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2011-06-26

Apple’s iCloud: stealing a page from Google and more

iCloud is an interesting product for Apple: It is moving into Google territory. For the first time, every Apple user will have free online storage that is pervasively integrated into many applications. This post gives an overview and mentions new facts that have come out.

What iCloud is

  • Three products: Apple sells iCloud as a single product, but it is in fact three.
    • Online storage: used by various applications.
    • Logged purchases: Apple logs the apps, books and audio you have bought and lets you re-download them to any device you own. Still absent from this list is video (movies, TV).
    • Web apps: You will be able to access some of the data online (see below).
  • Free: This is an important component of iCloud, because both users and application developers will quickly adopt iCloud at that price.
  • Pervasively integrated: 3rd party applications can store both their documents and arbitrary key-value data online. This will allow them to sync preferences, application state, etc.
  • PC-free: iCloud is important for letting iOS devices work without a desktop computer for syncing and backup. I expect that this will make the iPad much more attractive as a stand-alone device, e.g. as the only computer that children in a family own. [The programmer in me weeps a bit at that thought, because without a keyboard, the iPad is ill-suited for programming.]
  • Conflict resolution: iCloud will automatically resolve synchronization conflicts [1]. As long as the devices used for editing are online, there will be no conflicts, because changes will be written back to iCloud immediately and redistributed to all other online devices. With offline or concurrent editing, conflicts can still happen, though. Then iCloud picks one of the conflicting pieces of data as the current one. Additionally, one can visit past versions (including the ones that have been discarded by conflict resolution). Let us hope that this works better than how contacts are currently synchronized; syncing with Google Contacts is awful, it frequently corrupts my data (e.g. by moving the ZIP code to the city name).
Avoiding the word “synchronize”. The following is a quote from Daring Fireball:
[Commenting on Apple’s Press Release for iCloud.]

Note that they don’t use the word “sync”. I’m pretty sure they never once uttered “sync” during the keynote today either. The verbs they use are store and push.

The gist is that Apple considers syncing to mean peer-to-peer — something where every device is on equal footing. With iCloud, there is one official data store: iCloud’s. As Jobs put it on stage, iCloud’s data is “the truth”. This means no conflicts or merging. What you see is what iCloud has stored on a server in North Carolina.

Additionally, I suspect that Apple thinks that the word “synchronize” has gotten a bad rap and wants to avoid its negative connotations when talking about iCloud.

Feature list

iCloud has the following features, some of them did not exist in MobileMe:
  • iTunes in the cloud [new]: The iTunes store records purchased apps, books and audio (no video yet) and makes them available for re-download on each of a user’s devices.
  • Photo Stream [new]: Temporary storage to quickly move photos that just have been shot between devices.
  • Documents in the Cloud [new]: applications store and sync their documents via the cloud. This feature will work on iOS, OS X, and Windows.
  • Backups of iOS devices [new]: A key puzzle piece for stand-alone operation. Backed up:
    • Photos and video in the Camera Roll
    • Device settings
    • App data
    • Home screen and app organization
    • Text and MMS messages
    • Ringtones
  • Free email: with 5GB of storage and a web interface. Thus, iCloud becomes the first real competitor to Google Mail which currently stands out from the competition due to its excellent web client, high storage capacity, and free IMAP support.
  • Contacts: stored online, accessible via a web application.
  • Calendar stored online, accessible via a web application. Finally there is a competitor to Google Calendar.
  • Find my iPhone: including a web interface.
MobileMe Features that iCloud won’t have:
  • iWeb publishing
  • Photo gallery
  • iDisk
  • Synced Mac OS X data. Quote: “Syncing of Mac Dashboard widgets, keychains, Dock items, and System Preferences will not be part of iCloud.”

The latest news

Apple’s document “MobileMe transition and iCloud” has brought new, previously unknown, features of iCloud to light:
  • Web apps: Apple will provide web clients for Mail, Contacts, Calendar, and Find My iPhone.
  • Buying more storage:
    I currently use more than 5GB of storage in MobileMe. Will I be able to buy more storage for iCloud?
    Yes. iCloud includes 5GB of free storage for mail, documents, and backup, which should be enough for most users. Purchased music, apps, and books do not count against this 5GB of storage, nor do the photos in your Photo Stream. If you still need more storage, you will be able to buy it. Details will be provided when iCloud is available this fall.

Related reading

  1. Overview and analysis: Apple’s WWDC 2011 announcements (Lion, iOS 5, iCloud)
  2. iCloud to Auto-Resolve Sync Conflicts - Mac Rumors

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