Apple's acquisition of the iCloud.com domain name may be for more than just its long-rumored cloud-based iTunes storage--and the discovery of the "Castle" codename in the latest beta release of Apple Mac OS X 10.7 "Lion"--point to an upgrade of its MobileMe cloud suite.
MobileMe has been largely a consumer service since its initial launch as iTools. But with the Mac growing in the business world in general and the small business world in particular, Apple would be well advised to introduce features that would make it more attractive to business users.
The term "freemium" probably sounds like the opening of "A Modest Proposal" for Apple, which generally does everything it can to protect and enhance its margins, already the envy of most computer-makers.
But the "free for basic features, pay for more capacity or features" model has proven wildly successful when it comes to online businesses, from "social gaming" to collaboration and communications tools.
How many small businesses today use Dropbox or Evernote for storing and sharing files among co-workers? And how many of those users pay for the upgraded edition? Evernote, for one, frequently says that the longer a user is with its service, the more likely it is to convert to the paid edition.
Even Apple users, notorious for their willingness to pay a premium for a perceived value, have not flocked to MobileMe in massive numbers. If Apple lowers the barriers of entry back to "free,"--as iTools was in its early days-- and delights its users with a great experience, it will no doubt end up making more from iCloud than with the current "pay before you get in" model for MobileMe.
Remember when Apple launched its iWork.com site, designed to offer online sharing of documents created with its Pages word processor, Numbers spreadsheet and Keynote presentations? Don't worry; neither does Apple, judging by the way the service has stagnated recently.
But the property could be a very valuable addition to iCloud--providing an easy way for business users to share key documents, including decent support for iPhone and iPad users.
And online document sharing would be a welcome addition, too. Otherwise, iWork.com remains irrelevant against a variety of online document sharing and collaboration tools, most notably Google Docs.
Find My Anything-Apple
Apple's "Find my iPhone" feature is a diamond in the rough within the MobileMe package for small business users. The service allows users to register their iOS-based devices and can help locate a lost or stolen device by using the on-board GPS. But the real power--especially for small businesses that can't afford extensive third-party mobile device management packages--is the capability to lock down or wipe an iOS-based device remotely.
It's not a bulletproof solution, but for small businesses concerned with the proliferation of mobile devices, it's a worthwhile bit of insurance. If Apple can find a way to extend that kind of coverage to its MacBook notebooks, it will have a service that will be both valuable and worth paying for many small business owners.
Make It Seamless
I am a MobileMe subscriber back to its .Mac days. In the early days, its seamless integration with the Mac OS X interface was a big part of the reason it was attractive to me as a writer (and a small business in my own right). Today, that kind of integration has been largely matched by that offered by free or freemium services such as Gmail and Dropbox, so it's not as big a differentiator as it once was. In fact, Dropbox today syncs files between my computers and the cloud much more efficiently than does the MobileMe iDisk.
Apple needs to innovate here to stay competitive. iCloud has to make it drop-dead simple to share my files, contacts, calendars and e-mail between the cloud and however many Apple devices I may work with on any given day.
Up The Ante
Even back when Apple bumped MobileMe up to 20GB of free online storage, there was grumbling that 20GB of online storage (shared between files and e-mail, no less) was too little for $99 per year. Fast forward a few years of dropping costs for storage and MobileMe is really lagging behind.
However, if Apple can raise the storage to the point where users can use their iDisk for all of the contents of their Home Directory and make iCloud into "your entire desktop on the cloud"-- especially when coupled with the kind of tight integration the company is more than capable of-- it's probably got a winner in the SOHO market.