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 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.


WWDC 2011 – Part 1: Lion

Image via Wikipedia

Apple did something uncharacteristic this year in the lead up to WWDC, they announced what they were going to show at the conference. We knew they would be covering Mac OS Lion, iOS5 and iCloud at the event. Normally they have kept quiet even when the cover had all but been blown on an upcoming product.

Everything they announced was exciting in some way. I want to just go through each of them in turn now.

Mac OS Lion

In this era we’re in that people increasingly call the “post PC world”, you would think it would be tough to excite people with an update to a traditional desktop operating system.

If anyone could do it though, it’s Apple and they didn’t disappoint. The main new features in Lion which interest me are Launchpad, resume (includes auto save and versions) and full screen apps. All of these three new features are great additions for obvious reasons. Auto save is always going to be useful, and launchpad takes the best of iOS and brings it to the desktop.

In the past I’ve used several ways to launch my apps that weren’t in my dock. I’ve used quicksilver to type the first letter of an app to launch that way, by using a special launcher app I found, as well as what I do currently. This is to use the stacks feature of leopard to have an apps folder on the far right of my dock next to the downloads stack. Even though this works well, launchpad takes this further and really delivers the optimum app launching experience. It utilities the entire desktop and folders are a great way to organize desktop apps, just like I swear by them on my iPod Touch to keep me on top of my ridiculous number of apps.

If Launchpad becomes as successful as I think it could do, then we may see Apple make a change to the dock itself in future. They may make it restricted in how many icons can fit in it, just like on the iPhone, and then just give you a launchpad icon on the left to get to the rest of your apps. It would definitely tidy up the desktop and give it a more simplistic look, but I’m not sure if they would commit to this as it could upset some users who like their desktops to be a certain way.

Despite all of the great little changes that Apple have made in Lion, there are a few which I think may be overkill for most people. Most notably, mission control and the increased number of multi-touch gestures.

I’ve always loved the double finger scroll on my MacBook and I can certainly appreciate why gestures are useful for pinching, zooming and rotating for image manipulation. These are natural gestures and the work well. Where it gets to be overkill is with complex gestures involving up to three fingers. This isn’t really intuitive and I doubt many people will use these. I first realized this when Craig Federighi was demoing gestures at the back to the mac conference last year. He was struggling a bit with getting the gestures to work correctly. It may be true that he was doing it with a magic mouse, which isn’t so easy to manipulate as a track pad on a macbook, but I still don’t see it as a feature most people will make use of.

This brings me on to Mission Control. This feature seeks to combine expose, spaces, dashboard and full screen apps into one overview of your system. Personally, I really like expose so I hope they keep that as an option as well, as I don’t use spaces at all. With that said, it is still similar to that feature except that it groups windows of the same app together rather than spreading everything apart. You can spread open these groups but it’s not as easy as it used to be. I’ll have to reserve judgement until I can get to use it myself, but it definitely has potential for mainly power users I would assume.

It looks like Apple have done a good job here with Lion. It still looks a lot like Snow Leopard but looks can be deceiving. There’s definitely been a lot of good changes made. In the past, these upgrades have been on discs and cost around £80. This time, there are no discs, the price has been slashed by three quarters to just £20 and also gone are the family packs to enable the OS on all of your computers. Now, you just download it from the Mac App Store on every personal Mac you own.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to install it on my current MacBook as it’s 5 years old and isn’t fast enough to run it, which is a disappointment, but maybe sometime soon I’ll be able to upgrade to one of those new MacBook Airs that look great.

Come back for parts 2 and 3 where I’ll talk about iOS5 and iCloud.