Apple iCloud storms the market: a review

Steve Jobs is banking on cloud computing having a silver lining. EPA/Monica M. Davey

Apple CEO Steve Jobs emerged briefly from medical leave to introduce iCloud at Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco yesterday (2am Australian EST).

So how was it?

In previous years, the conference has been the venue of some of Apple’s biggest announcements – from iPhones to new versions of the company’s flagship operating system (OS), Mac OS. This year, the notoriously secretive Apple took the unusual step of pre-announcing the focus of the event: the company would introduce iCloud, and cloud-aware versions of the iOS 5 mobile OS and Mac OS X Lion for desktops and laptops.

The iCloud service keeps important data such as music, mail, contacts and calendars synchronised via the cloud across all devices.

Music management has now moved completely to the cloud with iTunes in the Cloud. Purchased tracks are stored online and automatically downloaded to all devices. Supplementing this is iTunes Match which matches your existing music library against the 18 million tracks held in iTunes store.

Matching tracks are then added to your online iTunes library. This is a marked improvement on Amazon and Google’s cloud-music offerings, which require you to manually upload your existing collection – a slow and cumbersome approach for those with large music libraries.

Photos are now kept in sync via iCloud, with PhotoStream automatically keeping a rolling collection of the last 1,000 photos taken on all connected devices. For longer-term storage, a master collection of photos can be stored on a PC or Mac.

Apps, books, documents and back-ups of your iOS devices are stored on iCloud, ensuring that you have the latest versions of them on your device at all times. With iBooks, the cloud even remembers what page you were up to.

Device back-ups will be a boon to anyone who has ever lost a phone: a new iPhone can be restored directly from iCloud with your latest back-up with a few taps.

Contacts, calendar and mail services have been retooled in iCloud, replacing Apple’s previous $99/year service, MobileMe. Apple has had stiff competition in this arena from Google, which has offered cloud-based mail and calendaring services that were vastly superior to MobileMe, at no cost.

These capabilities are now free with iCloud, and sync automatically in the background, removing the need to connect to a Mac or PC to keep your productivity applications in sync.

Updates to the iOS and Mac OS operating systems have iCloud services baked into their DNA. Fans of iOS devices such as iPhones, iPads and iPods will be pleased to see the last of the desktop iTunes application – a clunky, inflexible program that until now was the only way to activate and manage these devices.

The latest Mac OS operating system, Mac OS X Lion, will be available exclusively for download via the Mac App Store, rather than boxed software in bricks and mortar retail outlets as in the past.

As a company, Apple has raised many eyebrows over the last year, investing heavily in enormous data centres in North Carolina and Silicon Valley. Many pundits suspected the company was gearing up its cloud strategy – following the industry trend of storing customers’ data and applications in the cloud.

With the introduction of iCloud, it’s clear Apple is following through on its strategy of a “post PC” landscape.

Steve Jobs and Apple are betting lightweight mobile devices will become the productivity and entertainment tool of choice for many users, with “PC Free” syncing direct to the cloud replacing the need for a PC or Mac.