After months of speculation iCloud is here, and it's an ambitious play by Apple to integrate all aspects of your digital life (again). We take a look at the would-be Google-killer.
At Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference 2011 in San Francisco this June, the company announced a trio of new software offerings -- Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, iOS 5 and iCloud -- with Apple CEO Steve Jobs introducing the products like so: "If the hardware is the brain and the sinew of our products, the software in them is their soul."
It's a fairly apt analogy, for while the company makes most of its money on hardware sales, it's Apple's various software UIs and features (and their often seamless behind-the-scenes integration) that makes the overall hardware deal so compelling for Mac and iOS users (oh, that and those designer chassis).
And speaking of users, that's a numbers game that Apple is pretty much owning at the moment: in the past year the company has overtaken its traditional rival Microsoft in market capitalisation, revenue and
profit; Mac sales grew by 28 per cent in the last twelve months, even as the overall PC market fell by one per cent, culminating in the fifth straight year in which Mac sales have outgrown overall PC industry sales; and to top it all off, Apple has sold more than 200 million iOS devices (iPhone, iPad and iPod touch) to date, which gives the company a 44 per cent share of what it calls the "mobile market". Apple has long presented itself as the challenger brand, but make no mistake: it's now the establishment.
Pecking order: it's easy to see where iCloud ranks for Apple relative to the company's other major WWDC announcements.
But while the Mac OS X 10.7 Lion and iOS 5 announcements at WWDC this year concerned fundamentally important software platforms for Apple, if there was ever any doubt over which of this year's keynote topics took precedence, you only had to look at who was making the presentation: after Phil Schiller (SVP WW Product Marketing) and Scott Forstall (SVP iOS Software) showed off Lion and iOS 5 respectively, Steve Jobs -- officially on indefinite medical leave -- took the stage to unveil iCloud: Apple's new cloud initiative to integrate and sync all aspects of your digital life in 2011 (and beyond) and arguably the company's biggest platform play since ushering in the "Post PC" appliance era with the first iPod in 2001.
As Jobs got started, this is what he had to say about our evolving tech usage patterns over the past decade: “About 10 years ago we had one of our most important insights, and that was: that the PC was going to become the digital hub for your digital life. What did that mean? Well, it meant that that’s where you were going to put your digital photos... your digital video... and of course your music.... You were going to basically sync [all your digital content] to the Mac, and everything was going to work fine. And it did, for the better part of ten years, but it’s broken down in the last few years
"Why? Well, because devices have changed. They now all have music. They now all have photos. They now all have video... And keeping these devices in sync is driving us crazy. So we’ve got a great solution for this problem. And we think this solution is our next big insight, which is: we’re going to demote the PC and the Mac to just be a device
. Just like an iPhone, an iPad or an iPod Touch. And we’re going to move the digital hub, the centre of your digital life, into the cloud
. Because all these new devices have communications built into them: they can all talk to the cloud whenever they want."
Here, there and everywhere: the iCloud theory is you shouldn't have to personally expend any thought on syncing data.
1. But... wait a second. What about MobileMe, isn't that Apple's cloud solution?
Apple's beleaguered MobileMe service began life in 2000 as iTools, then became .Mac in 2002, before changing its name again in 2008. Its core offerings -- email, contacts and calendar sync across multiple devices (iOS, Mac and Windows) -- will be replicated in iCloud (which is officially due for release this spring). Even better, while the oft-criticised MobileMe required an annual $119 subscription, iCloud is (for the most part) free. Speaking at WWDC, Jobs said of MobileMe: "It wasn't our finest hour."
2. So, my email, contacts and calendar stay in sync across devices?
Yes. The functionality is the same, but Apple claims the underlying apps from MobileMe have been completely rewritten. iCloud gives you a (now free) me.com email account, and automatically keeps your me.com inbox (and email folders) in sync across all your devices. Similarly, new contacts created on one device are pushed to iCloud and then wirelessly pushed to your other devices. Calendars are also synced across devices (and can be shared with other people).
Photo Stream keeps track of your last 1,000 photos at any point in time, and works with Apple TV too.
