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Apple iCloud: What it means, what it offers

Consumer Reports News: June 07, 2011 11:49 AM

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Say goodbye to your personal computer as the center of your mobile digital world and hello to the perpetual and wireless interconnectedness of the cloud: Those were the key promises of Steve Jobs’ address at Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference in San Francisco yesterday.

While the Apple CEO, in his first public appearance since taking medical leave some months ago, made no mention of the next iPhone, he may have done something more significant in unveiling iOS 5, an overhaul to iOS, the operating system that powers iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches.

In addition to wide-ranging interface and app improvements, which I’ll cover in a separate post, iOS 5 shifts a great deal of its core functionality away from PCs and Macs to a host of mostly-free services collectively called iCloud. Given Apple’s commitment to the idea and iCloud’s seeming ingenuity, the service could accelerate the shift in consumers’ data storage and more from local computers, synced to portable devices mostly via cables, to Web servers, from which content is pushed out wirelessly.

When it becomes available in the fall, iCloud, which replaces the $99-per-year MobileMe service, will back up virtually all device data—from apps, documents and device settings to music, messages, and photos, over Wi-Fi or a mobile data connection—and permit it to be shared with up to 10 iOS devices linked to that account. Eligible devices include all iPad versions, all iPhones from the 3GS version onward, and third-generation and newer iPods touches.

Taking aim at cloud-based services from Google and Amazon for Android devices, Apple ups the ante by promising to make the cloud simpler and more thorough. Instead of signing into multiple accounts (and hoping they successfully sync), as is required on Android phones, most iOS 5 users will sign into just one account— their iTunes account—to use iCloud.

Here’s a deeper dive into what iCloud promises:

Wireless syncing. Apple says you will be able to make significant account changes, such as creating and deleting calendars and mailboxes, right on the device, using a connection to either the device’s data network or to Wi-Fi. And any changes you make will be reflected on other devices linked to your account and can be shared with people in your address book.

You can also sync your device to your iTunes library, though that will be possible only via Wi-Fi. Apple says that even software updates will be delivered wirelessly, including via data networks. Such updates will focus just on what's changed to shorten download time and potential data surcharges. All text messages, e-mail, and Apple iWork documents (Keynote, Pages, and Numbers) will be backed up for free and synced with the other devices on your account, so you'll never lose your place. E-mail storage, however, is capped at 5GB.

Photos. A new free service called Photo Stream automatically uploads photos taken on wireless devices and pushes them out to other iOS 5 devices linked to that account. The service will store the last 1,000 photos taken for up to 30 days; you can store them permanently with Photo Stream by archiving them to a photo album on your device.

iTunes. Any song you purchase from iTunes can be downloaded to up to nine other devices at no extra charge (you have the option of doing it automatically or piecemeal.) But you can share all the music on all your devices via a new service called iTunes Match ($25 per year).

Match resembles Amazon's Cloud Drive in functionality, but it adds a time-saving feature: It scans your music collection, matches it with iTunes’ 18-million-song library, and then allows download of the iTunes’ version of those songs to any or all of your devices. That skips the interminable process of uploading songs from your computer or other device to the cloud, which can take up to 10 times longer than downloading. Whatever songs iTunes can't match, it will upload to iCloud; such selections will be re-encoded in iTunes’ default AAC format at 256 kilobits per second.

Bottom line: iCloud appears, at least at first glimpse, to be a well-designed service that will advance the cause of cloud computing. Yet as iCloud is promoted and introduced, the questions about it (and about competing services, such as those from Amazon and Google) will include the extent to which data networks are up to the task of handling the additional traffic that mobile cloud access may create--and the willingness of people to pay to store content in the cloud that they have already stored locally.

Mike Gikas

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