[Update: The link above explains what I think Apple could have done and reading that may put this post into clearer perspective, as comments from a number of readers suggest.]
Sure, the big, visionary talk was there. CEO Steve Jobs effectively demoted PCs and Macs, relegating them to a secondary role in users' lives behind that of phones and tablets. The hub of digital life will be the cloud, Jobs promised.
But the promise didn't translate into reality when Jobs turned to what Apple will actually be doing in the near term. The reason: Apple wanted to make its cloud services free -- but to do so profitably, it had to scale back its ambitions. Even concerted spin and reality distortion couldn't hide that fact.
Some of the announcements were expected, such as the following:
- A version of Mac OS that looks increasingly like iOS, with extensive use of multitouch gestures and an end to scroll bars on windows and double-tapping;
- Inter-device syncing of images, apps, contacts, calendars, email, and documents;
- Daily automatic backup of up to 5GB of data on iOS 5 devices, not including apps, music, or books;
- ITunes moves into the cloud.
- Real-time messaging for iOS called iMessage that will offer some significant competition to RIM's BlackBerry;
- An iBookstore equivalent for periodicals;
- Twitter access and integration;
- New features that will likely kill off some popular apps, such as Read It Later and Instapaper.
But when you get down to it, Apple didn't change the way computing happens. Its cloud is more of a storage-and-transfer way station than a destination. You can backup devices and get data and media synced to each device you own. You can download any music you've purchased in the past if you bought it in iTunes; all Apple has to do is store the fact that you made the purchase.
Music that you've acquired elsewhere (like ripping CDs or ... ahem ... legal downloads) requires a $25-a-year service called iTunes Match: Apple identifies high-quality equivalents to your MP3s in its song library and make them available to you via the cloud. Meanwhile, there seems to be no provision for purchasing additional backup space. You'll be able to upload photos automatically to the cloud, but you're limited to 1,000 images that will disappear after 30 days.
[Update: Apple has now indicated that customers can purchase more storage space.]
You can understand why Apple hedged its bets here. Music, video, and images take up lots of room. It's cheap to limit storage and track purchases of material that Apple already has online. Making people store some of the bulkiest material locally means that users still have an incentive to buy more expensive iPhones and iPads (i.e., the ones with more storage) or to move the material to a conventional desktop or laptop.
That said, the difference between what Jobs unveiled and what he could have unveiled was almost palpable. It was like asking consumers to walk slowly into cold water rather than giving them a way to jump in all at once and change how they do everything on computers, smartphones, and tablets. While you can appreciate Apple's reasoning, it's also a big disappointment.
[Update: All that said, BNET writer Ira Kalb thinks that Apple could be deliberately under promising with a plan to over deliver.]