Apple CEO Steve Jobs yesterday announced an online cloud storage service called iCloud that's designed to make it simple to wirelessly share music, email, photos, calendars and other data between handheld gadgets and desktop computers.
The new Apple service, which has been the subject of intense speculation for more than a year, attempts to harness the power and flexibility of cloud computing for home users. It uses techniques that have already proved popular with businesses to make it easier to move data stored on Apple's servers back and forth between multiple devices and applications.
Jobs introduced iCloud this morning at the Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco as part of a broader announcement that also highlighted the forthcoming version of Mac OS X Lion, available in July for US$29.99, and new features for iOS including a news-stand and tabbed browsing on the iPad.
iCloud represents a direct challenge to Google's cloud-based offerings, which already use services like Gmail, Calendar, Picasa and Google Docs to let users see and edit the same document or photo across multiple devices. In addition, Google recently announced Google Music and, in March, Amazon.com unveiled Amazon Cloud Drive.
About 10 years ago, Jobs said, Apple experienced one of its most important insights: the PC would become the digital hub for your digital life and store photos, video and music, which would in turn be synchronised with mobile devices plugged in to it. Now, he said, his company is at a similar turning point, where iCloud can store data and wirelessly push it to every device you own.
iCloud will be supported by new versions of applications including Calendar, Mail and Contacts, so if information is changed for one contact, the new data goes to Apple's servers and is then pushed to the other devices. Cloud backup is another part of the service, including daily wireless backup of an iOS device. Third-party apps can also store documents in the cloud through new interfaces that will be made available to developers. Everyone gets 5GB of free storage on Apple's servers for mail, documents and backup purposes, but purchased music or books don't count toward that limit.
Music, on the other hand, is singled out for special restrictions. Apple says that only music bought "from iTunes" can be transferred to the cloud and shared with other devices — a fact that's been previously reported and may limit iCloud's allure for music aficionados who have transferred gigabytes of music from legally purchased CDs to their computers.
Apple's answer to that is "iTunes Match", which allows users to store their "entire collection", including music ripped from CDs, on iCloud servers for US$24.99 a year. It works by analysing songs in your collection, comparing them against the 18 million songs in the iTunes Store, and then making those available immediately at 256Kbps, even if the originals were lower quality.
In an exclusive story in January 2010, CNET reported that Apple executives began disclosing a streaming media service with the top four music labels. Then, last month, CNET reported Apple had signed a cloud-music licensing agreement with EMI Music and was very near to completing deals with Universal Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment. At the moment, iTunes enjoys a dominant role in digital music, with Apple accounting for more than 70 per cent of all digital-song sales. The iTunes music store has become the largest music retailer, online or offline.
You can also optionally have songs that you buy downloaded to all of your other devices or computers. Eddy Cue, Apple's vice president of internet services, demonstrated this — to applause — by buying a song on an iPhone and having it pop up on an iPad a moment later.
One of the apps that will be central to iCloud, Jobs said, is Documents, which keeps files in sync across multiple devices by pushing the updates. (The updates that went out last week for the iPad and iPhone versions of iWork secretly had this feature included, he said.)
Another app is called PhotoStream, which promises to take your entire digital camera roll to the cloud. It includes photos you've taken, as well as photos that have been imported to the camera roll through something like Apple's camera accessory. It will use iPhoto on the Mac, the Pictures directory under Windows, and be integrated into Apple TV. (On iOS, the most recent 1000 photos are stored.)
You can sign up on Apple.com to be notified when iCloud becomes available.