WWDC: Why this year is different

For one thing, Apple's already announced what's coming: iCloud, Lion and iOS 5

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Of course, that raises the question about music that didn't come from the iTunes Store -- songs that you ripped from your CD collection, acquired from other music stores, recorded yourself, or got from other legitimate sources. The labels probably won't let Apple stream those titles. Apple could let you upload them to a locker for streaming, or stream them directly from your Mac or PC using your home's Internet connection.

I'm guessing it'll be the latter, because I think the labels might object to the former and because a recent Apple patent essentially describes a system for streaming from Apple servers and your home computer.

That patent also includes a "partial sync" feature that indicates that iOS devices could gain the ability to sync some tracks to the device (for playback with no Internet connection) and stream the rest. That would be a great for iPod Touch or Wi-Fi iPad users.

Whether the streaming features of iTunes/iCloud will eventually extend to movies and TV shows that are stored in your library isn't clear. Apple has licensed streaming rentals for the second-generation Apple TV, but streaming purchases is likely to be a rather different matter and will likely require Apple to get the kind of buy-in from networks and studios that it has from the recording labels.

Not just about music

All the iCloud hype has focused on music, but I'll bet money that it offers much broader features -- and not just because of the details listed in Apple's European trademark application for iCloud. It will almost certainly include the feature set of Apple's MobileMe service: push email and wireless sync of calendar and contacts for iOS devices, the ability to sync a large range of settings and data among multiple Macs, and Apple's existing iDisk storage feature.

Most of the value of MobileMe has been superseded by free services like Dropbox, Google Docs, contacts and calendar sync with GMail and Yahoo Mail, Flickr, Picasa, YouTube and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter. If Apple doesn't integrate and significantly improve on the MobileMe feature set, I'll be shocked.

Then there's the long-languishing iWork.com. Launched with iWork '09, the service allows you to publish iWork documents to the Web. It has the somewhat nifty feature of allowing others to view the files online or download them in iWork, Office or PDF formats, and it allows others to comment on documents. When I reviewed the service in 2009, I admired its ease of export and overall interface, but even then it seemed anemic as a cloud service because it didn't support online editing by the original author, let alone any real collaboration.

I think it's almost certain that Apple will bring MobileMe and iWork.com together, merging them into an online storage and document collaboration service that supports multiple users and multiuser online editing.

The current version of the MobileMe website includes tools that are practically identical to Mail, iCal and Address Book on a Mac. It's easy to picture Apple doing the same thing with the iWork apps. The resulting service could offer a better user experience than Google Docs and integrate seamlessly with iWork on a Mac or iOS device. (This may be one reason Apple made the iWork apps compatible with the iPhone/iPod Touch this week.) And it would be useful for consumers and small businesses, Apple's core markets.

Parts of MobileMe might, however, disappear completely. The Galleries feature and much of the iWeb website features have largely been left in the dust as users turn to social networks to share photos, videos and other digital tidbits. And Apple's Ping social network could evolve into something less music-specific or perhaps integrate with popular services like Twitter or Facebook.

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