The introduction of iTunes Cloud is what's known as an inflection point. It's beyond the "post-PC" era Steve Jobs described in his last major public appearance and rolls aggressively forward towards a full-scale demotion of PCs and laptops from centerpieces of our digital lives to things we think of as simple "devices."
While Apple didn't fully adopt my vision of the end of content ownership, the company has unshackled much of it from the confines of a single device. With iCloud and, especially iTunes Cloud, Apple's finally acknowledged that it does know who you are and what you own. Apple's cloud strategy will very likely be the thing that takes the cloud from a fuzzy concept to something real, concrete, and desirable.
Apple's cloud covers a lot. It's like a blanket over every part of your digital life, encompassing photos, documents, email, contacts, schedules, and, of course, music. Suddenly, the Apple ecosystem—which used to comprise a piece of hardware, the iTunes software, the App Store, and content—now includes all of your Apple content-consumption hardware. If you're logged into any of them, your experience should be the same.
Google's plan is similar. One account, many gadgets, a ubiquity of content access. But Google has stumbled badly on the music front. Major music labels are not working with the company and Google's music locker is just a place to upload DRM-free music you own. You can't buy major label music in the Google cloud and play it from there or download it to all of your Android or Chrome devices.
Buying music once and using it virtually everywhere is cool, and I'm honestly astounded that Apple has apparently gotten all its music partners to agree to let iTunes members have the same music collection across up to 10 devices. The bigger news, though, was Steve Jobs' famous "one more thing" reveal at WWDC.Now iTunes Match will take all that music you ripped off your old CD collection and match it up with Apple's 256kb, AAC, DRM-free music.
That sounds like a pretty smart, straight-forward idea, but if you stop and think about what Apple just did, you'll realize it's huge. With iTunes Match, Apple somehow convinced all the music labels to waive fees for any copy of ripped music Apple deems to be an iTunes match. It did this, I think, by getting enough money from consumers upfront that music industry partners will still get their cash.
So iTunes customers who want Match pay $24.99 a year. This is more or less a music subscription fee. You rip as much music as you want (or own) and Apple gives you fresh files for whatever it can match from its own library. Once you've done this, you own that music forever. No other rival with a music delivery system, not Amazon, not Google, not Microsoft had the clout to pull this off.
How Apple convinced its music partners that this was a good idea—which it is—I'll never know, but I would've loved to have been a fly on the wall during the negotiations.
Apple is not inventing anything here. Cloud-based services are everywhere. Google's been doing it longer and Microsoft has spent millions trying to educate consumers on the concept. I like Google's cloud services and use them. Microsoft's marketing efforts have, more than any other, made consumers ask the question: "Do I need the cloud?" Unfortunately, I'm not sure any of these efforts have helped them better understand the cloud.
By marrying cloud services to virtually all of its most widely used services and making most of it free, I think Apple does the best job of educating consumers. When they think about iCloud and iTunes Cloud, Apple customers will think content and content access. They'll think about all the time and, most importantly, money they're going to save when they can stop re-buying content. They buy an ebook from iBooks once. They buy a song from iTunes once. They can stop worrying about upgrading from the iPod to the iPhone or the iPad to the iPad 2 and losing access to that content or having to port it from the older device to the newer.
It should also please consumers that all that cloud-based content does not count against the free 5G of cloud-based storage iCloud provides to each service member. Considering how quickly videos and music could eat up that space, it could not have been any other way.
The Other Side of the iCloud
Naturally, there are questions. Apple's cloud, for example, stands ready to back up and access cloud-based content at virtually any time. This means that when your iPhone is in your pocket or your iPad is in your backpack, it'll be doing more than getting email and accepting push notifications. It could also be doing the resource- and relatively battery-intensive job of transferring large image, video and document files to and from Apple's iCloud.
But when I asked one Apple rep about the impact on battery life, he said he didn't know. My guess is that there could be some nasty surprises associated with this feature.
The iCloud promises to store photos (and videos) from your camera roll in the cloud and backup the last 1,000 photos on all your iOS devices. Your entire library, however will live on your Mac or PC. Having constant access on any upcoming iOS 5 device to hundreds of your most recent photos appeals to me, but I worry that Apple still hasn't addressed how I'll back up my photo library and what happens if and when the hard drive on my Mac or PC finally fails.
In this instance, I'd say Apple is missing one of the core benefit of the cloud, which is secure, extensible offsite storage.
For all that Apple did on the music front, it did stop short of introducing an all-you-can-eat music-streaming service. Considering all that the company convinced music industry partners to do, this seems odd. Why not add another $25 to the yearly iTunes Match fee, so that for $50 a year, iTunes customers gain digital access to their old-school music library and can stream all the new stuff, too? For all we know, Apple did suggest just such a service to the music industry, which likely would have balked.
Apple's content syncing is based on your iTunes account info. Sign in and iTunes will try to synch you up across all your iOS devices. That makes sense, but I wonder how this will play out for families that share account information, but not iTunes library info, on various devices.
In other words, Bobby and his mom have one iTunes account so she can track what he purchases on his iPod Touch, but Bobby and his mom have two different iTunes libraries of music, apps, movies, etc. for their two different devices. Will iCloud choose one library and synch all the content? That would be a disaster.
Speaking of disaster, some consumers consider Apple's iTunes software as the worst of all music management software choices. I certainly agree it could be a lot better. Apple's iCloud offers no relief. The application will remain local and while it may benefit from the easier management of cloud-based music synchronization, I don't think iTunes Cloud is a panacea for this frustratingly bloated and modal interface.
These concerns are not insignificant, but by and large, Apple has done right by the cloud and I bet Steve Jobs made you want it more, and now you even know why.