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Apple iCloud

In 2007, Apple released its first take at cloud computing, an intriguing service called MobileMe which apparently bombed with consumers. Certainly, MobileMe was a bit buggy out of the gate. But what most people don't realize is that Apple actually fixed the bugs and delivered a pretty excellent service for a few years there, one that really did follow-through on its original promise of bringing Microsoft Exchange capabilities to the masses.

This past year, then-Apple CEO Steve Jobs infamously dissed MobileMe during the introduction of the service's follow-up, iCloud. But as the laughter subsided, I became intrigued. It was immediately clear that iCloud would be a much bigger deal than MobileMe, more aggressive and offering far more functionality. And unlike MobileMe, iCloud would be free.

How you approach iCloud will depend on whether you're a glass-half-empty person or a glass-half-full type. The cynics in the audience will note that iCloud is yet another form of Apple lock-in and that it really only works, or works well, with Apple's devices and software. And while that's true, I find myself leaning far more to the less cynical side of the fence this time. And that's because iCloud mostly just works. Which is pretty fricking amazing when you consider how much it does.

This is an important distinction, and it doesn't just separate iCloud from its underperforming predecessor. It also separates iCloud from erstwhile competitors like Microsoft SkyDrive, DropBox, Amazon Cloud Player, or any other number of online services. Apple's iCloud is almost a superset of every other consumer-oriented cloud computing service on the market. It's pretty impressive.

What's going on here?

To understand why this is such a big deal, it will help to first establish what it is that Apple is trying to achieve with iCloud. Basically, it's an explicit admission by the company that the center of our computing lives has changed, from the PC to the cloud. (This is an admission Microsoft has made too, with Windows Phone and, more emphatically, with Windows 8.)

This change has occurred for a number of reasons. First is the complexity of managing a PC. (And for the purposes of this discussion, let's just agree that the Mac and PC are both PCs.) For you techy wunderkinds in the audience, that may seem like a non-issue, but the simple truth of the matter is that PCs really are complex for the majority of average consumers out there, or what we might generalize to "almost everyone."

PCs, of course, are multi-function devices that have adapted to changing market conditions for decades. They include almost infinite computing resources for any individual's needs, and can come with humongous displays, huge quantities of RAM, and terabytes of hard drive space. So they're useful, and they're not going anywhere. But they are also complex, and their components and software fail, and resuscitating a PC is a nasty and time-consuming task that often involves data loss.

So why not just store that data in the cloud and make it available from anywhere? Why tie such precious information to a single, complex, and failure-prone device?

By keeping the master copy of your data in the cloud--and by "data" we increasingly mean virtually any data, including documents, PC and device settings, apps, music, TV shows and movies, photos, whatever--we can treat the PC not as the center or totality of our computing experience but rather as a spoke, or end point for that data. This makes the PC a consumer of data, or a sync point. And in the scheme of things, it's no better or worse than other devices, which in Apple's case includes iPods, iPhones, and iPads. But now the cloud sits in the center, not a box.

In practical terms, this means that you don't manage, say, your contacts in Microsoft Outlook anymore. Now, you manage them in the cloud. You can still use Outlook--if you want to, God help you--to access those contacts, as you might when sending an email. But you could also use any other end-client to do this, assuming it's compatible with the cloud you're using. In iCloud terms, this could be a web mail client. It could be the Mail app on Mac OS X. It could be the Mail app on the iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch. Or it could be Outlook on a PC. And any time you change the underlying data--editing, adding, or deleting a contact, for example--it doesn't matter how or where you did it, that change will replicate near-instantly across all your devices. That's one big benefit of the cloud.

In the old way of doing things, Outlook sat, conceptually, at the center of your contacts management experience. And by "Outlook," I really mean, "a single copy of a software application tied to a single hard drive on a single PC." If the PC was stolen, the hard drive failed, or Outlook crashed, you could lose data. Perhaps all of your data. And getting that data onto other devices often meant physically tethering those devices to the PC or, in the case of PC-to-PC sync, setting up byzantine manual methods for backup and sync.

By storing data in the cloud, you ensure a few things. First, that data is not tied to a single PC or device, though it is still usable, as before, on the device(s) you prefer, and in exactly the same manner to which you are accustomed. Second, you are trusting Apple (in this case) to do a better job of safeguarding your data, using means that are beyond your capabilities, like geographically diverse data duplication. And third, you're fundamentally changing the way you do things: Combined with advances in the platforms you use, such things as resuscitating a dead PC or device becomes a lot easier because you don't have to worry--or at least can worry less--that the only copy of data was stored on that crashed PC or device. (That last bit currently works better for those iCloud users who are heavily Apple-centric, of course.)

