Apple opens iCloud to devs, what we know

By Jonny Evans

Apple [AAPL] has commenced its first public developer beta test for its new iCloud services, announced the first Web apps and set additional storage pricing for its much-improved cloud-based services suite.

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[ABOVE: Click on iCloud.com and this is what you'll find.]

Everything, everywhere Announced at WWDC 2011 in in June, iCloud replaces the Mobile Me service. This isn't the first Internet service from Apple. In the past it offered iTools in 2000, .Mac in 2002 and MobileMe in 2008. Apple last night switched on the iCloud.com domain, but only for developer members of MobileMe. The rest see what's in the picture above.

Behind the wall, you'll get access to online Web-app versions of the Mail, Contacts and Calendar and Find my iPhone apps.

What we know so far shows Apple has been thinking about what most of us use our computers for.

  • We probably use a Web browser, email, Twitter.
  • Many might keep a music and movies collection, we probably possess an address book and diary.
  • We create/read documents, spreadsheets, photos and presentations.

In various ways, these are just some of the features you can look forward to on any Apple device, thanks to iCloud.

[ABOVE: Just one of my favorites: Larry Ellison on the cloud, in 2009.)

Content treasurehouse

iCloud will offer cloud-based storage and access to our music, video, and photos, along with documents and much more. It will integrate tightly with enabled apps, including Numbers, Pages and Keynote on both Mac and iOS devices. Apple has added support for these apps within iCloud, though they only lead to splash pages at present.

The Web apps on offer are full-screen. Mail and Calendar look very like the version of the programs that ship with the Lion OS, though notification boxes come direct from iOS. You return to the main menu (which becomes akin to a virtual desktop) using a cloud icon on the top left of each application window.

In conjunction with the beta launch, Apple has published pages showing you round its new Web apps.

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[ABOVE: Mail becomes the same everywhere.]

Contacts, Calendar, and Mail

"iCloud stores your email, calendars, and contacts and automatically pushes them to all your devices. So you can switch from one device to another and still go about business as usual." When you set up mail you get a free me.com email account. Mail is then pushed to all of your devices; similarly, iCloud keeps your Calendar and Contacts detail up-to-date across all your devices, with a Web app available for those times you are without access to a device of your own.

Apps, Books, and Backup

"iCloud makes sure all your devices have the same apps. And books. iCloud also backs up your information. So if something happens, it can help save the day."

Apple has already made Apps available to all your devices via the 'Purchased' box within the iTunes Store. If an app you own isn't on your device, you can download it immediately for free. Your books will also be made available this way. All your devices will also be backed-up in the iCloud.

Documents in the cloud

"If you have the same app on more than one device, iCloud can automatically keep your documents up to date across all your devices. So you don't have to."

Developers will now be able to test their apps for iCloud support. At present only Apple's own apps will automatically sync with the cloud-based service, but this will change now the beta has opened up to permit developer testing, though the 64k data limit Apple is imposing on developers in terms of syncing across devices may limit some realizations, at least for the present.

Photo Stream

"With iCloud, when you take a photo on one device, it automatically appears on all your other devices. No syncing. No sending. Your photos are just there. Everywhere you want them."

Apple will make 1,000 of your own images available via Photo Stream. These images do not count against your data capacity limits (5GB in the free service).

[ABOVE: Tour the new features, c/o MacRumors.]

iTunes in the cloud

"With iCloud, the music you purchase in iTunes appears automatically on all your devices. You can also download your past iTunes purchases. Where you want, when you want."

Set to be available only in the US at first, pending licensing deals, the jewel in the crown of iCloud will be the $24.99/year iTunes Match feature which will allow users to store ripped songs, or songs that aren't bought from the iTunes store, without having to re-upload every song. This service will also act as a virtual 'amnesty' for file-sharers, and also presumably as a gateway into legitimate music services.

Music and TV shows will be available in this way.

In an Apple TV update released yesterday, Apple enabled on-demand downloading of previously-acquired TV shows to Apple TVs, which now boast an additional 'Purchased TV shows" (and Vimeo support). iTunes 11 will reportedly offer deep support for iCloud elements -- your level scores in games will be synced between devices, for example.

