Noting that home PCs are no longer effectively the hubs of people’s increasingly-mobile digital lives, Steve Jobs introduced a new cloud-based storage and streaming media service. Under iCloud, PCs and Macs are being “demoted” to just another target for cloud-based syncing. The magic of iCloud, Jobs claims, will be that it “just works:” users won’t need to learn how to configure synchronization, deal with media types and permissions, or finagle with software. iCloud will store content and wirelessly push it to all a user’s authorized devices, and will be integrated with apps so all synchronization happens automatically.
iCloud will transparently handle synchronization of things like contacts, calendars, and mail: data will be stored in the cloud and transparently updated to all devices—and Apple promised no ads will be inserted into users content and data streams. If users don’t have an app on a particular device, they can tap into their app purchase history and download the app from iCloud with no extra charge. The same approach applies to ebooks—and bookmarks in iBooks.
Apple’s iCloud will also incorporate a wireless backup service (via Wi-Fi): once a day, iCloud will back up important data like photos, purchased music, apps, and books, along with app data.
iCloud will also include Documents in the Cloud, which will also synchronize users’ documents across devices using iCloud: create a word processing document in Pages under Mac OS X, it’ll automatically sync up and be available for Pages on the iPad. The same technology is incorporated into Pages and Keynote, and is already supported in the version of iWork for the iPhone that Apple released last week. Apple is pitching Documents in the Cloud as the final missing piece of document storage on iOS: apps will be able to organize their own documents and sync them between devices using iCloud: users may never need to worry about the file system again. Developers will be able to make third party apps sync up with iCloud using a new set of Cloud Storage APIs: Apple is promising the services will work across Mac OS and Windows-based PCs too.
Apple’s new iCloud will also power Photo Stream, which will keep photos synchronized between iOS devices: as soon as you save a picture on the iPhone, it’ll be synched up with camera rolls on iPads and iPhoto on Macs. Users will also be able to share photos from iPhoto to their iOS devices. On an iOS device, Photo Stream shows up just like another album, so there’s nothing new for users to learn. Apple TV will also support Photo Stream, to enable easy sharing of photos in living rooms on big screens. Photo stream will store up to 1,000 of a users’ most-recent photos on iOS devices (Macs and PCs will be unlimited) for 30 days; if users want to keep some, they can move them into a local album.
Finally, Apple turned to iTunes in the Cloud. iTunes in the Cloud will feature a Purchased button that will enable users to download any album or song they’ve purchased to any authorized device without re-purchasing it. Apple claims this is the first time the music industry has allowed users to have multiple downloads to multiple devices without repurchasing the music. When users buy new music, they will also have the option to have it automatically synced to all authorized devices—the option applies to all new music purchases, and doesn’t have to be managed on a song-by-song basis. The idea here is that purchased music is available everywhere, on all authorized devices, and the user doesn’t have to do any work or learn any new software—although it’s not clear whether (or if) iTunes in the Cloud can handle music from any source other than purchases through the iTunes Store. iTunes in the Cloud will support up to ten authorized devices.
iCloud is available in beta form to developers today; users will have up to 5 GB of free storage (independent of content and app purchases, purchased music, and Photo Stream) and will ship with iOS 5.0 “this fall.”
One more thing…
As noted, iTunes in the Cloud only seems to work for purchases for the Apple Store…so Steve Jobs went on to describe iTunes Match. iTunes Match compares songs people may have in their iTunes music libraries that were ripped from CDs, downloaded from band Web sites, or acquired through other mechanisms and compares them to Apple’s library of 18 million tracks. If Apple can find a matching track in its library, it gets all the benefits of songs purchased from iTunes, including iTunes in the Cloud synching. If no match can be found, users can upload the songs to Apple and users will get the full benefits of iTunes in the Cloud. Apple will also upgrade matched songs to 256Kbps DRM-free AAC format. iTunes Match will cost $25 per year—which is a distinct shot across the bow of other pending cloud-based music services from the likes of Google and Amazon.com, which have not announced pricing.
Apple’s planned changes for Mac OS X 10.7 Lion make good on the company’s promise to bring technologies developed for iOS “back to the Mac;” however, while it’s clear the company has put a lot of work and consideration into Lion’s new features, it’s not clear how successful they will be. The world of desktop computing remains radically different from phones and tablet computers, and features like Exposé and Screens that Lion’s full-screen mode and Mission Control build upon have never received much love in the Mac OS X community. However, notebook users will undoubtedly appreciate the ability to resume sessions quickly from there they shut off, and Apple does have one thing right: real people hate file systems, and Lion’s new auto-save and auto-versioning feature should make it easier for users to find and manage documents and other work in ways that are more intuitive than ages-old dialog boxes. And Apple’s move to do away with physical media for its operating system may ruffle some feathers—it’s going to be very difficult to install Lion on any machine without broadband Internet—but may well be the way of the future. When Apple eliminated the floppy drive in the original iMacs nobody thought that was going to fly, either.
Apple’s new capabilities for iOS 5.0 are sure to annoy many iOS developers, who are seeing their apps and services be hamstrung by new capabilities from Apple. Twitter integration may be a death-knell for third party Twitter apps for iOS (especially since Twitter itself seems hell-bent on destroying its developer eco-system.) Similarly, iMessage may run afoul of developers who have built similar messaging solutions. Nonetheless, nearly all of iOS 5.0’s features seem like the sort of thing that will be popular with customers—and happy customers are ultimately what drives the platform.
Apple’s new iCloud service is more than just the death of MobileMe—it signals Apple’s huge bet that essentially all of a user’s digital technology—from phones to tablets to computers to televisions to gaming—is all moving away from the PC as a “digital hub” and into cloud-based services. By making iCloud almost totally transparent to the user, Apple not only lowers the barrier of entry to cloud-based syncing and storage, but also makes cloud-based services almost impossible for users to avoid. Once iOS 5.0 ships, millions of iOS users aren’t going to have much choice but to use cloud-based services to some degree. It’s certainly no coincidence that Apple’s entré into iCloud is through users’ music libraries: if Apple’s success with the iPod and iTunes proved one thing, it’s that paying customers are very willing to deal with digital music.