Understanding and using iCloud

Obviously, iCloud is Apple's take on this brave new future. As a maker of platforms, Apple has integrated iCloud into its latest devices via the iOS 5 system software, in Mac OS X "Lion" via a new set of System Preferences, and on both through some very interesting apps and application interplay. On the PC, things are slightly less interesting and a heck of a lot less integrated. But as we'll see, you can install an iCloud control panel that provides some modicum of integration, and even at this reduced set of functionality, iCloud is pretty darned impressive.

(On that note, I am focusing on how iCloud works for Windows users here, and will only mention Mac-only features for completeness's sake.)

As with many other cloud computing services, iCloud provides some amount of cloud storage. In this case, it works out to 5 GB of free storage, and then Apple sells tiers of storage upgrades--10 GB of additional storage for $20 per year, 20 GB for $40, and 50 GB for $100--and a separate, $25-per-year, music-oriented service called iTunes Match I'll be examining much more closely in a bit.

I've not done a ton of testing with this, and I automatically forward all of my iCloud-based email to another account, but my guess is that the free, 5 GB version of the service will be enough for most people. In fact, I'm having a hard time understanding why anyone would need 20 GB or more of iCloud storage. (I currently have 4.19 GB free.)

Storage is nice, but let's face it, most consumers don't know what to do with it and most cloud storage schemes don't integrate well enough with the operating system or your most used applications to be useful. This is most decidedly not the case with iCloud, however, even more so if your daily computing experience is very Apple-biased.

Apple offers the following features as part of iCloud.

Mail, contacts, calendar, and tasks. Like MobileMe before it, iCloud offers excellent email, contacts, calendar, and tasks management services, or what we might call PIM (personal information management) services. These services look, work, and act largely as did MobileMe did before, which is to say quite well. You can access each from the web, using decent web-based clients, or on the PC via Microsoft Outlook. If you don't have Outlook and don't want it--I don't blame you for that--you can manually connect to the iCloud email service only using IMAP, but you'll lose contacts, calendar, and task integration of any kind.

As with all iCloud services, things get a lot more interesting if you use Apple devices like an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad. Here, you get deep integration with the iOS 5 Mail, Contacts/Phone, Calendar, and Reminders apps, specifically, as well as throughout iOS as makes sense. These services also integrate with the expected applications in Mac OS X Lion, of course.

Whichever combination of devices, applications, and apps you use, things work as expected. If you delete an email message or move it to another folder on, say, an iPod touch, those changes show up instantly everywhere else. And so on. It all works automatically, over the air, as you'd want.

Bookmarks. iCloud can sync bookmarks between some Windows web browsers--currently Internet Explorer or Safari--and Apple's mobile version of Safari (on iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad). This works as it did before via iTunes, but now it works wirelessly, over the air, as well. (Bookmarks sync works with Safari on Mac OS X, too.)

Notes. Windows users can't sync notes at all, but if you have iOS devices, you can sync notes between them and with the Mail app on Mac OS X.

Apps. iCloud keeps track of all of the iOS-based apps you've purchased through your Apple ID and makes them available for redownload and reinstallation at any time (for free) on all of your iOS-based devices (iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad). You can also configure your devices to automatically download new apps, so if you buy and download an app from iTunes on Windows, it will also be automatically installed on any device configured that way.

iBooks. Ditto for Apple's Kindle competitor: iOS device users can view their purchase history from any compatible device (again, iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad), redownload books (for free), and then sync in-book items like bookmarks, last place read, notes, and highlights automatically between any instances of that eBook. As with this Kindle, this lets you read a bit of a book on one device, say an iPad, and then pick up right where you left off on another, like an iPhone.

Backup. While Mac and PC users will still need a third party cloud backup solution for their primary computing devices, iCloud does offer free iOS device backup, and if you've wasted away hours of your life watching iTunes do this manually, you'll appreciate what a great feature this is. Just connect your iOS 5-based device to a Wi-Fi connection, and plug it in, and away it goes. (You can trigger backups manually, too, of course.)

Everything useful gets backed up. This includes your camera roll (the photos and videos you've taken with the device's camera), your accounts, documents, and settings, purchased content (apps and app data, videos, books), your home screen icon layout, messages (MMS/SMS and iMessage) and ring tones.

