Apple's iCloud redefines the mobile -- and cloud -- experience

A patchwork of services and tools gets integrated so 'it just works,' Steve Jobs promises -- this move will change a lot

You have to hand it to Apple. When the company gets serious about something, it really creates a paradigm shift. Yesterday, Apple did it again with iCloud, the forthcoming cloud service that will debut this fall with iOS 5 (it's in partial beta now). The concept is very simple: Have all your devices sync automatically over the air, using the cloud as the intermediary. One account covers as many as 10 devices (including iPhones, iPads, iPod Touches, Macs, in some cases PCs, and in some cases Apple TVs), and it handles contacts, calendars, email, music, e-books, e-magazines, documents, photos, and even apps. Make a change or purchase on one device, all your devices have it. Have all your key data backed up automatically as well.

That simplicity is an Apple hallmark. What Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced at the WWDC (Worldwide Developers Conference) gets rid of the rat's nest of synchronization and the hodgepodge of cloud services that mobile users contend with today -- or it will once developers implement the supporting APIs into their Mac and iOS applications. (Apple's iOS 5 apps will be iCloud-savvy from the get-go. The revised iWork suite for iOS released last week already is.)

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You also won't need to worry about syncing to your computer to install an iOS update; that happens over the air. Your backup happens automatically when your device is in range of your Wi-Fi network, once a day. Your files are in one place -- iCloud -- and thus in all your places, so you don't have to worry about remembering to bring them or upload them to a service like Dropbox or Box.net.

That's how it will work: Apple basically becomes your core cloud services provider, offering the synchronization and storage of those files and resources that matter most to you as an individual. These services come at no charge -- ironically, taking Google's pricing strategy and adding the seamless integration Google doesn't provide -- if you're a citizen of Apple or at least gave an Apple "green card" on your PC.

For developers, this is great news, as they can have their apps work in this iCloud ecosystem along with Apple's iTunes, iWork suite, iPhoto, and so on. The free service will quickly get users on board, even though it is actually paid for from Apple's 30 percent cut on all media and apps they buy through its iTunes Store, iBookstore, iOS App Store, and Mac App Store -- the same model Amazon.com uses to provide free 3G delivery to its Kindle e-book readers, ironically. Of course it won't work with Google's Android devices, even if Google were to take advantage of Apple's APIs for iOS and Mac OS X users. (In his WWDC presentation, Jobs was very clear the only competitor he sees as worth worrying about is Android.)

What will be interesting is what iCloud does to cloud storage services like Box.net, Dropbox, Soonr, and SugarSync. If they become iCloud-enabled, they still have a role as (secured) sharing centers across users, such as for workgroups. So far, iCloud is only about sharing with yourself. But the primary role today of Dropbox, Box.net, et al. -- acting as a convenient file share for individuals on the go -- is not sustainable among the iOS crowd.

The walled garden -- or ecosystem, in Apple's case -- is an old strategy. Cable and satellite TV providers, the old America Online, and the phone carriers have long used it to trap customers. People usually rebel if they can, as AOL discovered and as the TV and telephony providers are trying to avoid happening to them. However, Apple has managed to make people want to become citizens of its ecosystem, so they don't feel trapped but rather embraced and coddled. In contrast, Android may be fairly open, but it's also a messy plot of land that requires active tending and whose denizens are often off-putting.

Don't be surprised if by 2012 the cloud to most people will be Apple's iCloud, and the passport to enter that "magical" land will be an iOS device. Will this reverse the Android trend? Perhaps not, but it will slow it down. More important to IT, iCloud will be a key venue for your productivity users. For developers, it'll be where the profitable customers reside.

If any company has a hope of figuring out a compelling alternative, it's Google. But the company's fixation on Web apps misses the key realization Apple has made: If the apps aren't in a supportive ecosystem, those apps' positives are undone by the difficult maneuvering through the surrounding terrain. Certainly Apple's iCloud, iOS, and Mac OS X Lion ecosystem won't be perfect, but it will be the destination of choice -- the Canada of computing, whereas Google is more like Mexico, a mix of grace and misery.

A few weeks ago, I asked in part jest whether mobile could rescue the cloud. It's now clear that Apple intends to redefine the consumer cloud in its own image, as an invisible helper rather than a destination. People will very likely be happy with the result.

This article, "Apple's iCloud redefines the mobile -- and cloud -- experience," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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