Weekend Tech Blog: Apple sticks its head in the (Internet) clouds

Apple's iCloud sets the pace, for now, in the battle to push your digital life into the cloud

Apple's iCloud sets the pace, for now, in the battle to push your digital life into the cloud

Since last week's big news involved life in the Internet “cloud,” it makes sense to be sure that everyone is up to date on what the cloud is (as Bill Clinton once said but in quite another context).

It means your computer stuff — virtually anything in digital form: applications, games, emails, music, movies, etc. — is stored somewhere else other than on your computer.  You need some kind of Internet connection — WiFi or a cellular data plan — to enjoy its benefits. Without an Internet connection, then you need a remarkably good Plan B to work, play music, get your news, etc.

Storing your information in the cloud means you can access it from any computer and, depending on the information, on any device. Data, in other words, follows you; you don’t have to be sitting in front of a specific computer to use it.  Here's more detail if you need it.

In a week, with big tech news from Microsoft, MotorolaNintendo, and Sony, plus some intriguing gamer innovations, Apple’s version of a cloud-based digital future stood out from the rest like, well, a cumulus stack lazing alone in a deep blue sky — even swamping its own additional announcements.

At the annual Apple Worldwide Development Conference in San Francisco, a gaunt but still sprightly Steve Jobs took a break from his medical leave to introduce the iCloud.

In its simplest form, the cloud in Apple’s hands becomes the place where all the apps, books, music, photos, calendars, and documents on your Apple device are stored.  In turn, when you switch on an Apple device — phone, computer, tablet — all that information is available to you, “pushed” from the cloud, and automatically kept up to date on all your devices.

With this move to the cloud, Apple has cut the cord to iTunes, previously the only way to store and manage your Apple data, and has placed all that management into the cloud.  A slide shown during the keynote, depicting a huge building housing a server farm now under construction in North Carolina and filled with mega-servers (one of three similar facilities), showed how serious Apple is about its commitment to a cloud-based future.

“iCloud keeps your important information and content up to date across all your devices,” said Jobs in his keynote address. "All of this happens automatically and wirelessly, and because it’s integrated into our apps you don’t even need to think about it—it all just works.”

The cloud concept is tied to iOS 5, a new version of the Apple operating system for iPhones, iPads and the iPod Touch which will be available in the fall. Under the new mobile OS, users including new iPhone and iPad purchasers can activate their gadgets right out of the box and get software updates over the air — WiFi or cell data network — with no computer required.

Reality check: Were it not that Google Android smartphones and devices have been doing some of the same cloud integration with contacts, appointments, Google Docs, and the like —  or your use of Skype, Netflix or Pandora on any phone or any computer is and has been all about the cloud —  Apple's news would have been even more impactful. 

Where Apple broke with any other cloud effort to date was its plan for storing your music collection in the cloud.

The brute-force method of uploading to the cloud — linking your computer to an on-line music service like those from Amazon and Google, uploading song by song by song — consumes scads of time.  I know this personally. As an experiment a few weeks ago, I loaded nearly 70 gigabytes of my own music, all ripped from my personally owned CD collection — roughly  8,000 songs in all — to Google’s new experimental beta music service. The upload took about 18 hours.  (There are no storage costs, at least through the beta period.)

In contrast, Apple’s “iTunes in the Cloud” scans your iTunes library and duplicates all iTunes-purchased music onto Apple’s servers without charge.  For all other music, a program called iTunes Match, a $24.99 annual purchase, will scan the rest of your collection and try matching it against Apple’s 18-million song library. If it finds a song, Apple will duplicate that music as well in your cloud-based music library.  

Any remaining music will be conventionally uploaded. 

A free beta version of iTunes in the Cloud, without iTunes Match, for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch users running iOS 4.3 was released last week.  iTunes in the Cloud will support all iPhones that iOS 5 supports this fall.

Other than the iTunes Match program, iCloud services will be free; rewritten contacts, calendar, and email programs have been designed to work with the cloud. Other cloud features let you download iOS (Apple computer) apps and books purchased from the Apple book store to all devices.   

A new photo development, Photo Stream,  automatically uploads any photos taken on your Apple device and wirelessly pushes them to all your other Apple devices. To save space, the last 1,000 photos are stored on each device so they can be viewed or moved to an album to save forever.  

Apple-ites will have 5 gigabytes of free storage in the cloud, exclusive of Apple-purchased music, apps, books, and Photo Stream, which will not count against that storage limit.

An Apple press release contains a comprehensive overview of all the iCloud announcements.

Apple also released more details on iOS 5, available this fall, including an updated notification system (looking suspiciously like the Android system) and NewsStand, a new visual approach for keeping track of your downloaded newspapers and magazine. And, of course, there’s a press release for that.

An update for Apple's OS X computers, code-named Lion, was also announced. Coming in July, the update will only cost $29.95 and may be downloaded from the Mac app store. 

The new Apple vision is well designed. Many flaws present in the Appleverse were solved (such as users’ unholy reliance on all storage and updates being manually channeled through iTunes). Its scope and vision once again demonstrates why Apple is the most formidable technology company in the world.

But then there’s this one nagging thought: Unless you’re an adherent to the Apple way of life, you’re left out in the cold. If the cloud is Apple’s view of Heaven, the Pearly Gates are closed if you use a non-iOS device. (For those who may think I'm a Mac hater, I own three Macs, an iPhone, iPad, and two Apple TVs. So there.)

Cloud-watching in the consumer world is at this point a three-way race between Apple, Amazon, and Google. Apple has certainly shown more of its overall vision than the others, but this is a race in progress with no finish line in sight. Then there's the Silky Sullivan factor: companies including Microsoft and HP, or perhaps a startup in some garage somewhere with the imagination to come put of nowhere, could cream the competition and step boldly into the winner's circle.

It's happened before: to Sony, to Microsoft. Hmm. What is that science fair gadget your kid is tinkering with?


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