Apple this week announced its iCloud service, a cloud computing solution for consumers that won't start shipping to customers until late in 2011. As is typical for such Apple events, the iCloud announcement was hailed by many as some kind of innovative new thing. But watching and rewatching Apple's WWDC 2011 keynote video repeatedly this week, it struck me that there is precious little new here. The big innovation in iCloud, I think, is that Apple is simply bringing together a host of very useful services, most of which are available from elsewhere and often for free, in a cohesive and integrated way. And that's truly valuable, of course. But it does beg the question. Couldn't we as Windows users essentially duplicate most of this functionality today using existing tools and services? How would this compare to what Apple is promising for iCloud?
Note: Much of iCloud will in fact be available to Windows users as well, so one possible solution here is to simply use iCloud whenever it becomes available. I'm running a pre-release version of iCloud on my Windows PCs and iOS-based devices (an iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad), but because of an NDA, I can't discuss this experience yet, and must instead steer the discussion only towards those features and UIs that Apple publicly disclosed in the keynote.
First, let's establish what iCloud is. Apple CEO Steve Jobs framed iCloud as a new framework for organizing your digital life. The previous model put the PC in the center of this digital life, since the PC was the device with full-featured capabilities, processing power, and storage, and when you wanted to access the information that was stored there--email, calendar events, contacts, music, photos, videos, and so on--you would sync the PC-based information to the devices you used. In Apple's world, these devices were of course iPods first, but then iPhones and iPads, and other PCs.
With iCloud, Apple is recasting this model so that the cloud is at the center of this scheme and the PC is "demoted" to being just another device. This is exactly the model I've been preaching for some time, actually. So, for example, when people came to me and complained that Outlook-based email, contacts, and calendar were not supported in Windows Phone, I told them that Outlook (like the PC) shouldn't be the central storage point for this data; instead, it should be treated just like any other end-point, i.e. device. I'm not some genius, and I'm certainly not taking credit for this concept. My point is simply that others have been doing this for years. Apple is just now formally coming around to it in 2011. (This is what the press calls "innovation" with regards to Apple, by the way.)
To be fair, parts of Apple's scheme are, if not innovative, at least well-considered and offer nice end-to-end experiences. That is, iCloud doesn't just centrally store your data and sync it with your devices, it also works with apps, on the Mac and iOS definitely, and on the PC sort of. This provides a very integrated solution, assuming you're OK using only Apple's apps for now or whatever third party apps appear over time. (Apple's biggest fans are, of course, only too happy to use Apple's apps.)
Less conceptually, iCloud is a super-set of Apple's previous cloud service, called MobileMe. Unlike MobileMe, iCloud also handles a lot more types of data. But the basics are the same: Your important data is stored in the cloud, accessed via an account with a user name and password, and accessible via your PCs and devices in meaningful ways.
OK. So let's examine the different components of iCloud and, in turn, see what's available on the PC side of the fence today. In keeping with Apple's strategy for iCloud, I'll try to keep to free Microsoft solutions where possible.
Contacts, Email, and Calendar
Today, Apple provides these services along with a me.com user name to users of its MobileMe service and that will continue forward with iCloud. We have many cloud-based solutions from which to choose, of course, but sticking with the Microsoft stuff, that means Hotmail. Via Hotmail, you can access to the same type of contacts, email, and calendar services as you do with MobileMe/iCloud, and they work on PCs (via the web or a native app such as Windows Live Mail or Outlook 2010) and Windows Phones (via native apps and hubs). This is a pretty obvious matchup, and the functionality is the same as with iCloud; make a change to a contact on the phone, for example, and its "updated on all your other devices," as Mr. Jobs noted about iCloud. It works exactly the same.
What about calendar sharing? This was billed as a new feature of iCloud, and if you share a calendar with, say, your wife, any events you add to that calendar will be automatically synced to her iPhone (or other compatible i-device). You can indeed share calendars with others in Windows Live Calendar (Hotmail's calendar solution), and Windows Live also has a Groups component that provides shared calendars for families, soccer teams, and other groups (among other things). Is it as seamless as iCloud sharing? No, but it was there three years ago, and I'd point out that Apple's solution pretty much requires a very heavy investment in Apple hardware before it makes any sense.