3. Big deal. Google already does all that for me. Why should I consider iCloud?
Well, taking a leaf out of Dropbox's book (in addition to several other cloud storage providers), iCloud also offers "Documents in the Cloud". The key theme of iCloud (storage of content online and wirelessly pushed to all your devices) again applies. New documents created on your Mac or PC get pushed to iOS devices and vice versa, and edits are synced as well. Users get 5GB free iCloud storage (and more can be purchased, although pricing has not yet been announced), but one key difference from services like Dropbox is that the syncing functionality seems to be built into apps directly, rather than at the folder/file system level. We'll know more about this when iCloud officially launches, but Apple's web site ("If you have the same app
on more than one device, iCloud can automatically keep your documents up to date") suggests a certain level of software lock-in.
4. Okay, I get the idea. What else gets synced?
Well, pretty much everything (that most mainstream users would care about, anyway). Photo Stream keeps photos synced across devices. iCloud continually stores the last 1,000 photos you've taken for 30 days (which Jobs has pointed out ought to be enough time for push-down to your iDevice, Mac, PC or Apple TV). iOS apps themselves can now be synced too, in that purchased apps can be re-downloaded to any iOS device at no additional cost (and new purchases can be pushed simultaneously). The same goes for iBooks purchases (which also features bookmark syncing). Continuing the theme, all the personal data on your iOS device gets backed up daily to iCloud. One nifty consequence of this is if you lose or damage your iPhone, for example, a new model can be auto-restored on its first login with iCloud.
iCloud's killer punch: iTunes Match is an easy way to always have your music library at your fingertips (and it's priced at a steal).
5. How does music work in iCloud?
Unarguably the most eagerly anticipated feature of iCloud was how it would deliver on the music front. In the past six months, both Amazon and Google have unveiled cloud music services (offering online locker functionality with web-based streaming, both currently only available in the US), and speculation on iCloud's music angle was at fever pitch prior to WWDC. And indeed, Apple's solution is both comprehensive and controversial. First, there's iTunes in the Cloud. Per the rest of iCloud's offerings, it enables you to re-download previous iTunes purchases to any device at no cost (and push new purchases simultaneously to all). But the killer feature (and Apple's famous "one more thing") is iTunes Match. For a fee of US$24.99 per year, any non-iTunes-purchased music in your music library can be made available to download to all your other devices. You don't even have to upload it first; if the music is available in the 18-million-song-strong iTunes Store, you can simply download a new copy to any device at high-quality 256Kbit/s AAC. If the iTunes Store doesn't contain a particular song (unlikely in most cases), you'll have to upload it if you want it made available to you everywhere. Put simply, for less than the price of a single CD (per year), your entire music library is available online for you to download wherever you are, to any compatible iOS device or iTunes-equipped Mac or PC. And that, in a nutshell, is iCloud.
More than just a cloud: an electrical storm?
When discussing the relative failure of MobileMe on stage at WWDC, Jobs said, "we [Apple] learned a lot." Clearly, one of the things Apple learned is making pricing easy to swallow. So gone is MobileMe's annual subscription, replaced with iCloud's free point of entry. Plus, given how pricey MobileMe's fairly basic offerings were, iTunes Match seems almost criminally inexpensive in comparison (and for many users, actually will be...).
And that's not all. On the same day Mac OS X Lion's pricing was announced: just AUD$31.99, which is groundbreakingly cheap for a commercial OS with 250 new features. Effectively, Apple is subsidising the user's entry fee into the Apple cloud/software theme park, because it knows you'll spend money on the rides (whether that's hardware, apps, music, ebooks, whatever) when you're in there.
The hub reenvisaged: the personal computer repositioned to the level of applicance.
iCloud is big, it's easy, it's affordable and it's likely to be game-changing, and the scale of Apple's ambition with it can be summed up in that one key Jobs phrase: "we’re going to demote the PC and the Mac to just be a device
." Never before has a company in a position of such power and influence in the technology industry tried so aggressively to pull the rug out from underneath the personal computer and impose a new proprietary digital hierarchy.
In contrast, the Googles, Amazons, Microsofts and Dropboxes of this world seem to offer such conservative, benign cloud offerings: services that play nicely with your PC and politely maintain the status quo. It makes sense, too; despite how well the Mac has been doing, Apple has been enjoying greater success and making a significantly bigger cultural impact with the iPhone and iPad, so why not push it all along a little? (Or a lot.)
Pitched to the masses with an overtly user-friendly -- some would say dumbed-down -- approach to syncing and data availability, iCloud is so simple, comprehensive and cheap it seems pre-destined to succeed when it launches later this year. Will you be joining the party?