Perhaps you see Apple [AAPL] CEO Steve Jobs sitting somewhere muttering the mantra, "One cloud to rule them all." Perhaps you prefer to see him as a wizard, raising the warriors of the West. Whatever your preference, Apple today introduced iCloud -- the most eagerly-awaited set of online services the world's seen yet. Really. This was so important Jobs took time out from his extended medical absence to tell the world about the next evolution of Apple's connected device plans.
[ABOVE: Your iCloud rains your data to all your devices and Macs.]
Why you'll dance on the Apple cloud
"Now if you don't think we're serious about this, you're wrong. This is our third data center that we just completed. This is what it looks like. It's rather large. It's as eco friendly as you can make a data center. Just to give you a feel for it's size, see the dots on the roof? Those are people. And it's full of stuff. Full of expensive stuff. And we're ready for our customers to start using iCloud," said Jobs, wrapping up his announcements.
Apple says its new suite of free cloud services will work seamlessly with applications on your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Mac or PC to: "Automatically and wirelessly store your content in iCloud and automatically and wirelessly push it to all your devices. When anything changes on one of your devices, all of your devices are wirelessly updated almost instantly."
"Today it is a real hassle and very frustrating to keep all your information and content up-to-date across all your devices," said Jobs. "iCloud keeps your important information and content up to date across all your devices. All of this happens automatically and wirelessly, and because it's integrated into our apps you don't even need to think about it -- it all just works."
It just works
As expected, a central element of iCloud is the ability to ensure your purchased iTunes music is available across all your devices and computers. The implementation lets you download your previously purchased iTunes music to all your iOS devices at no additional cost, and new music purchases can be downloaded automatically to all your devices.
"It shows the history of all the songs you've bought on any device. I can download any song to any device by pushing that little cloud button," explained Jobs.
In other words, you now get multiple downloads to different devices for no charge.
[ABOVE: Apple's keynote video is now available to view -- just click on the image above to watch the thing.]
File-sharing amnesty costs $24.99/year
But here's the clever bit: Apple and the labels have indeed figured out a way to make a little cash from all those ripped CDs and file-shared tracks, and this is called, iTunes Match.
This service replaces your music with a 256 kbps AAC DRM-free version if it can match it to the over 18 million songs sold in the iTunes Store -- and, of course, won't if it can't find a match. This service won't launch until autumn and costs $24.99 in the US (no news on Europe). A free beta version of iTunes in the Cloud is available now.
The free iCloud services also integrate all the former (active) MobileMe services, including Contacts, Calendar and Mail. These have been completely rebuilt to work seamlessly with iCloud. In a poke at Gmail, Apple reminded us that its mail service is ad-free. You can also share calendars with friends and family, while your inbox and mailboxes are kept up-to-date across all your iOS devices and computers.
Apple's existing MobileMe customers have been paying good money on an annual basis for access to the service. However, Apple has revealed how existing MobileMe users will be treated, now those features they have been paying for have been made available for free in this tech support article.
Apple's iCloud vision also kicks Kindle, for example, App Store and iBookstore now download purchased iOS apps and books to all your devices, not just the device they were purchased on. You can also see your purchase history and, a really welcome move, you can download any apps and books to up to 10 additional iOS devices for free.
All your data, everywhere (almost)
Now to my favorite element, the evolution of the data everywhere dream. Apple being Apple, this hasn't quite worked out as I expected, at least, not yet -- there's work to do. At WWDC, the company told developers it needs them implement iCloud Storage APIs within their apps for this cloud to grow even better. From the Apple press release, which explains this quite well:
"iCloud Storage seamlessly stores all documents created using iCloud Storage APIs, and automatically pushes them to all your devices. When you change a document on any device, iCloud automatically pushes the changes to all your devices. Apple's Pages, Numbers and Keynote apps already take advantage of iCloud Storage. Users get up to 5GB of free storage for their mail, documents and backupwhich is more amazing since the storage for music, apps and books purchased from Apple, and the storage required by Photo Stream doesn't count towards this 5GB total. Users will be able to buy even more storage, with details announced when iCloud ships this fall."
In other words, if you create a Pages (or Keynote, or Numbers) document on any device, the document is uploaded automatically to the cloud, then pushed to all the devices you have Pages installed on. Twin that with Versions (from Lion) and you'll be able to drift around seamlessly working on a document from your choice of device, presumably including the Mac.
The thin client Mac
"We've been working for 10 years to get rid of the file system," said Jobs. "When you try and teach someone to use a Mac, everything is fine, until you show them the file system. On iOS, you don't have to think about it. But how do you move those documents around? Now you can."
Another feature, iCloud Backup, automatically and securely backs up your iOS devices to iCloud daily over Wi-Fi when you recharge your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch.
That's stuff like music, apps, books, photos and videos, along with device settings and any relevant app data. If you get a new iOS device, all you need to do is log in using your Apple ID and all your apps, music and everything else will be updated to your new device, automatically, over the iCloud.
"We've added wireless backup to the cloud. Once daily, we're gonna back up a lot of your important content to the cloud. If you ever get a new phone, everything will be loaded onto that phone automatically," said Jobs.
There's another feature, called Photo Stream. This automatically uploads the photos you take or import on any of your devices and wirelessly pushes them to all your devices and computers, including your Apple TV.
For developers, the iCloud beta and Cloud Storage APIs are available immediately to iOS and Mac Developer Program members at developer.apple.com. iCloud will be available this fall when iOS 5 also ships. You'll get 5GB of space for Mail, Document Storage and Backup. Purchased music, apps, books and Photo Stream don't count as part of the 5GB limit.
Part of a multi-page report:
On page 2: "WWDC: Apple's iOS 5 eats RIM, gets 'Post-PC' updated"
On page 3: "WWDC: Apple's Mac OS Lion will cost $29.99, more"
What are your thoughts on iCloud? Is it tempting you already, or can you live without its pervasively connected vision? Let us know in comments below. I'd also very much like to invite you to follow me on Twitter so I can let you know when I post new reports here first on Computerworld.