With iCloud, Apple points out that its Mail web app has no ads. Fair enough. Hotmail does have ads on the web only, though you can pay $19.95 a year for Hotmail Plus if you really want to use the web client and not see ads. Otherwise, just use Windows Live Mail for Windows, which is free. Mobile access to Hotmail is of course ad-free as well.
Each of Apple's devices now has an App Store, one for iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod touch) and one for Mac. And each of the stores on these devices now offers a Purchased view where you can see every single app you've purchased in the past, allowing you to easily find and re-download previous purchases. This, however, is not a feature of iCloud from what I can see. In fact, it's available today on the version of iOS that shipped this week and in the near-final Lion build that developers just got. And no iCloud account is required; it works with any Apple ID.
Microsoft doesn't currently offer an integrated app store for Windows, though it used to (it was called Windows Marketplace and had a digital locker) and will again in Windows 8. It does of course provide an integrated app store for Windows Phone 7, and certainly there are other Microsoft stores available to Windows users, most obviously Zune Marketplace, which provides music, TV shows and movies, and podcasts for use on Windows and Windows Phone, and apps for Windows Phone only.
Microsoft does host the little-known Microsoft Store online, and one of this store's also little-known features is electronic downloads. So you could purchase software like Windows 7 Home Premium or Office Home and Student 2010 and instead of waiting for the disc, simply download it and install it immediately.
There are also various third party stores that tread into Apple territory with electronic downloads and digital locker capabilities, including Steam (PC-based video games), Amazon.com (PC-based video games and applications, Android apps, digital music, movies and TV shows, and more), and others.
Apple's eBook solution works similarly to its App Store by providing a way to browse, buy and read electronic books and then sync those books--including your reading position--to your other iOS-based devices only. The big problem with iBooks--and there are really many problems here--is that it is Apple-only. You can't read an iBook on your Windows tablet, your Windows Phone, an Android device, or even on a Mac. It's only for the iOS devices.
Microsoft doesn't have an eBook platform. But that's fine, because Windows users--just like Mac and iOS users, actually--have a superior alternative in Amazon Kindle. This complete platform offers everything iBooks does and much, much more, including a much bigger selection of books and periodicals, much better device compatibility (it works on PCs, Macs, iPhone, Blackberry, iPad, Android, and Windows Phone, not just on iOS), and, if you really care about reading, a line of dedicated eBook readers that offer the superior reading experience, all for just $119 and up.
Apple talked up specific features of iBooks, including automatic device-to-device sync (location, bookmarks), and the ability to download all purchased books on any device. These have been available on Kindle for a long time. There is literally no advantage to iBooks, or iBooks + iCloud, compared to the Kindle, but there are many disadvantages. When it comes to eBooks, there is Kindle and then there is everything else. And that's true for Apple-loving iCloud users of the future too. iBooks is a dead-end.
iCloud will support "wireless backup to the cloud," but only for iOS devices. "Once daily, we're going to back up a lot of your important content to the cloud ... over Wi-Fi," Jobs said during the WWDC keynote. "If you ever get a new phone, type in your Apple ID and password, and everything will be loaded onto that phone automatically and wirelessly."
So what's backed up exactly? According to Jobs, this includes (iTunes) purchased music, apps, and books, photos and videos taken the iOS device's internal camera, device settings, and app data.
This is pretty compelling and useful functionality. But oddly enough, Microsoft got there first: Its MyPhone service for Windows Mobile 6.x offered this in 2009, and its KIN Studio solution offered this functionality--and much more--to KIN users starting in 2010. Unfortunately, both services are as discontinued as the solutions they serviced, so being first doesn't amount to much in this case. And we don't really have anything like this on Windows Phone right now, for example.
What we do have, currently, is a very limited and optional auto-backup of photos (but not videos) taken with the Windows Phone camera. You can choose between Windows Live SkyDrive and Facebook, but the photos aren't full-resolution backups, they're downsized first. (KIN did full photo and video backup/sync to the cloud.)
