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iCloud Rolls In, Extended Forecast Calls for Disruption

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Before today’s Worldwide Developers Conference keynote, we knew Apple was going to announce a new iCloud service that would likely augment or replace MobileMe. Now, we can see that iCloud isn’t just a new feature; it’s a new platform for interacting with our data on various Apple devices that may even make us forget that we ever needed to “sync” the machines.

The iCloud storm won’t roll in until Apple releases iOS 5 in the fall (roughly September to November), but at least one element, iTunes in the Cloud, is operating now. iCloud will be a free service, and it replaces MobileMe (more on that transition below). A beta of iCloud is available to developers today, so they can start to prepare apps to work with the service.

For those unfamiliar with recent buzzwords, “the cloud” is a shorthand way of referring to data and services provided by online sites, rather than by your computer, smartphone, or tablet. Dropbox, for example, stores your files on Amazon S3 and then copies them to the devices on which you have Dropbox software installed (or on which you have apps that can access that data). We’ll have an extensive explanation of what “the cloud” means in an upcoming article.

Although the same principle applies to iCloud, the way Apple is implementing the service promises to dramatically change how you interact with your data. Instead of dragging your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch back to a Mac or PC to copy songs or documents between devices, everything is copied to iCloud and duplicated on all your devices. Photos appear automatically, whether they were saved into iPhoto or captured using an iPhone camera; changes in a Pages document on your Mac appear when you open the document in Pages on your iPad. As Steve Jobs repeatedly stated, “you don’t have to learn anything” in order to take advantage of iCloud.

Apple announced several components that make up iCloud: working with music in iTunes and a new paid iTunes Match service; working with data such as calendars, contacts, email, apps, books, and miscellaneous data backups; storing and sharing photos; and sharing documents among devices.

iTunes in the Cloud -- People with large iTunes music libraries have often needed to make a choice when syncing to an iOS device with a limited amount of storage: which albums and playlists to include? If you want to listen to a song you didn’t sync, you’re sunk. With the iTunes in the Cloud feature, all music you’ve purchased from the iTunes Store is available for immediate download.

In fact, you can test it out right now. Open the iTunes app on an iOS device, and tap the Purchased button at the bottom of the screen. Tap the Not On This iPhone (or iPad, or iPod touch) button to view a list of artists, and then tap an artist name to view albums or songs you own but that aren’t currently on the device. To download the songs, tap the iCloud download button.


When you purchase music on any device, you can choose to have it copied automatically to up to ten authorized devices. (To enable this feature, go to the Store preferences on an iOS device and turn on the Music option.) So far, this functionality is available only for music, not movies or television shows purchased at the iTunes Store.


iTunes 10.3 adds this functionality to the Mac and Windows application, and although Apple had not yet made the download available when this article was initially published, it’s now showing up in Software Update.

iTunes Match -- What about the music you purchased elsewhere or ripped from CD yourself? For a $24.99 yearly fee, iTunes Match makes those songs available, too. iTunes uploads a list of songs in your library (much as it does now for the iTunes Genius results) and matches them (probably using music fingerprinting) against Apple’s collection of 18 million tracks. If you choose to download a track to a device where it doesn’t appear, Apple provides a version at iTunes Plus quality (256 Kbps and free of DRM), even if your original copy was ripped at a lower quality.

Unlike similar cloud services by Amazon and Google, iTunes Match doesn’t require you to upload your entire music library, only a list of tracks. If you wish, however, you can upload songs that don’t match up, so you can download your rare bootleg recordings on the fly, too.

iTunes Match will arrive with the full iCloud set of features. It’s unclear what happens if you let the yearly subscription expire; presumably your uploaded files are deleted and you no longer have access to matched songs on other devices (other than syncing them manually).

Data in the Cloud -- If you’re already a MobileMe subscriber, you’ve long had a taste of cloud syncing with events, email, contacts, and iBooks titles. iCloud continues to make those bits of information available on all authorized devices over the air, but adds the capability to sync other types of data.

As with iTunes in the Cloud, items purchased from the App Store can be downloaded to other devices, either manually or automatically; this feature is in beta and available now.

Things get more interesting for documents such as those created by Pages, Keynote, and Numbers (or any app, once developers have incorporated iCloud support). iCloud may finally deliver on the promise of iWork.com and allow us to ignore the horrible sync-through-iTunes approach for sharing documents among devices. As demonstrated at the keynote, making an edit to a document on an iPad incorporates that edit on other devices. So instead of syncing a file before leaving for the office, you can just open it on another device or computer and have the most recent version. That said, Apple gave no details that would imply that iCloud can be used for collaboration between people, rather than for moving data between devices.

