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Something Shiny Might Be Hiding Behind Apple's iCloud

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Jun 2, 2011 5:00 AM PT

What company can create an awesome tablet (iPad 2), wickedly thin notebooks (MacBook Air), a HDTV set-top box (Apple TV), a leading smartphone (iPhone), a music-movie-game-email-social-everything device (iPod touch), and deliver the operating systems to run them (Mac OS X and iOS) ... and move acres of dirt around to build a massive data center that might have the capability to deliver a leap forward in cloud computing that ties all of these things together?

Something Shiny Might Be Hiding Behind Apple's iCloud

The answer is Apple, of course. And even if you took the products in parentheses out of the question above, the answer would still be Apple.

Google and even Amazon, for example, already have massive data centers, as well as a variety of products. Google has the Android operating system, as well as apps delivered from the sky, including widely used e-mail, calendaring and daily or near-daily touches with many of its customers. Google even has its Google Music Beta, which lets a select group of invitees to stream their music from Google's clouds.

As for Amazon, the company has millions of loyal customers and lots of credit card data and buying history, as well as the Amazon Cloud Drive, which lets you upload your own music and stream it from Amazon's cloud service.

Neither of these leading companies, however, have an end-to-end product set that a) consumers lust after, and b) could possibly be connected to create something much larger than the sum of its parts.

The Uniter

Apple, on the other hand, not only has the products and the vision, but Apple also has the potential to get key industry players and companies to work with it to deliver new services.

A case in point: Both Amazon and Google have seemingly irritated or alienated the major music labels by launching their music streaming cloud services without licensing agreements in place. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Apple's worked out streaming music licensing agreements with the major record labels. This is key, because it would let Apple do something like scan your iTunes library to look for already purchased music that you could then stream from iCloud without going through the tedious process of uploading every single music file. The basic premise is, if you buy it, you ought to be able to listen to it from any of your devices, without a lot of irritating hassle.

The same sort of premise goes for movies. Apple's CEO Steve Jobs has the ability to get the attention of movie and TV studios, as well as the technical savvy to ensure a consumer-friendly service that can also reduce the need (and ability) for consumers to steal movies.

In addition, Apple has its own applications for both Mac OS X and iOS that span consumers, businesses and children. In many ways, Apple has a hand in many of the things that people care about when it comes to their digital lives.

More Than a Toy

I'm thinking that this reach and the convergence of Apple products will give us something bigger and better than a cool little music streaming subscription service. Taken as a whole, here are a few areas where Apple can make some interesting leaps with its new iCloud service:

  • Music: Industry expectations and rumors pretty much all hold that apple's iCloud will offer a streaming music service, if not a new subscription model. The biggest question here is if customers will only be able to play music that they purchased through iTunes, or if they will be able to play existing songs ripped from CDs or purchased elsewhere.

    What would make this fantastic is if your playlists would sync automatically with all of your devices. For example, I just bought a song on iTunes that is on my MacBook and my iPhone, but not on my iPod touch in the kitchen, because I just haven't gotten around to getting it synced. Then I created a new playlist of some awesome rocking songs, but I forgot to sync them to my iPhone before I went on a road trip. It's one thing to listen to a playlist while you're driving, and it's another thing the pull over and try to re-create a playlist out of a handful of songs that are on your iPhone ... or are sitting on your computer at home.

    With iCloud, Apple has the potential to make all of this actually delightfully fun rather than a chore.

  • Movies: There is one thing that I hate about my new Apple TV: the lack of onboard storage. If I want to watch a movie that I didn't rent directly from Apple -- for example, a movie I already own that is on my MacBook -- I have to make sure that iTunes is open and that my MacBook is awake.

    Apple, through a new iCloud service, could make this process much simpler and easy. Same goes for my smart devices like my iPad, iPhone and iPod touch. Again, if you leave the house and don't sync properly, you might end up in a situation where you don't have a movie to watch, for example, when you're stuck in the airport.

  • MobileMe, Amped: Right now, MobileMe seems like a not-quite-finished product. Pieces of it work really well, and I particularly like how well it syncs my calendar on the fly with my iPhone. But when it comes to sharing my calendar, photos and movies with friends and family, it's just all a little bit too clunky. Most rumors suggest that Apple will replace MobileMe with iCloud. I'm not sure, but I do expect the overall MobileMe experience to give a little bit easier, a little bit better and, dare I say it, less expensive.
  • Virtual Hard Drive in the Sky: One of the most annoying things about my iPad and other iOS devices is the myriad ways I must juggle files to get them to do what I want. If I have a PDF, I have to have a special app and get it imported correctly through iTunes or e-mail or something in order to edit, read or send it. Hiding the file system is great for many consumers and kids, but I generally just get mad at all the freaking hoops I have to jump through to deal with files. Apple has an opportunity to make this much much easier through a new iCloud service.

    In addition, what if Apple could bypass the need to have large hard drives on a MacBook Air? Suddenly, if I could have a trusted storage service in the cloud that works with all of my key devices, that also stores my most storage-hungry media files, I could more easily enjoy the speedy benefits of small and cost-effective SSD drives.

  • iTunes From the Air: What if the core benefit of iTunes was transferred to iCloud? What if your centralized instance that syncs all of your mobile devices didn't have to reside on a PC or Mac? In some ways, this would require a leap of faith in Apple's ability to store everything that you need without risk of loss.

    Right now, I have files on my MacBook and they're backed up to a hard drive, and I've got another hard drive in an off-site location, though it tends to be out of date. I like that back up because I can see it, so to speak. Trusting Apple to hold all of my important content would be tough. What if my iTunes ID and password were compromised? How could I make sure that Apple would quickly fix the situation?

    Still, consider a family situation: What if one family member bought a song? With iTunes in the sky, another family member could presumably sync that song from iCloud. This alone would be a killer feature, and Apple is already heading in that direction with its family packs of software and services.

  • Connectivity with Mac OS X Lion: As much as I want all of these connectivity features built into iCloud, I very much want my Mac to remain the central stronghold for my digital universe. Apple's forthcoming Mac OS X Lion will need to be able to sync with everything as well as offer powerful and efficient access for big computing tasks (like everyday work).

    I expect that Lion will have excellent connectivity with iCloud, and while I'm not ready for my Mac to be a peripheral component to iCloud, this is the direction we seem to be heading.

If one thing is certain, iCloud will be both better than we expect and somewhat of a disappointment. Even if Apple could deliver all of these new features from day one, I'm pretty sure the company would hold some back in order to reserve a chance to offer cool free upgrades and also let its user base understand the new features, rather than overwhelm them all at once.

Plus, Apple can feed the media machine best by offering up a product that it then enhances again and again. We will get a much better idea, of course, at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference next week, when Steve Jobs takes the stage to reveal iCloud.


MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.


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