As part of Monday, June 6th’s, keynote address at its World-Wide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco, Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the company’s new cloud service, iCloud (shockingly named, I know). Tech pundits immediately predicted dire consequences for competing services such as Amazon’s Cloud Drive and Google’s still-in-beta music service, even though the public launch of iCloud is still months away (it will most likely go live in September, when the Internet rumor farm has predicted the iPhone 5 (or 4S, depending on to whom you listen) is expected to launch, along with iOS 5 and Lion).
Apple isn’t the first company to offer free cloud storage and apps for consumers, so what is it about iCloud that causes many observers to hold it in such high esteem? First of all, it’s an Apple product. Even though Apple’s cloud-esque MobileMe service flopped (even Jobs make a crack about it during the keynote), Apple still has unrivaled clout in terms of innovation. After all, this is the company that essentially resurrected itself from obscurity with the iPod, iTunes, iPhone, and (later) iPad, all of which now command the largest shares of their respective markets.
Secondly, it addresses a growing consumer need—namely, that people want a simple way to listen to their music collection anywhere, whether that music was purchased from an online store (such as iTunes or Amazon’s MP3 store) or ripped from a CD. Most other cloud providers, wary of incurring the wrath of the RIAA (remember what happened to mp3.com when they tried something similar?), have shied away from music and focused mostly on document and photo storage. Having all but abandoned the one-device-to-store-everything model of the 160GB iPod Classic in favor of faster, flash-memory based devices like the iPod Touch and iPhone, iCloud addresses the limited storage capacity of these devices by acting as a sort of jukebox in the sky accessible from anywhere one has an Internet connection. iCloud not only stores all your music purchased through the iTunes store, but (for $25/year) will scan your library, pull matching copies of your songs from iTunes, and place those copies in your iCloud account. For tracks that iTunes cannot find a match, such as live versions, bootlegs, or the AC/DC catalog, you’ll have the option to upload them.
This is an important distinction from both Amazon and Google’s services, which require you to upload any tracks not digitally purchased to their servers (a process that could takes weeks or even months since the vast majority of broadband users have very slow upstream connection speeds). Which brings us to one of iCloud’s possible stumbling blocks: Bandwidth. Downloading song-sized files (usually in the 2-6MB range) is fine using Wi-Fi, but doing so over a 3G connection on an iPhone or iPad is often maddeningly slow, as anyone who’s ever tried to listen to Pandora over 3G can attest. Once millions of iPhone users begin downloading music en masse from iCloud, AT&T’s network might very well grind to a halt. Apple/AT&T already requires that users update apps over a few MBs in size over a Wi-Fi connection so as not to bog down the network. Even Verizon’s 4G network is only marginally faster in terms of real-world performance, though the company is in a better position to add capacity than AT&T. For iCloud to truly live up to its potential, Apple will need to address the mobile broadband issue.
Another issue that has yet to come to light is what kind of deal Apple has inked with the record companies, who up until now have clung to the notion that purchasing a song doesn’t entitle one to stream it to oneself over the Internet (note Jobs referred to the delivery of music as “downloading,” not “streaming”). However, having steered billions upon billions of dollars into the pockets of the foundering record industry over the last several years via iTunes, Apple is in a position to demand concessions from the record companies that even Amazon and Google can’t match. Whether and what kind of restriction there might be for consumers remains to be seen. In addition to music, iCloud will also keep your documents, email, and photo albums synced, though these features have been around in one form or another for a while now.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that iCloud, at least in the form presented last Monday, is targeted squarely at consumers. It will have limited benefit for businesses, which makes sense since Apple is, apart from a handful of really cool apps for creative pros, a consumer-focused company. To harness the power of the cloud for business, you’ll be much better off with a service like CMIT Anywhere. And just in case you’re wondering where Apple plans to keep all that iCloud data, see the video below.