Documents. Via a feature called Documents in the Cloud, Apple automatically saves documents from its iWork applications on the Mac and iOS devices to iCloud and then replicates them across all devices, giving you an automatic, centralized way to access those documents. This is an incredibly useful and seamless feature, except that it has one crucial and debilitating problem: It only works with iWorks applications. These applications--Pages for word processing, Numbers for spreadsheets, and Keynote for presentations--are what Microsoft Office would look like if they were designed by Fisher Price. (Well, except for Keynote, which is actually pretty excellent if completely useless to most people.) That is, they are pretty and bright looking but immature and not full-featured. Nor are they compatible with anything else.

I sort of get why Apple would push its own platforms here--after all, SkyDrive works seamlessly with Microsoft Office documents, too, right?--but the reality is that this is an example of Apple's idealogy getting in the way of it doing the right thing for its customers. Regardless of your take on the supposed Microsoft vs. Apple thing, most Apple users--whether they use Macs or iOS devices--use Microsoft Office and could really use that compatibility.

That said, the neat thing here is that Apple has built deep iCloud integration into specific applications on both Mac OS X and iOS 5. And it's truly useful, assuming you use these apps.

For Windows users, ultimately, Documents in the Cloud is a non-feature. There's nothing you can do with it, and if you visit the iWork component of from a PC-based web browser, all you're going to see is promotional material for iWork for iOS ... Unless you use Safari. In which case you can see the documents you've created and then download them in PDF format. Basically, it's a non-event, at least for now. (Developers are free to build this functionality into their own applications. So Microsoft could do this for Mac Office and, hopefully, for a future iOS-based Office too.)

iCloud's simple web interface

Photos. iCloud's Photo Stream feature is truly cool, and a key piece in the iOS 5 "PC free" strategy. Basically, any photo taken on any of your iOS 5 devices can (if configured that way) automatically appear on your other devices, and on your Macs and/or PCs. This is useful for a number of reasons. The big one for me is that it means that all the photos I take from the iPhone will appear on my PC automatically, and, as it turns out, pretty immediately. So there's almost never a need to tether the iPhone to the PC anymore. Excellent.

Of course, it's not perfect. There's currently a bug where pictures you take using the Volume Up button as a shutter button come out upside down. And photos aren't named nicely, as they would be if you manually imported them with Windows Photo Gallery; so you get file names like "IMG_0003" instead of "Kelly's 10th birthday 003". Also, on Windows at least, there's not much you can do about the photo locations: Apple creates a folder called Photo Stream in the My Pictures folder, and then subfolders called My Photo Stream and Uploads. Anything placed in Uploads goes into your Photo Stream, of course.

Photo Stream can also be used for slideshows. If you have an Apple TV--and, again, part of the strategy here is that you will since you get a better experience with more and more Apple devices--you can display them on your HDTV. In fact, it's possible to do so "live" at a party, where pictures from that party would appear soon after they're taken. Weird, but you know someone's doing it.

Since iPhone users take a ton of photos and iCloud storage isn't unlimited, Apple has instituted some interesting rules for Photo Stream. Photos are only stored in the Photo Stream for 30 days, so you'll still need to do some manual backing up of some kind. (They're not removed from the device[s] unless you do that, however.) And Apple will only sync 1000 photos to iOS devices, because of the limited storage on those products. (PCs and Macs can store as many as you take.)

I wish there was an optional way to auto-name pictures based on location and the date. But this feature works pretty well, even on Windows PCs, and I like being able to download photos from the phone without any futzing around with cables. You will still probably want to spend some time organizing them manually later, as I find myself doing.

Music. Given Apple's history with iTunes, it should come as no surprise that iCloud is tied to the company's dominant music store via a feature called called iTunes in the Cloud. This feature exposes all of the music you've ever purchased via iTunes (and every TV show, too, though not movies) in the iTunes (Store) app on iOS and via iTunes in Windows. This means you can easily (and freely) redownload previously purchased content at any time. (And hopefully, movies will be part of the deal at some point too.)

And that's what you get for free. But as Steve Jobs used to say, but wait. There's one more thing.

iTunes Match: The icing on the cake

The iTunes in the Cloud feature works well if you've somehow managed to purchase all of your music from iTunes. But what about the rest of us normal people? We've ripped music from CDs for years at varying degrees of quality. We've purchased music from other services like Amazon MP3 and Zune. And, what the heck, maybe we even dabbled in questionably legal music services of the past like Napster and Limewire. We were all young once, right?

