iCloud is a bigger deal than the new iPhone

All eyes will be on hardware, but it's the invisible stuff in the background that matters

Apple's big iPhone event later today has naturally generated a retinue of rumors, almost all them focused on hardware. Will Apple announce one new iPhone or two? Will the next-generation device retain the basic iPhone 4 shape and design? What about the prospect for voice-activated assistance software?

This much we know: The new iPhone will run the next version of Apple's mobile operating system, iOS 5, which Apple is expected to release any day now in tandem with the new hardware. Developers have been working with iOS 5 since it was unveiled in June at the Worldwide Developers Conference, updating their apps and integrating some 200 new features. Most users who update will almost certainly appreciate updated notifications, location-based reminders and Twitter integration.

Cutting the cord

However, the biggest news today won't be the iPhone, or even most features new to iOS 5. It's the arrival of cord-cutting technologies like wireless iTunes syncing, over-the-air system software updates, and most importantly, iCloud, which will allow iPhones (and iPads) to finally stand as independent computing devices.

Put simply, iCloud is a collection of services that will back up your data to Apple's servers automatically. Every picture you shoot, every document you create, every point you score, all your bookmarks and contacts, every song or movie you buy, every ring tone, text messages and even the layout of your home screen get backed up to Apple's servers.

Even better? iCloud scales. If you have other devices, iCloud makes sure those devices receive your data, too, without you having to lift a finger. It's invisible.

Internet everywhere

We live in an age of the perpetual Internet connection. With Wi-Fi, wired networks and advanced cellular data networks, we live in a time where -- unlike the old dial-up days -- persistent connections are increasingly vital to our daily lives. On devices like the iPhone, Internet access isn't optional -- users have to have at least a minimal data plan. And that ubiquitous connection is what makes the iPhone and iPad so appealing. It's perpetual, always with you wherever you are. Post-PC devices like the iPhone don't just work better because of the Internet; they absolutely need the Internet to function.

Much of the functionality we're accustomed to on our computing devices these days is based on the assumption of a perpetual online connection, with entire industries popping up to offer Internet-based apps, storage and interaction. But those services -- I'm thinking of Facebook, Google Docs, or DropBox -- work differently than iCloud. They require an active approach to being online. You have to install Drop Box, or actually go to Google's sites to use the apps, or log on to FaceBook to post an update. In other words, you must go out of your way to use those services.

With iCloud, everything happens in the background.

Devices running iOS 5 automatically back up when they're plugged in and not in use. Photos taken throughout the day are uploaded to your Photo Stream, where they are synced to your other devices, kept permanently on your computer, and stored for 30 days on Apple's Photo Stream servers. Bookmarks, contacts, the last page you read in your current book -- every bit and byte of data -- is also automatically backed up and shared with your other devices.

MobileMe and Google users may not be initially impressed. While MobileMe subscribers have been able to sync much of their data to and from their computers and phones for years, they also had to pay $99 a year for the service. Google users pay nothing, but have comparatively limited data syncing abilities.

iCloud, which will replace MobileMe, is also free (for the first five gigabytes, not including photos or iTunes purchases). And, working in concert with iOS 5, it makes it possible for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch owners to truly cut the cord.

Why iCloud matters

The arrival of iOS 5 and iCloud means that any of those devices could conceivably serve as your only computer. Out of the box, a setup assistant similar to the one used in Mac OS X 10.7 "Lion" appears on the screen, walking a user through basic questions such as the iCloud user name and password, and whether Location Services should be enabled.

You can set up the new device using an iCloud backup right from the initial setup assistant. And instead of just copying over your contacts, calendars and email, iCloud restores include every bit of data stored on your old device.

Why is this important? User experience and reliability.

You know how every IT guy says you should have backups of your computer? Just like Time Machine on the Mac, Apple's backup service will provide a permanent safety net. But iCloud goes beyond Time Machine because it's completely automatic. Whenever your device is plugged in and connected to wireless -- like when you plug your phone in to charge it up overnight -- a backup will automatically begin.

This opens up the iPhone and iPad to would-be buyers who couldn't, or wouldn't, purchase because you also needed a computer running iTunes to sync it with. Not everyone can afford several computing devices.

There's also the audience that feels computing is too hard. The iPhone has always been about ease of use, which made Apple's methods of getting data such as documents and photos on and off through iTunes surprisingly convoluted. By making photos and document sharing automatic, Apple is effectively making access to the file system obsolete. (Techies might not like what Apple has done for the opposite reason: They want access to the file system and don't want to see it go away.)

Apple is making computing easier, reaching out to those who couldn't be bothered with manual document management. As blasphemous as this sounds to many geeks, most people don't care how or why computers behave as they do; they just care about their data. With iCloud, automatic sync and backup will provide a safety net that users won't even realize is there.

Reliability is key

This should improve a device's reliability. Accidents happen. Devices break. The first time someone drops a phone and has to get a replacement the importance of iCloud will be obvious. You'll get a replacement, put in your iCloud user name and password and as soon as your data is pulled onto the device, you'll be back up and running.

While these features may not be entirely unique, they augment Apple's already successful product vision. iTunes is the most popular store for digital media; the Mac App Store has the best quality apps. The iPhone is already a standards-setting device. And now iCloud arrives to help tie the various parts together.

One cautionary note, and it's something almost everyone familiar with Apple's plans will be watching: iCloud needs to be as reliable as electricity. You don't plug something into a power outlet and hope for electricity; you plug something in and expect power. With iCloud now responsible for shifting around all of our data, Apple's technology has to work right, right from the start.

Data everywhere

Keep that in mind as Apple CEO Tim Cook parades across the stage in Cupertino. The new hardware will be nice, software improvements are always welcome, but the big deal is iCloud. Designers say it's difficult to make anything look easy; iCloud is not only easy, it's invisible. Most users will never notice it on a day-to-day basis, but they'll appreciate it when they no longer have to ask: Which device did I take that picture on? Where did I save that document? How do I get all my digital stuff onto my new iPhone?

With iCloud, it won't matter. Your data will be there when you need it, where you need it. And from Apple's perspective, that's the ball game.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is an award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter (@mdeagonia).

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