Macworld 2009: Apple’s iWork and iLife as cloud services?

Chicago (IL) – According to online reports, Apple will unveil cloud-based versions of iWork and iLife at Macworld Expo, which is scheduled to open its doors on January 5. Reports claim that all office productivity applications from the iWork bundle will receive a cloud makeover and one high-profile Mac blogger claims  that iMovie, iLife’s application for editing home movies, will become a cloud service well. Of course, it is a rumor at this time, but cloud-based iWork and iLife applications would be significant updates that could expand the market reach of these Mac-only applications to virtually any platform, including Windows PCs.

Anyone who has been following the Mac software scene knows that iLife and iWork updates are long overdue since Apple last updated the two application bundles 18 months ago. The unusual silence gives certain weight to claims that Apple’s software team put desktop updates on hold to focus on Web versions of the software. Computerworld blogger Seth Weintraub first floated the iWork cloud rumor, citing multiple “reliable sources.” Weintraub recently added another rumor about a Web-based version of iMovie. Described as “Internet video in the Cloud for the YouTube generation,” the service is expected to deliver the ability to “upload your movies to us and edit them there.”

According to other online reports, the cloud-based iWork and iMovie are based on an open-source JavaScript framework used to create platform independent web applications: SproutCore powers MobileMe, but cloud versions of iWork and iMovie might showcase the kind of desktop-class experience, a rich user interface and advanced multimedia features that SproutCore can deliver. Although online spreadsheet, presentation and word processing web applications like Google Docs and ZoHo Office have been around for a while, the new iWork may push the envelope a bit further.
It unclear at this point whether a cloud-based iWork will just be an online extension of the desktop iWork version or if desktop version will cease to exist in favor of the web-only version. If Apple’s software team in fact has spent the past 18 months re-writing iWork and iMovie in SproutCore, there is a clear indication that the company has a much broader online strategy in place.

Common sense suggests that a web-based iWork will be positioned expand the market reach of the application bundle outside Mac’s 5% global share to include the remaining 95% of Windows- and Linux-based machines. There may be a free version with basic features and a paid version that brings premium features like secure, more spacious online storage, backups, advanced editing options, etc. So far, iLife and iWork have been unique selling points for Mac hardware and were even featured in Apple’s Mac vs. PC commercials. But it is generally believed that we are finally entering a stage where hardware will be less important and less profitable and income streams will shift to software and services. If Apple is moving into this direction, it would certainly make sense to expand the reach of its applications, offer some functionality free of charge and offer premium features for an annual fee. However, some market watchers believe that Apple is taking a risky move by sacrificing Mac exclusivity of iWork, and especially iLife. The company currently sells iWork for $79.

The MobileMe suite of paid online services introduced last July marked Apple’s ambitious foray into the world of Web 2.0. Unfortunately, Apple overestimated its capabilities as MobileMe has been hit with service outages from day one, followed by subsequent service blackouts and numerous bugs. In the months that followed, Apple repaired critical parts of the service, but failed to bring all advertised features by the end of 2008, as Steve Jobs had promised. Despite the blunder, we are told that Apple’s ambitious cloud an online plans will exceed general expectations. There are even rumors about an Apple-branded search engine.