"Some people think the cloud is just a hard disk in the sky...," said Jobs at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference. "We think it's way more than that and we call it iCloud. ... iCloud stores your content in the cloud and wirelessly pushes it to all your devices. ... Also, it's completely integrated with your apps, so everything happens automatically and there's nothing new to learn. It just all works."
That's not something often heard about MobileMe, Apple's previous attempt to deliver a compelling cloud-based service. "You may think, why should I believe them?" Jobs said. "They're the ones who brought me MobileMe. Let me just say it wasn't our finest hour."
Whether iCloud restores Apple's reputation in the cloud services arena remains to be seen, but the early signs are encouraging.
iCloud consists of nine applications: iTunes in the Cloud, Photo Stream, Apps, Books, Documents, Backup, Contacts, Calendar, and Mail. It's available now in beta form for Mac OS X and iOS developers; general release is scheduled for fall, in conjunction with Apple's planned launch of iOS 5, the next iteration of its mobile operating system.
iTunes in the Cloud pushes songs purchased through iTunes to all the purchaser's devices while maintaining copies on Apple's servers. Photo Stream does the same for the 1000 most recent photos taken by an iOS device or imported from a camera. Apps, Books, Documents, and Backup provide similar cloud storage and sync capabilities for one's applications, e-books, documents, and other files. Contacts, Calendar, and Mail provide the same kind of synchronization and distribution for contacts, calendar entries, and email messages.
iCloud will be free, though that's the result of Apple's decision to exclude storage--part of MobileMe, under the iDisk service--from the equation. Realistically, many iCloud users will chose to pay $25 annually for iTunes Match, a service that provides storage for copies of songs in an iTunes library not purchased from the iTunes Store; it alleviates the need to upload such songs to Apple' servers--a potentially lengthy process for large music libraries. Some may see iTunes Match as a piracy amnesty program--it will replace low quality unauthorized downloads from the Napster era with versions recorded at a high-quality bit-rate, 256-Kbps, for a nominal annual fee.
iCloud users may also end up paying more for general storage if, for example, they have dozens or hundreds of gigabytes of photographs, videos, and other files that they want to store remotely.
iCloud is likely to be well-received: It does away with the hassle of having to sync iOS devices using a USB cable and provides the convenience of making one's files accessible without wires from iOS devices, Mac OS devices, and even iTunes-equipped Windows PCs.
Joe Sipher, chief marketing officer at Pinger, a maker of iOS and Android communication apps, said in a phone interview that while Apple isn't the first to have a cloud environment, the company appears to have done its "usual fantastic job" to make data management seamless. "The good news for developers is they've opened iCloud up to use and we can hide that [file management] complexity from the user in our apps," he said.
Apple is making APIs available to developers who wish to create apps that utilize iCloud.
"If you don't think we're serious about this, you're wrong," Jobs declared emphatically.
Jobs said that lots of people in the industry have been working for years to get rid of the file system, a source of confusion and management headaches for many users. That something Google has been pushing for too, through its forthcoming Chrome OS.
It's yet not clear whether curing the headache of file and device management will be worth the potential risk: loss of control and vulnerability to vendor lock-in, to say nothing of security threats. Already, at least one software vendor in Germany sees a problem: Simify, which makes a music app, on Monday filed an antitrust complaint against Apple with Germany's antitrust authority charging that Apple is using its control over its App Store to put competitors at a disadvantage.
Cloud computing is an old concept dressed in trendy terminology. Computing services accessed over a network go back to the client-server and mainframe days. What's different today is the diversity of client devices--a consequence of the smartphone revolution and of the addition of processors to consumer electronics and appliances--and of platforms, both open and moderated, upon which computing services can be delivered.
Echoing Jobs's assessment of the modern mobile user experience, Forrester analyst Frank Gillett characterizes personal computing experience today as fragmented, with personal information scattered across multiple devices.
In the U.S., 124 million adults regularly use two or more Internet-connected devices at home and/or at their workplace. Forrester expects that number to reach 186 million by 2016, resulting in a $12 billion market for personal cloud services, of which $6 billion will represent subscription revenue. U.S. individuals now use so many online services that almost a third of them say they have trouble keeping track of their accounts and passwords. And such problems are only likely to grow: With more and more businesses encouraging electronic communication, consumers are being forced to become digital archivists, to manage the storage of digital records, not to mention their ever-growing collections of photos, videos, music, and other files.
Clearly, there's a problem that Apple can solve with iCloud. Gillett observes that Google deserves honorable mention here but believes the search company will struggle as it tries to shift every app to the browser. And he suggests Microsoft, without a clear vision for the personal cloud and Windows 8 not expected until 2012, is far behind.
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