WWDC 2011 – Part 2: iCloud

I think iCloud is fantastic. When it was first announced, we assumed generally that it would be the name for a new iTunes streaming service but it ended up being so much more, and all of it great.

I’ve been saying for such a long time now that I thought Apple should compete with Google in cloud services. Mobile me simply did not make sense when compared to Google’s free services like Gmail, Google calendar and documents among others. Sure, they were good but they cost money they probably weren’t worth.

iCloud takes everything good that Mobile Me did, makes it free and adds more besides. Whether me.com email addresses can challenge the traditional heavyweights in email like hotmail, yahoo, aol and gmail is another question, but I suppose just the fact that the domain is only two characters should help its cause somewhat. Whether they actually gain substantial market share in all of these cloud services is beside the point, just the fact that it’s free is great and it makes them competitive at least.

iCloud also expands on Mobile Me’s original syncing concept and takes things a lot further and really puts them far ahead of anyone else in terms of mainstream cloud syncing services. Not only does in sync the usual things, contacts, calendars and mail, but also practically everything else you could think of. Your photos, videos, iWork documents, a complete backup of all of your device settings and data from your apps.

These things are all fantastic, but the real star of the show here is the automatic syncing and backup of your purchases from all three of Apple’s stores. All of your music, apps and books will automatically download to all of your devices. No more syncing and homesharing across numerous devices and computers, and no worrying about backing up your precious music. If in future you somehow lose your music on all of your devices, you can just download it again for no extra charge. Apple say that there’s no limit to how many times you can re-download purchases but I assume they’ll be fairly lenient as long as you don’t abuse the function.

For me, this will completely change my purchasing of music in the future. Recently, I’ve been going exclusively to Amazon MP3 for my music, as it’s generally quite a bit cheaper than iTunes for almost everything, and sometimes by a very significant amount. However, the extra value you get from not having to worry about syncing anything and keeping a library in perfect order, as well as the peace of mind of not having to back up purchases make it worth the extra money in my opinion.

At first, I was a bit surprised that Apple didn’t do something more elaborate with iTunes in the cloud in the same vein as Spotify or possibly a locker type arrangement like Amazon cloud player or Google Music. When I thought about it more, I understood why they went in the direction they did.

The reason why they didn’t go with a locker type arrangement is because it’s complex, involves uploading an entire library to the cloud which is far from ideal and wastes storage space with potentially a huge number of copies of the same song being uploaded. I think the Spotify streaming model would make more sense but Ap[ple have traditionally stayed away from the renting model for music as they like people to feel that they own the music they download. The iTunes Match service is essentially the happy medium between these two options. It scans your library for music that wasn’t downloaded on iTunes. AKA: from another online service, ripped from CDs or obtained in less than legal ways and looks for matches in Apple’s catalogue. You pay a flat fee and any music you have that is available in iTunes match is either upgraded to 256kbps if it’s lower quality, or if the music is not on iTunes, those select songs will be uploaded. Everything will then be treated as if you bought it from iTunes originally, and will be synced to all of your devices automatically. This is a nice idea and I’m sure Apple will make it as easy to understand as possible, but it remains to be seen what will happen if you don’t renew your subscription. Hopefully you’ll get to keep any music that was upgraded in the new form, and perhaps even still be able to keep uploaded music synced, but that’s a long shot.

Either way, I can’t wait to check out iCloud when it launches in the autumn. Just the small taster we’ve been given in the UK of being able to sync Apps and books but not not music has got me excited to check out the whole package.

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