For general purpose data, iCloud provides off-site backup for important information stored on an iOS device using the Backup feature. iCloud automatically backs up purchased music, apps, and books; photos and video in the Camera Roll; device settings; app data; home screen and app organization; text and MMS messages; and ringtones. If you need to restore a device or purchase a new one, those items are downloaded from iCloud.

Photo Sync and Stream -- Part of iCloud is the new Photo Stream, which looks like a life-enhancing option for anyone who’s ever taken photos on an iPhone and wanted to work with them in iPhoto or display them on an iPad. Or those of us who have taken photos on a digital camera, found the time to upload them to iPhoto, but then failed to sync them to the iPhone. You likely know the drill.

With Photo Stream, when you add a photo to a device, perhaps by taking a photo with the Camera app on your iPhone or by adding photos to iPhoto on your Mac, Photo Stream automatically uploads the photos to iCloud’s servers (using Wi-Fi or Ethernet) and then sends them down to all your other devices, including a second-generation Apple TV, the Photos app under iOS, iPhoto on a Mac, and the Pictures Library on a Windows PC. The Photo Stream on an iOS device stores only the most recent 1,000 photos (but storage on Macs and PCs is limited only by your own disk space). iCloud’s servers will store a photo for 30 days. To keep photos on a device after that, move them into an album on the device.

What Happens to MobileMe? Steve Jobs made it clear that MobileMe is not long for this world, saying, “You might ask: Why should I believe them? They’re the ones that brought me MobileMe.” According to an Apple KnowledgeBase article, current MobileMe subscribers can use the services until 30 June 2012. The extension has already been reflected if you look at your account details at me.com.

Existing me.com and mac.com email addresses will be retained, and Family Pack subscribers can continue to create new family member accounts. However, it’s no longer possible to create a new 60-day trial account or update an individual account to a Family Pack account. If you’ve purchased a boxed version of MobileMe but have not entered the registration code, you can get a refund from Apple.

What’s not yet clear is the fate of MobileMe services that don’t directly fall under iCloud’s shadow, such as Back to My Mac and Personal Domain. Apple’s current information simply states, “When iCloud becomes available this fall, more details and instructions will be provided on how to make the move.”

Cumulo Mactus -- We’ve long said that synchronization is hard to do well — just look at the troubled history of iSync and MobileMe, with their often-funky syncing results — but we have high hopes for iCloud. Clearly, Apple believes it has finally figured syncing out, and the company is betting big that iCloud can tie all of its devices together into a seamless, Apple-worthy experience for customers.

Check out the Take Control ebooks that expand on the topic in this article:

In this unique book, Joe Kissell helps you get set up and start syncing data with MobileMe, and then he explains how to best use MobileMe's Mail, Contacts, Calendar, iDisk, and Find My iPhone features. He also covers working with an iOS device, publishing iLife content via MobileMe, and the basics of Back to My Mac.

 

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Comments about iCloud Rolls In, Extended Forecast Calls for Disruption

Robert-Leigh Pritchett  2011-06-06 17:02
Do we really believe that there are always-on fat pipes for wireless connectivity?

Google Docs didn't work out too well, but I'd gladly trade in my gmail account for an iCloud email account any day, if I could trust that all of the intelligence communities weren't camped outside the Apple Data Center in NC monitoring everything.
Karen Anderson  2011-06-06 17:48
I eagerly await the details on how iCloud will improve iCal syncing! Any hints?
Jeff Carlson  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-06-06 20:57
No idea, but the description sounds like it'll be the same as what MobileMe does now. But of course we'll see.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-06-07 09:34
Given that Apple just moved to the new MobileMe Calendar relatively recently and that it uses CalDAV, I imagine it will be exactly the same as we have now.
Anne Walk  2011-06-06 18:31
The address (and the email that followed shortly afterwards) explained that MobileMe will no longer available after June 30th. It goes on to say that iCloud won't be up and running until "The Fall". So....what happens between June 30th and the launch of iCloud? How do I sync? Will my Mail still be active? Calendars? Addressbook? Will I no longer be able to Find My Phone? anyone know?
Bicycle  2011-06-06 18:48
... not available after June 30, 2012 (not 2011)
Anne Walk  2011-06-06 19:04
whew. thanks. that'll learn me to read the whole thing!
Peter Breis  2011-06-06 19:25
Curiously no-one seems to be addressing the environmental consequences of multiple (essentially trivially unnecessary) movements of large volumes of data over the Internet, when the Internet seems to be drawing 10% of the world's energy already.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-06-07 09:37
The energy requirements of large data centers are indeed a big deal, but I'm not sure how it's possible to compare them to alternatives other than not having said data centers at all. And while I don't know what the story is with Apple's data center, a lot of them are situated where they can take advantage of cheap renewable energy, like hydroelectric. I wonder how much power Apple could generate if the white roof of that data center was instead covered in solar panels?
No problems with the Cloud Services. Apple seems to take a lesson from DropBox (www.dropbox.com). All great and good, but one question remains: What happens when the IP servers do not deliver as they should and we all pay them to through our nose…? Comcast, AT&T have not the reputation of providing uninterrupted service. So what happens with all these Cloud Services, if the IP Providers cannot catch up with the demand and just collapse?
Jeff Carlson  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-06-06 20:53
Glenn wrote an article about how iCloud and Lion downloads could be affected by bandwidth caps. I think it's going to become a big issue, especially if you already have a service like Netflix that uses a lot of bandwidth.