For the rest of us, and for those who feel guilty about the indiscretions of youth and wish to go legit, Apple offers a way out. It's called iTunes Match. And while it's not without a few issues, it works really, really well. It does cost $25 a year, however. As I'll explain, that's a fair price.

Here's how iTunes Match works. Once you've enabled (and paid for) the service, it will scan your iTunes music collection and compare it against the 19+ million songs in the iTunes Store. This process can take a while, depending on the size of your collection of course, but also on the quality of that collection, since poorly kept song meta data will require more work. For most people, Apple will already own most of the music in your collection, so the company will simply make available to you its nicely-formatted, high quality versions via iTunes. These are consistent, 256 Kbps AAC files, with no DRM. Very nice.

For the rest of your collection, Apple will upload the music files and album art to its servers so it can make those songs available to you from any number of PCs and devices too. And from that point on--until you cancel the annual subscription--your entire music collection will be available for download, from any compatible device (PC, Mac, iPhone, iPod touch, iPad), at any time. (Assuming you have an Internet connection, of course.) You can grab individual songs, playlists, albums, every song from a certain artist, or whatever.

When you do download music from your collection to another PC, what you get is that near-perfect AAC version, not the song in whatever format you may have originally used. This means that it's possible to use iTunes Match just once to replicate your low-quality, dubiously obtained music in pristine AAC format, simply by signing on with a second PC and downloading it all. And I've done that, just to make sure it works. It does.

But here's the thing. I intend to keep my iTunes Match subscription active, and I suspect that many users of iOS devices will as well. And that's because it's just too darned convenient not to have this service available. I don't want to ever manually manage my music collection on one PC, and thanks to iTunes Match, now I won't need to. And going forward, I can simply sync music directly to my devices from the cloud. Very nice.

iTunes Match

Now, iTunes Match isn't perfect. It won't sync smart playlists that are made purely from other playlists, for example. I've seen the occasional song that won't download for some reason. It's overwritten some of my album art, which I don't want. And I've seen music I never previously purchased from iTunes magically appear in my collection for some reason. But this isn't MobileMe all over again. The problems I've seen are small and the utility of this thing vastly outweighs the issues. It's not even close.

A recap for Windows users

OK, so that's iCloud. But let's just step back for a moment and recap how well this works for the majority of us in the Windows world. As noted previously, Apple tends to stack the deck so that its own platforms are better represented, and it's not hard to imagine that iCloud works great for Mac users but not so well on PCs.

Fortunately, that's not the case. Yes, some things do work better on the Mac.  There's a Find My Mac feature, similar to Find My Phone on iPhone, a Back To My Mac feature that lets you remotely access Mac-based documents and files, and that iWork document sync functionality. But the core bits of iCloud are really tied to iOS devices, not to the Mac. And that means they're generally equally available to those of us in the Windows world. (Remember, the vast majority of iOS device users are also Windows users.)

On a Windows PC, you can use the iCloud control panel to configure certain PC-based features, including Mail, Contacts, Calendar and Tasks synchronization (but only with Outlook 2007 and 2010), Bookmarks sync with IE or Safari, and Photo Stream. This control panel also provides you with a way to view your iCloud storage usage so you can determine whether you need to buy into a paid storage tier. It's not pretty, but it works fine for what it is, and most people will configure it once and forget it ever exists.

iCloud control panel for Windows

A short note about accounts

And as with other cloud computing services, iCloud requires a centralized logon, which in this case is your Apple ID, the same ID you use to make purchases on iTunes. (Think Zune, Xbox LIVE, or Windows Live, all of which require a Windows Live ID, as the Microsoft equivalent.) There are two types of Apple IDs, those which can use iCloud email--typically but not always ** email addresses--and those that can't. (So if you use your Gmail address for iTunes, you can use that for iCloud too, but you won't be able to use iCloud's email service with it.)

Complicating matters, you can also use one Apple ID for iTunes and a second ID for iCloud. You may do this if you do want to access iCloud's email service but you've been using an incompatible email address for iTunes for a while. I actually do this myself, but rather than get into the complexities of this scenario, just check out Apple's support article about using two Apple IDs.

