has become a more and more important segment to Apple—the company even put a spotlight on it back in the first quarter of 2016. But a lot of that attention has focused on the revenue-generating aspects of the App Store and iTunes Store rather than on the increasingly central iCloud. (It probably remains the Apple product that I hear the most bizarre situations and read the most perplexed email about.)

Meanwhile, competitors like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft aren’t sitting around twiddling their thumbs, but rather are putting energy into their respective services as well. And even if none of them can claim to have the same success with both hardware and software that Apple has had, services presents them with a new opportunity to take on Cupertino in its weak spot. Hopefully Apple’s ready to meet this latest challenge head on in 2017.

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