WWDC Announcements: iCloud

This is the third of 3 newsletters on Apple's announcements at their Worldwide Developer Conference. Read #1 on Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, and #2 on iOS 5.

Apple has announced iCloud, and we're here to tell you what it does and what it means for you.

Let's get a few things out of the way first. iCloud is a service Apple will be providing for free to every Apple product user (or anyone else, for that matter). It replaces MobileMe, which you can no longer sign up for. But If you already have MobileMe, you get to keep it for free (you will be automatically extended) through mid-2012. (If you don't have a MobileMe account, and you want to synchronize calendars and contacts wirelessly now, Apple has nothing to offer you for a couple of months; you can use Google, hosted Exchange, or Mac OS X Server. Or you can wait.)

However, iCloud is something vastly larger and different than MobileMe. Apple intends to use it to transform how you use their products. Rather than thinking about a Mac or iOS device as the place for your stuff, think about them as tools which simply let you see and work with your stuff -- which is stored in iCloud. So if you start a word processing document on a Mac, you can just switch over to your iPad and pick up where you left off. No syncing, no nothing. It just happens. At least in theory.

This won't magically happen for all applications. For example, Microsoft Office is going to work as it always has -- saving documents on your Mac. But Apple Pages is designed to work with iCloud. Because software developers can freely use iCloud as well, more and more applications are likely to support it.

Where iCloud becomes a big deal is that it finally unmarries an iPhone or iPad from a single Mac. Whatever you purchase in the iTunes store -- Apps, Music, Movies, iBooks, whatever -- automatically becomes available everywhere. And if you already have music in your iTunes Library which you ripped yourself, you can upload it -- or, for $25 per year, you can have Apple "match" it for you -- it will scan your whole music collection (up to 25,000 songs) and simply identify what it is that you own, and then you gain access to that music on all your devices. This is much, much faster than uploading all your music.

iCloud partially resolves what to do about your photo libraries being different on every one of your machines. iCloud introduces "Photo Stream", in which new photos are automatically stored at iCloud and then become available on all your Apple products; in iPhoto, on your iPad, it doesn't matter. It makes available your most recent 1,000 photos on all of your Macs, iPhones, iPads, iPod touches, and Apple TVs, for 30 days.

So if you take a picture with your iPhone, boom, you just open iPhoto on your Mac and there it is. And then you have a 30-day window to store that in an album...which, as now, doesn't synchronize anywhere. In other words, same old problem -- you can really only have one master iPhoto library. However, you no longer need to worry about attaching a cable to your computer and importing your photos. So we'd call this an improvement, but not the save-the-day solution we were hoping for when it comes to photos. It's not hard to imagine full library synchronization being the next step, however.

iCloud will be built into Mac OS X 10.7 "Lion" and iOS 5, both of which will become available shortly. Our advice is that there will probably be bugs when it launches. That's just how these things are. So don't upgrade the first day you can; let's see what shakes out in a month. Of course, if you want to use the coolest new toys the first day you can, don't let us stand in your way. Just don't be surprised if they don't work as well as you hoped. (We'll be glad to help if they don't.)

Another potential concern about iCloud is one of privacy. If you use iCloud, all your documents, photos, and other personal stuff is stored in a massive data center Apple built in North Carolina. We have no doubt that it is very highly secure, and that you have little to worry about, but if the idea bothers you, then don't use iCloud; use your Mac and iOS devices as you do now, without it. (And don't use Google or Facebook, either.) Our personal view is that when quite literally everyone you see every day has an internet-connected camera and audio recorder in their pocket, well, privacy ain't what it used to be.

Apple's looking forward. Just a few years ago, most people had one computer and a dumb phone which had no relationship to it. Now your phone is a computer, and you might have an iPad, and your Mac at home and work...iCloud will try to be the answer to the mess this creates. At first, it's going to be limited in its usefulness, but as more developers support it, it may well change how we use these devices.

Finally, we also know that one size doesn't fit all, especially when it comes to synchronization, and we are willing to bet that many people will still need Google Apps, hosted Exchange, DropBox, SugarSync, and other synchronization solutions we support. If you have any questions about iCloud or these other cloud-like systems, just ask!

(June 2011)

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