Apple WWDC: Will Jobs Answer Big iCloud Questions?

Steve Jobs is expected to reveal a disruptive new cloud service and updates to two operating systems, Mac OS X 10.7, known as Lion, and iOS 5. The Apple CEO’s faithful await answers on some important unanswered details about each--and will expect one more thing.
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Apple at its Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) next week plans to reveal iCloud, a new cloud services offering, and update its two operating systems, Mac OS X 10.7, known as Lion, and iOS 5.

It's unusual that this much is known: Apple typically does not pre-announce products, but it did so nevertheless several days ago. The company confirmed that CEO Steve Jobs, despite being on medical leave, would deliver the keynote address at WWDC and that details about iCloud would be revealed alongside news about the expected operating system revisions.

This may be because iCloud is critical to Apple's future. Cloud-based services have become hugely important, but Apple has yet to field a compelling offering in this area. The company needs to show that it can compete as effectively in the cloud as it does in hardware and software, particularly given Google's cloud competency. Apple is said to have signed deals with four major music companies and Jobs is likely to highlight these partnerships to underscore the value of an ecosystem with broad industry support, something neither Google's nor Amazon's cloud music services enjoy.

Reliable details about iCloud are scant, but unnamed sources cited by the Los Angeles Times claim that iCloud will cost $25 per year. There are also reports that at least some iCloud services will be free or at reduced cost for Lion users. This suggests that iCloud also will be available at least partially to Windows users.

What will iCloud do? It's likely to allow subscribers to store music and, eventually, video files from their iTunes libraries on Apple's servers and access them via streaming from iOS, Mac OS X, and (presumably) Windows PCs with iTunes. It should also provide generic file storage, a revised version of MobileMe email, a more flexible online Calendar, revamped photo sharing capabilities, and comprehensive backup and file synchronization.

Apple is said to be readying a revision of its Time Capsule wireless router and backup device, presumably to take advantage of forthcoming file management capabilities.

Wireless file synchronization between iOS devices and iCloud is almost a given: Google has made a point of ridiculing the iPhone's dependence on tethered USB synchronization when touting the virtues of Android devices. Apple isn't likely to let that taunt go unanswered.

Some details about Lion are already know. Apple's online preview shows Lion and iOS converging. For example, the Launchpad feature, which provides a way to quickly launch applications, borrows from Apple's iPad interface. The Mac App Store, which borrows from the iTunes App Store, also is an important part of Lion; in fact it's already available to users of Mac OS X 10.6, Snow Leopard, and Apple is expected to distribute Lion through its Mac App Store.

Lion borrows other iOS conventions: Its Resume feature provides Mac OS apps with a way to suspend execution so that they can be resumed without any change of state, and its Multi-Touch gestures have clearly been inspired by the touch interface used by iOS devices. Lion features automatic file saving and support for multiple backup versions. A new capability called AirDrop will allow wireless file distribution across devices. File Vault will get upgraded with XTS-AES 128 data encryption. And there will be a new version of Apple's Mail client.

Less is known about iOS 5. It's likely that some of Lion's features, like AirDrop will also be integrated into iOS 5, not to mention iCloud. Transferring files to and from iOS devices remains cumbersome, when it's possible at all, and Apple would please a lot of its customers by making file manipulation easier.

Many expected iOS 5 features could help iOS catch up to Android. A revamped notification system and support for widgets--small applications capable of delivering live screen updates and of distributing their data across multiple devices on the same account--have been widely rumored. Android's lead in this area offers Apple motivation for improvement. There has also been speculation that Twitter support will be built-in to iOS 5, though this could simply be a consequence of improved widget infrastructure that supports live data updating.

Apple is said to have partnered with speech recognition company Nuance, so developers may be able to look forward to a speech recognition API. Android already has a Speech Input API. The Apple-Nuance relationship may also enhance turn-by-turn navigation, which many hope to see in iOS 5.

Apple may also address the shortcomings of Game Center, its social game infrastructure. Developers have been asking for features like built-in messaging, game-state synchronization across devices, and better multiplayer support.

Perhaps the most important Apple announcement will be how the company responds to the patent infringement lawsuits filed recently by Lodsys against Apple developers who used Apple's In-App Payment API. Apple tried to discourage Lodsys from suing, but its gambit failed and now developers are afraid because patent infringement lawsuits can be ruinously expensive. Some developers have taken to reporting the situation as a bug. "In-App Purchase API Opens Vulnerability to Lawsuits," is the title of one of several bug reports about the legal situation posted to Open Radar, a site for developers to post bug reports that duplicate those submitted to Apple's private bug database.

Security concerns give many companies pause as they consider migrating portions of their IT operations to cloud-based services. But you can stay safe in the cloud, as this Tech Center report explains. Download it now. (Free registration required.)

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