But the other iCloud backup functionality is not available on Windows Phone for the most part. If you're Zune Pass subscriber, the music bit won't be an issue, and of course purchased music can be manually copied from the device to a PC. Apps are only auto-installed on a Windows Phone if you install them from the phone (and not from the Zune PC software), and then only when you blow away and restore the same device. Device settings and app data are not backed up. I don't see any clear way around these limitations unless Microsoft decides to implement this functionality as part of some KIN Studio/MyPhone type service for Windows Phone.
This one is a win for iCloud.
Documents in the Cloud
Years after Dropbox and Live Mesh, Apple has finally figured out a document sync solution, which it awkwardly calls Documents in the Cloud. It works as do Dropbox and Windows Live Mesh today, by syncing some collection of documents between PCs/Macs and devices. Frankly, for basic document sync, Windows Live Mesh is the more compelling solution, because it lets you sync more than a single folder and arbitrarily choose which folders are synced to which device. Windows Live Mesh does have a downside, however, in that it (currently) doesn't support Windows Phone.
Apple is also building Documents in the Cloud support into specific productivity applications on the Mac and iOS, including Pages (word processing), Numbers (spreadsheet), and Keynote (presentations). This means that users of these apps can arbitrarily sync any documents created in those apps between devices, regardless of which folder they're stored in. That's actually pretty nice, because it removes the need to understand how the file system works.
To do something remotely like this on Windows, you would need to use a recent version of Office and a cloud-based storage system like SharePoint (business oriented) or SkyDrive (consumer oriented, free). Neither is as seamless as iCloud, but they're still readily available and free for consumers. And they both work with Windows Phone too, though the SkyDrive stuff isn't coming until "Mango" ships this fall. (Like iCloud.) Or you could use Office Web Apps, though that requires connectivity.
Much to its credit, Apple is also releasing APIs so that developers can add these "document in the cloud" capabilities to their own apps in iOS and OS X Lion, and, curiously, PCs too. (How amazing would it be for Apple to someday ship PC versions of its iWork and iLife apps? I can see this happening.) Currently, there's nothing like that from Microsoft per se, though that could be changing with Windows 8 about to have a big unveiling.
Jobs described this as perhaps his favorite iCloud feature. It's a way to automatically sync photos taken from any device and sync them to iCloud and then to any connected devices. As noted above, Windows Phone has a very limited form of this functionality today and since KIN had a more full featured implementation, my hope is that this will improve in the future.
If you don't mind a more manual approach, Windows apps like Windows Live Photo Gallery support numerous sharing schemes with online services that matter to users, including Facebook, Flickr, You Tube and of course Microsoft offerings, and, via add-ons, many others too. Likewise, you can manually share photos on Windows Phone to Facebook and other services easily enough. But it's not automatic and not the same thing as Photo Stream.
Photo Stream "works" on Windows PCs, by the way, though it's not integrated into an app as it is on the Mac and iOS. Instead, you can configure a folder for automatic uploads and one for automatic downloads. Hopefully, that's how you wanted to organize your photos.
Apple also built Photo Stream into Apple TV. It's pulling the photos from iCloud, since the current Apple TV has minimal storage. But that's a nice way of bringing the photos that matter most to you to the best screen in the house, and an obvious point of sharing. Here, we would have to turn to the Xbox 360, or perhaps one of the many Windows compatible digital media set top boxes in the market. Most of the latter support photo slideshows from online services (Flickr, etc.) as well as over the network. And the Xbox 360 of course can view and play slideshows from PCs on the home network using either Zune or folder shares. It also has an integrated Media Center Extender that provides a gorgeous photo viewing experience, assuming you have and have configured a Windows-based PC that's running Media Center. Is it as seamless as Apple TV + iCloud? No.
Game, set, match? Not quite. Because Apple's customers would quickly swamp the company's data centers with tons of photos, Apple is actually limiting this service so that it will only store photos from the most recent 30 days in the cloud. For this reason, it's not possible to use iCloud as a permanent cloud-based photo collection, which you could do with SkyDrive, Flickr, Google Picasasweb, and other solutions. So even though Apple's Photo Stream provides an elegant solution to a very real need, it doesn't support this other equally pressing need at all.
iTunes in the Cloud
As with apps and other items you buy on a device, Apple is providing a way to sync purchased music between devices and Macs and PCs. Likewise, iOS is being updated so that you can see a list of every single song you've ever purchased on the device and then manually trigger downloads of those you want to get again. This is fairly unique functionality, though again those who subscribe to Zune Pass on the PC can pretty easily move subscribed songs from device to device.
