"We're going to demote the PC and the Mac to just be a device," said Steve Jobs in his keynote address at Apple's WWDC conference today. "We're going to move your hub, the center of your digital life, into the cloud."
Apple revealed its long-awaited cloud sharing and sync service today, iCloud. Far more than a way to back up files to a distant server, iCloud is integrated across Apple desktops and mobile devices to ensure that all of your computers can synchronize contacts, calendars, email, apps, music, photos, and more. While there are other companies that offer parts of all these services—Amazon's latest music service, Google's Gmail inbox—no one combines it all into one seamless service that also works across a set of hardware devices. And it's free.
To understand the problem that iCloud solves, start by thinking about the way you handle photos across your devices now. When you store a photo on your phone, you'd like it to seamlessly pop up on your Mac without having to tinker around in iPhoto...and probably be accessible on your iPad so you can show it to granny later with ease. Contacts are another obvious beneficiary—when you add a new one on your iPhone, you'd like it to be available later on your Mac right away, without the need for syncing.
And that's what the new service promises to do. iCloud, Jobs notes, "stores all your content in the cloud and wirelessly pushes it out to all your devices" with a trademark Apple slickness so that "it all just works." The amount of storage space is virtually unlimited when it comes to music, books, and apps purchased from Apple, and you get 5GB of free space for documents, mail, and backup (which is the same amount of space offered for free from Box.net).
This is such a serious rethink of how Apple devices work with content that Apple is killing its MobileMe service—something it only pulled together a handful of years ago. It underpins much of the way the new iOS works with OS X too, and calendar and email updates will sync and update across all devices using the same mechanism. Automatic daily backups to the cloud from your iDevice will protect your data from loss (particularly useful for precious photos) and it'll automatically recognize new devices when you buy them.
But the biggest bit of iCloud from a consumer point of view is iTunes Music Match. This is Apple's cloud addition to the venerable iTunes ecosystem. The core functionality matches the other parts of iCloud: You can access a tune stored on one device via the cloud interface, so if you buy a song on your iPhone, it's automatically available on your Mac or iPad as well.
iTunes cloud is thus not, quite, a music locker or streaming service — all of the songs are copied to multiple devices, and you don't stream anything from the cloud. So what happens to all that music in your collection that you didn't buy from iTunes? That's where iTunes Match comes in. If a song in your private collection matches one in iTunes' 18 million-track archive, then you gain access to it via the cloud with a simple click as if you'd bought it through iTunes legitimately. And at a DRM-free 256kbps sampling rate too (which probably beats your original encoding). You do have to pay for the privilege of using Match at $25 a year.
Another benefit to iTunes Match is that synchronizing your existing library to the iCloud will only take "minutes not weeks" to work, said Jobs, in contrast to the "upload/download" model that both Google and Amazon follow with their "music lockers." Jobs even went to the trouble of comparing the music services that these rivals offer in a comparison table.
iTunes in the cloud has been long expected, with reports that Apple paid as much as $150 million to the four major record labels in order to gain the right to move its music service into the cloud. And since iTunes is such a potent force in the digital music marketplace—indeed without it, MP3s wouldn't perhaps be considered in the same way we do now—it will define competing cloud music offerings.
Rhapsody is a good comparison to this idea—an app with a heritage that stretches back to 1999, when its founders were working on an audio streaming engine. This was launched in the TuneTo.com custom "radio" service, and a "celestial jukebox" that was initially called Aladdin before becoming Rhapsody in 2001. In February 2010 it restructured itself, dropping Real Network's support and gaining MTV and Viacom as supporters of its downloadable, DRM'd model. Rhapsody's president Jon Irwin tells Fast Company his subscribers still have the advantage of being able to discover music via Rhapsody without having to purchase individual tracks. They can also listen on any device—Apple or not—that they want. Taking what he called his glass-half-full outlook, Irwin says the awareness that Apple brings to cloud music legitimizes his business, too. "I think it's something we can leverage," he says.
Even Google will have difficulty matching iCloud, thanks to its plethora of Android devices each with its own foibles. And Amazon doesn't even sell hardware that can compete.
iTunes for iCloud is available starting today in the U.S. for iTunes 10.3 and iOS 4.3.3. The rest of iCloud will be available in the fall.
Ending his presentation, Jobs remarked "If you don't think we're serious about this, you're wrong." Apple is quietly, without too much technical fuss or ruffled feathers on its users' behalf, bringing cloud computing to tens of millions of people—and unlike MobileMe, which cost $99 a year, iCloud is free.