There are several possibly answers to the question of what iCloud, Apple’s soon-to-be-announced “cloud” service, actually is. For sure, we’ll know soon enough, but it’s fun to speculate.
The front-runners seem to be:
- it’s a music streaming service, that will allow you to play any music you own no matter what device you’re currently using
- it’s an über-sync service that will mirror all your documents and settings across all your devices.
- it’s a replacement for iTunes inasmuch as instead of syncing your iDevices to your Mac or PC you’ll sync them to the iCloud service instead
- it’s actually an updated version of the Time Capsule and Airport Extreme routers, which will allow them to act as sync points for your iDevices. This is a lot like the former point, except you’re syncing to a local device instead of something ‘out there’ on the internet
I actually think that these are all likely to be true - at least in part.
The music streaming service is something that people seem to have been clamouring for, and Amazon and Google have recently launched similar services. I’m not convinced by this idea at all - it may fly in an world of unmetered high speed internet service, but where I live I certainly don’t want to be using up my limited monthly bandwidth allowance to listen to music that I already have on my computer or on a CD on the shelf. But I think there’s enough of an argument for the convenience factor of instantly accessing your iTunes purchases to make almost certainly a feature of iCloud.
The integrated sync service is something that iOS has been desperately in need of ever since the iWork apps launched on iPad. The very first hurdle most users hit is ‘how do I get my documents on it’ ? None of the current answers to that question have proven satisfactory. Dropbox has proven that utility of a transparent cloud sync service that’s well executed - Apple’s own iDisk feature beat Dropbox to market by many years, but always feels clunky and slow in comparison. I’m betting on a Dropbox-like update to iDisk, re-branded under the iCloud banner, that will provide transparent syncing of all your files across all your iDevices.
The utility of a sync service goes beyond just syncing documents though. MobileMe currently provides pretty robust push sync of calendar appointments and contacts (although often criticised, I’ve always found MobileMe sync to work very well). It’s obvious that this feature would be retained under iCloud, but I get the feeling it’s going to go further. There have been rumours for a long while now about a ‘portable home folder’ feature in Mac OS X Lion that will allow you to log in to any Mac using your Apple ID, and mirror your personal documents to that machine. I think that home folder mirroring will be a part of iCloud and Mac OS X Lion
But that’s not all: iOS developers need a way to sync application-specific data stores across all your devices. At the moment, the only solution for this is the hard one - roll your own. I think iOS 5 will include a robust sync service over iCloud for iOS (and Mac OS) apps.
The third idea in the list above is that iCloud will replace the need to connect a new iOS device to iTunes before you can use it. At the moment, using an iOS device requires you to have a Mac or PC that runs a recent version of iTunes. This is no trivial requirement, even for the tech savvy. Far better to be able to take your shiny new iPhone out of the box, power it on and enter your Apple ID (or sign up for one) and - like magic - your apps and contacts and music and… get mirrored from the iCloud. Android already features this kind of setup via Google, and it’s probably the best single feature of that platform. I think cloud syncing will replace iTunes for iOS devices.
The final idea is that iCloud will actually be some feature of the (excellent) Airport Extreme and Time Capsule routers. I have thought for some time that Apple needed to add iTunes sharing to these devices instead of requiring users to have their computers on and running iTunes full time in order to access media. But if iCloud is a true cloud service then requiring a hardware device that sits in your home in order to work doesn’t really make sense. Certainly, I can’t really see all 100 million plus iOS device owners running out to buy - and then configure - an new Airport router just to use iCloud. Also, this would only work whist you were in your home and on your Airport network.
Instead, I think that the Airport routers will get an upgrade - and hopefully a firmware upgrade for existing units - that enables them to work as a local cache of your iCloud data. This will be an optional, additional feature of iCloud for Airport owners. In effect, you’ll sync with your Airport, and the device will then sync with iCloud in it’s own time. This removes the bottleneck of waiting to download your media over the internet, and the potential cost. It may be that certain media can only be synced to the router (ie. music that isn’t from iTunes), because of licence restrictions from the record and movie companies.
What the end result of these features should be is an effortless, transparent sync service that allows you to setup and use a brand new iOS device without ever needing to connect it to your computer, nor even worry about where your documents are physically stored. Getting this right is certainly going to be tricky, and I hope we can avoid the teething troubles of MobileMe - that’s why iOS developers are going to be watching the WWDC keynote with a great deal of interest.