Mike Pompa  2011-06-06 21:03
Setings>Store>Automatic Downloads screen does not show on Verizon iPhone. :-( However, iTunes and iBooks can show purchased.

http://support.apple.com/kb/TS3688
James Kay  2011-06-07 01:42
Does this mean an end to web page hosting & iWeb?
Tom Gewecke  2011-06-13 04:30
I'd never have expected Apple to just discontinue support for the vast number of web/gallery/homepage.me.com urls on the internet and break all the existing links to them, but it looks like this may well be what is planned.
Kerry Magruder  2011-06-22 11:10
Yes, this is sad. It would be wonderful if OS X Server features were included in the iCloud for an additional fee -- I would love to run my own instance of it from the cloud!

And I have so many websites, with integrated photo galleries and videos, on mac.com, and I love the convenience of iDisk. Broken links, back to square one with Google searches, etc. Ugh.

How about writing a Take Control of Migrating from Mobile Me? This book could give us advice for dealing with all the questions and options we have for the services in Mobile Me that are not included in iCloud. I need advice!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-06-22 11:59
Can't promise any specifics, but it's safe to say that Joe will be working on something to replace Take Control of MobileMe. :-)
Marc Farnum Rendino  2011-06-07 05:32
> In fact, you can test it out right now...

I believe this applies to a subset of iOS devices; perhaps only those eligible for the current iOS release (ex: not my 2nd gen iPod touch ).
Doug Hoiles  2011-06-07 08:16
What happens in an area of marginal internet service? I theoretically have about 5 Mbps service, but I often test at less than 1 Mbps with occasional dropouts of service. MobileMe syncing can take 1-2 minutes to save a file as I work. I suspect iCloud will be problematic for me.
What about security? Is the data flow between devices encrypted? Is the data on the iCloud servers encrypted? If so, does Apple hold the key?

VERY important for even casual business use, or certain personal data!
Fritz Lang  2011-06-07 11:24
Does this mean free email server from dot Mac/dot Me?
When would I be able to sign up for that? Sept/Oct?
What becomes of Idisk? Also will syncing to itunes disappear when the icloud service is started?
"If you wish, however, you can upload songs that don’t match up, so you can download your rare bootleg recordings on the fly, too." - Hey, that's an attitude I do not like. About 5% of all my thousands of albums of music is available through iTunes and I can only think of having one bootleg album. I have never bought a song from iTunes Store and do not suspect I will ever have a reason to do so either. I use iTunes for organising music and sync with my iPod. I would never use an iPhone as my primary music-player and I would never use the Apple provided headphones either (unless I have no choice, like today) as there are better (like my Yuin PK-2). I only use XLD for ripping music and trimming music in Peak LE. I have not find anything worthwhile to buy yet at the iTunes store. I wanted to buy some TV shows, but they were not available in my country (Sweden). It is nice that Apple tries to make things easy for people, but there are only some features that offers real value to me.
Jeff Carlson  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-06-07 16:59
That's fine. It's clearly not a feature designed for your use, but you're an edge case. For a lot of people, it'll be worth having access to songs without syncing with the computer.
Ron Cook  2011-06-08 15:27
I have a concern with iCloud - my MacBook works perfectly well but will not be able to run Lion. I thought I read that iCloud requires Lion. Is that true and if so what about the rest of us?