(Zune Pass also supports streaming music over the air to your Windows Phone, or to PCs via a web interface or the Zune PC software, a feature iCloud/iTunes lacks. Not just previews, whole songs, whole albums, whatever. Of course, Zune Pass is not free.)
The big feature here, however, isn't free either. For $24.99 a year, you can also essentially subscribe to a service called iTunes Match. (I say "essentially" because I bet many people just do this once.) What this does is address the needs of people who didn't get most of their music collection from Apple (i.e most of us). It also helps Apple not to worry about managing the uploads of millions of users' music collection to iCloud. So rather than let you upload your collection--as both Amazon Cloud Player and Google Music Beta do--Apple instead scans your music collection and then provides access to 256 Kbps AAC versions of all the tracks it can match against the voluminous iTunes online library.
Apple claims that this is superior to copying your own collection but I honestly think it's a wash. Contrary to Apple's claims, uploading your entire music collection doesn't take "weeks," it takes hours. (Mine is 25 GB big.) And you only have to do it once. And it will be your whole, actual collection.
So while there are no PC-based services that match (ahem) what iTunes Match offers, I don't think it matters much. And if you're a Zune Pass subscriber, you've got access to about 12 million songs at a cost of about $5 a month. ($15 per month - the 10 free MP3 downloads you get each month, worth $10 per month, comes out to $5 per month.) This is arguably a better deal for people who are actively discovering and buying new music.
Regardless of where you fall on this, it's nice to have choice.
OK, so what's the score here? Is iCloud really an unassailable force with no analog in the Windows world? I don't believe so, but let's look at it point by point.
Contacts. Hotmail and other services offer this for free too. This one is a toss-up.
Email. Hotmail and other services offer this for free too. Another toss-up.
Calendar. Hotmail and other services offer this for free too. Ditto: Toss-up.
App Store. Apple's Mac- and iOS-based App Stores are pretty unique, with excellent install rights and easy discoverability for previous purchased items. Apple wins this round pretty decisively, but there are already excellent app stores for Windows and Windows Phone.
iBooks. Apple's solution is a joke. You should use Kindle for eBooks and periodicals regardless of which computing and device platforms you use.
Backup. Microsoft once offered this kind of functionality but currently leaves Windows Phone users high and dry. Unless something changes with Mango, this one is a win for Apple.
Documents in the Cloud. Apple's solution is quite nice, but you'd have to really not be paying attention to not already be taking advantage of some kind of document/cloud/sync service. Tie.
Photo Stream. There are all kinds of ways to share photos from Windows or Windows Phone, but Apple's solution is simpler and more automatic than anything on the Microsoft side. Apple eeks out a win.
iTunes in the cloud. As far as I'm concerned, the PC side has you covered, and that's true whether you want to access your own music from the cloud (Amazon, Google) or subscribe to a service (Zune Pass, Rhapsody). I like what I see here in iCloud, but I give the win to the PC side.
So the final score, if I'm adding right, is 6 to 6, (where functional ties give a point to each side). But here's the thing. This isn't the old PC vs. Mac wars. And you don't have to choose one side over the other. In fact, you absolutely shouldn't do that. This exercise was really just about comparing what Apple's promising for iCloud vs. what's already available today on the PC. But the thing is, most of iCloud is coming to the PC too. And since many PC users are also iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad users, many PC users are going to want to partake in iCloud as well.
And there's nothing wrong with that.
From what I can tell at this early stage, iCloud is going to offer a decent set of consumer-oriented features and help usher in an age in which we--rightfully so--store the "master" copies of our data in the cloud, not on a single PC that could get stolen, suffer a hard drive failure, or otherwise be rendered suddenly useless. It doesn't go all the way--you'll still want cloud-based photo backup and, most likely true cloud-based document backup solutions, even if you do choose iCloud. Ultimately, iCloud is just one of many cloud services vying for your attention. You should feel free to mix and match as you like. I know I'll be doing so.