"Some people think the Cloud is just a big disk in the sky… We think it's way more than that." (Steve Jobs)
Steve Jobs introduced Apple's highly anticipated iCloud wireless syncing service at the annual World Wide Developer's Conference in June. The personal computer (PC or Mac) is being demoted to "just being a device" like an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch. Keeping devices in sync using iTunes is "driving us crazy," Jobs said. iCloud is a set of Internet-based services that automatically, wirelessly, and seamlessly integrates data and applications across a user's mobile and desktop computers. (See the sidebar below for an explanation of Cloud computing.)
Mail, Calendar, Contacts
The free iCloud service (which will replace Apple's $99-a-year MobileMe) will sync e-mail, contacts, calendars, and Safari bookmarks between computers and iOS devices. Current MobileMe users who already enjoy this feature will see little change, but with iCloud, new users receive a free .ME e-mail account. iCloud automatically pushes new e-mails to all of your devices and keeps folders in sync. Calendars updated on one device are synchronized on all others. Calendars can be shared between users. Address Books are also automatically updated across devices. Changes made in Address Book (Mac) or Outlook (PC) are reflected on your iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch. Like MobileMe, Mail, Calendar, and Contacts are also available from the Web.
Not just a big hard disk in the sky
In an obvious dig at Amazon and Google, Steve Jobs said, "Some people think the Cloud is just a big disk in the sky… We think it's way more than that." So what is the Cloud and how will iCloud differ?
Personal data has traditionally been stored and accessed on a local hard disk on your computer. Accessing that data on other computers (and mobile devices) meant the user was responsible for moving their data and keeping it in sync. With cloud computing services like Google Docs, the data is stored on the Internet ("the Cloud") and accessed via a browser.
The general definition of the Cloud is storing your personal data on, and accessing it from the Internet—not your local hard disk.
The new "Photo Stream" app wirelessly keeps your photos in sync. Take a picture with your iOS device or import pictures from your digital camera to your Mac or PC, and iCloud automatically pushes it to the Cloud and then to your other devices. Because photo files can be so large, you can only sync over Wi-Fi or Ethernet (no cellular connections allowed), and only the most recent 1000 photos are automatically pushed to iOS devices. Photos are retained for 30 days on iCloud.
Documents in the Cloud
iCloud aims to do for files what Photo Stream will do for photos. Create a document in one of Apple's iWork apps (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) on one device, and the document is stored in iCloud and automatically pushed to all your other devices. The user doesn't need to worry where the document is stored or manage how it is synchronized to other devices; iCloud will do all the work.
Apple's iWork suite (which runs on the Mac and all iOS devices) will work seamlessly with iCloud. Third-party developers can add this functionality to their apps, allowing transparent document synchronization across Macs, PCs, and iOS devices!
Apps, books, and backup
Syncing apps, books, and music across all your devices used to be quite a pain. For example, after you purchased an app, book, or song from your iPhone, you had to connect your iPhone to your Mac or PC and then sync it with iTunes. Then you had to connect your iPad (and any other iOS devices) to iTunes and sync it. iCloud lets you see all the apps, books, or music you've ever purchased and downloaded in one place, and then download them to your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch at no additional charge. Even better, you can configure iCloud to automatically push new downloaded apps to all your devices! (The beta version of this part of iCloud is available now!)
Here's how to use it. First make sure you are running the latest version of iTunes (Mac: 10.3.1) and the latest version if iOS (4.3.3). Open the iTunes Preference window (iTunes >Preferences on a Mac, Edit >Preferences in Windows) and click the Store tab. Click the three types of content you would like to automatically sync. (See screenshot.) You can configure this on any computer that has iTunes connected to your Apple ID.
Now make the same change to your iOS devices. Tap the Settings App, then scroll down to the Store settings (right) and tap that. Turn on automatic downloading for each type of content and select whether you want downloads to work off a cellar connection. (If you tap On and then it keeps sliding back to Off, you may need to sign out and sign back in to your Apple ID by tapping the ID at the bottom of the screen.)
iTunes in the Cloud
There are three key parts to iTunes in the Cloud. First, music purchased from the iTunes Music Store on any device will automatically download to any other device with the same Apple ID (up to 10) when connected to Wi-Fi (or optionally 3G). Second, previously purchased music can be downloaded to any device, just like apps and books. But what about music obtained from ripping CDs? Jobs' traditional "One More Thing" announcement was Apple's forthcoming iTunes Match, the final part of iTunes in the Cloud. For $25 a year Apple will scan your iTunes library to find "matches" with the 18 million strong iTunes catalog. Matched tracks can then be downloaded to other devices just like music purchased from iTunes. Unmatched tracks can be manually uploaded to iTunes in the Cloud.
Apple's forthcoming music-in-the-Cloud solution has several subtle yet important differences from current competitors, Google's Music Beta and Amazon's Cloud Drive. Unlike Google and Amazon, Apple was able to reach an agreement with the music companies over the sticky issue of getting music not purchased through iTunes into the Cloud. With iTunes Match, the user doesn't have to push gigs of local data to the Cloud, like Google and Amazon users do. Both Google and Amazon provide music streaming, which Apple does not.
iCloud will be rolled out this fall along with iOS 5. A basic iCloud account is free and comes with 5 GB of storage. Photo Stream photos, apps, books, and music purchased through the iTunes Store don't count against the 5 GB limit. Apple has not disclosed pricing for additional storage.
MobileMe users will be able to convert to an iCloud account when the service becomes available. Existing MobileMe services will work until June 30, 2012. See Apple's FAQ on the Transition form MobileMe for more information (apple.com/mobileme/transition.html).
Final thoughts on the Cloud revolution
iCloud and iOS 5 will compete with Google's ubiquitous Cloud services and the Android OS. Their approaches could not be more different. Apple's iOS runs only on Apple hardware. Android runs on a wide variety of hardware. Apple tightly controls both the OS and the apps that run on it. Google lets third-party manufacturers freely modify the OS and has no restrictions on apps. Apple believes users will prefer to access cloud data through native apps. Google thinks users will prefer to use a browser.
In an indication of iCloud's importance to Apple, it was given equal billing with the introduction of new versions of Mac OS X and iOS. Over the past 10 years, iTunes has grown to be the one indispensable application that held the Apple ecosystem together. Apple expects iCloud to be the center of your computing experience over the next 10 years. Paradoxically, although iCloud is the center of Apple's strategy, for it to succeed iCloud must not be the center of the user's experience. iCloud should be in the background, working "auto-magically" to keep everything in sync and up to date.
Apple faces several large hurdles in reaching these ambitious goals, the first of which is the company's spotty track record in Internet services. Jobs addressed the issue when introducing iCloud. "I know what you're thinking," he said. "Why should we trust Apple? They're the ones who brought us MobileMe. It wasn't our finest hour—let me just say that—but we learned a lot from it."
Apple is introducing iCloud at the same time it is delivering major updates to its desktop (Mac OS) and mobile operating systems (iOS). This is probably unavoidable since iCloud is so embedded in both, but it underscores the complexity of what Apple is trying to pull off. However, I wouldn't bet against Apple or Steve Jobs.