Pricing Apple also revealed the cost of the new service. As expected, the 5GB service is free, but if you need more data, you can pay for it. (NB: iCloud Photo Stream, iOS apps, music, and TV shows you buy from iTunes/the App Store do not count against your 5GB of free storage.)

Additional 10GB (15GB total): $20/annumAdditional 20GB (25GB total): $40/annumAdditional 50GB (55GB total): $100/annum
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Challenges and pitfalls

I've talked before about how bandwidth limitations (especially on mobile devices as carriers move to implement new data-capped usage policies worldwide) and data nationality (which territorial data protection laws protect your data when you upload it to Apple's US servers?) will act as limitations to the success of Apple's suite of cloud-based services.

While I still can't see a clear answer to the second part, Apple has made an elegant attempt to side-step some of the angst of the first: developers are limited to 64k of data for iCloud sync from their apps, while users only need to download those bits of data (music, movies, images) they want to download, and only when they want them, this is better than an 'everything all the time' implementation because while everything is available you don't need to download it unless you need it. Also because much of your data is hosted on the device itself, you don't need to constantly crash your carrier or ISP's servers. I'm less worried about security. Not only has Apple improved Mac OS security to a point far beyond the protection offered by Windows 7 (on which more another time), but it has also implemented Sandboxing for apps on the Mac and hired the services of some of the world's leading security experts, including PGP Corporation, Mr Jon Callas.

As far as I can ascertain, Apple has been putting some good minds to work on security for its devices, operating systems and online services for a good 18-months or so. Though obviously there will be challenges ahead, and a user's Apple ID -- now used for all manner of services -- is becoming the most valuable password most users have. (So change it occasionally, people). The opportunity Aside from offering Apple device and Mac users access to every bit of data they own, including all their most treasured musical and other content, Apple's move to vault into the Post PC space offers the firm huge oppportunity in developing markets. In Russia, for example, the market for fixed line telephony is small, for many, mobile telcos are the main telecommunications provider, and these networks are being improved for data access (albeit a little slowly). However, this is a pattern that's being repeated globally. Mobile telecommunications are seeing huge international deployments. By offering all these features across devices without need of a PC -- you don't even need a Mac to sign-up for an Apple ID, for example -- Apple is setting itself into a perfect position to offer its popular platform to enormous new markets. Markets already attracted by the Apple brand. Don't ignore the impact on developing markets

Some statistics published this morning by the ITU underscore the potential of mobile solutions at this time -- a potential Apple will doubtless unlock through provision of iCloud services, which turn its mobile devices into peer players to PCs.

  • At the end of 2010 -- while more than 2.6 billion people worldwide still lacked access to toilets or other forms of improved sanitation -- there were almost 4 billion mobile cellular subscriptions in the developing world.
  • Mobile cellular penetration in the developing world reached 70% at the end of 2010 -- just six years after reaching 70% in the developed world.
  • In 2002 there were just two countries in the world with mobile cellular penetration over 100% . Eight years later, almost 100 economies had mobile cellular penetration over 100% -- and 17 economies had penetration rates above 150%.
  • Global Internet user penetration reached 30% in 2010; Internet user penetration in developed countries reached 30% just nine years earlier, in 2001.
  • In the year 2000, Internet user penetration was under 1% in 72 economies. Ten years later, there were just 6 economies with Internet user penetration under 1%. Internet user penetration in the developing world as a whole reached 21% in 2010.
  • Global Internet penetration in 2010 (30%) was higher than global fixed (16%) or mobile (12%) telephone penetration in the year 2000.

This is the post-PC mobile opportunity which Apple, with its deeply-integrated hybrid offering comprising Macs, iOS devices, a content ecosystem as evinced by iTunes, and iCloud as the mesh to bind them all together, surely hopes to unlock. (And is also why Apple's growth story may barely have begun...)

The only question is what might Steve do next?

Will you be using iCloud? What do you need from the service? What apps would you like to see made available as Web apps, and how can you see the service evolve in future? What about bandwidth, how will you manage your usage? Let me know in comments below.

Please do follow me on Twitter so I can let you know when I post new reports here at Computerworld.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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