How Microsoft stacks up

The other day, Microsoft published a strange blog post in which the company promised dramatic but vague changes that it would implement in the coming year to SkyDrive, its cloud computing service for consumers. I have no doubt that that post was triggered by an internal review of Apple's iCloud and that the software giant recognizes, suddenly, how far behind it is in delivering something truly pervasive and useful for this key demographic.

What separates iCloud from other less compelling services, and from the various disconnected services Microsoft offers, I think, is its deep integration with the devices so many people already use. If you use one or more iOS devices with a PC or Mac, it's pretty much a no brainer, and an excellent example of the hybrid nature of modern software, where on-device (or on-PC) software is made all the more useful by hooks into cloud-based data and storage.

Consider how this stuff doesn't work in Windows today. Yes, you can store documents in the cloud with SkyDrive, and, yes, you can sync documents from PC to PC, and from PC to the cloud, with Mesh. But these two services don't integrate together, and you can't access Mesh-synced documents from SkyDrive's Office Web Apps. Doh!

And that's just the surface, of course. Microsoft only offers a small portion of iCloud functionality and very little of its integration. Here's how it breaks down.

Mail, contacts, calendar, and tasks. Microsoft does offer excellent mail, contacts, calendar, and tasks integration through Hotmail, check.

Bookmarks. You can sync IE bookmarks (only) with Mesh.

Notes. You can sync notes via the OneNote Web App in SkyDrive's Office Web Apps, and that actually does work very well.

Apps. On the mobile app front, Microsoft did just add app redownload and a web-only purchase history for Windows Phone, so that's getting there. (There's also a hard-to-find place to do this in the Zune PC software.)

Books. There's no Microsoft eBooks equivalent, but let's just say that Kindle is the superior platform and works better than iBooks anyway and leave it at that.

Backup is a bit of an issue. There's no Windows Phone equivalent to iCloud Backup, though oddly enough Windows Mobile users used to have such a thing via the now-defunct MyPhone services. I expect some changes there in the coming year, but it's a hole. And certain Office Web Apps is superior to Documents in the Cloud, because of the free web-based Office apps and, as crucially, compatibility with the document types people really use. That said, the weird incompatibilities between Mesh and SkyDrive makes Microsoft's document sharing solutions less than integrated.

Photos. On the photo front, Microsoft offers Mesh for PC to PC sync, and on Windows Phone you can optionally choose to automatically sync all phone-taken photos to SkyDrive, but these photos are not in the original size or quality. And that stinks.

Music. Microsoft's music offering, Zune, doesn't stack up directly against iTunes and iCloud. There's no way to go back and re-download previously-purchased content from a device, for example, though you can do this from the Zune PC client and can stream any purchased TV shows and movies. And of course for a fee you can subscribe to Zune Pass, which is useful for music lovers but only works on PCs and Windows Phones. There's certainly nothing like iTunes Match available on the PC side.

If you're keeping score, Apple is outdoing Microsoft by a considerable margin, and that's true even before you factor in the relative popularity of the company's respective mobile platforms and how that may affect consumer decision making. Put simply, even Microsoft-centric types may choose iCloud simply because it works and works well with the iOS device(s) they use with Windows. Certainly, I'll be doing so.

Final thoughts

As it has so often in the past, Apple is now showing the rest of the industry how it's done with cloud computing. This is interesting, and somewhat amazing, given Apple's relatively late entry into this market. But by sitting on the sidelines and watching others fumble around with cloud-based storage schemes and other middling services, Apple has been able to plot and plan and create something truly useful and integrated.

If you use an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, iCloud is an absolute no-brainer, and that's true whether you're a Windows guy or a Mac user. It works seamlessly and automatically, provides access to most of the content, services, and features real people will really want, and its core features are all absolutely free. Music lovers should also check out iTunes Match, which at just $25 per year is a bargain in its own right.

I suspect that the sudden success of iCloud will cause a lot of changes in Redmond and elsewhere. Just like the old days, I guess. But for now, iCloud is the best consumer-oriented cloud computing service I've ever seen, and unlike the awfulness of iTunes on Windows, this is an Apple product I'm happy to use going forward. It's so good it almost makes up for iTunes, in fact. Well, almost.

Using iCloud doesn't prevent me or anyone else from using Microsoft's services, of course. I'll still use Outlook Web App for email, the Office Web Apps on SkyDrive, and Mesh for PC to PC sync. Those are all, not coincidentally, work/productivity services, not consumer/entertainment services. Maybe the old adage about these companies is true after all, and Microsoft should stick to what it does best, leaving Apple to do the same.

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