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With iCloud, Apple changes definition of ‘cloud’ to fit own needs

Apple packs every conceivable service into iCloud, but very few of them utilize any traditional notion of the cloud. Rather Apple has created the ultimate content synchronization and management service.

Apple did far more than stick iTunes into the cloud today. At WWDC, it elevated every conceivable Apple service and application into the digital heavens—everything that industry watchers predicted (CP: Apple WWDC rumors include ‘iCloud as new iTunes’) and then some.

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In addition to music, iCloud incorporates document sharing and synchronization between PCs and iDevices, online storage, a revamp of MobileMe’s cloud e-mail, calendar and contacts platform, multi-device application downloads and instant and automatic photo sharing. (For the play by play see Engadget and ThisIsMyNexts’ live blogs from WWDC)
It’s no coincidence that Apple announced that iOS 5 will be the first mobile OS to provision itself over the air without the aid of a PC connection. CEO Steve Jobs said Apple is demoting the PC from its central role in the Apple-verse to the status of just another planet. The Mac and the iTunes-powered PC will orbit around the iCloud just as iPads and iPhones used to orbit around the PC.

But in the process Apple seems to be changing the definition of cloud—or at least adding a new twist to the already murky definition of cloud. The way it is using cloud services is vastly different than the way Google and Amazon are using them, and in many cases there are very few cloud components of the new pervasive services it is offering. In fact, in many ways iCloud can be viewed more as synchronization and content management service between Apple devices with a few cloud storage features thrown into the mix.

For instance, the way iTunes is integrated into the cloud, a customer’s music library stays exactly where it always has on the Mac, PC or any number of other iTunes-powered devices. The ‘cloud’ just keeps track of purchase history from the iTunes music store and allows customer to either automatically or via prompt download those same songs across their Apple device portfolio (still no word on TV shows or movies though). For music that customers bought from other stores or ripped from CDs, Apple is offering a $25 annual subscription service called iTunes Match, which scans a customer’s PC for music, matches them against the its 18 million-song iTunes library and digitally copies them onto other devices. Nothing is actually being stored on the cloud. Nothing is being streamed from the cloud. The only thing being run on the cloud is Apple’s song identification software.

Another example is Apple’s document sharing service, which does the opposite of what you’d think a cloud file sharing service like Google Docs would do. Rather than create a cloud engine for creating, editing and collaborating over word processing files and spreadsheets, Apple is basically using it as a way to synchronize documents created with its own iWork suite over the air. The documents still open natively in Pages, Numbers and Keynote, but any work done on any file is instantly updated and cloud and disseminated to other versions of that saved document on other Apple devices. A master copy of the docs resides in iCloud, keeping with Jobs’ theme of demoting the PC, but the real work is done on the device where the actual application resides.

That might raise a few cries of protests from iDevice users who don’t want to invest in multiple versions of every app they plan to use across iCloud, but Apple is making it easy on them. iCloud shares apps as well as the music and docs, using purchase history on the iTunes store to proliferate apps purchased on one device to the Mac, iPhone, iPad and whatever other devices Apple launches in the future. But again iCloud serves as a way to authenticate and provision these apps on multiple devices; it’s not running the apps themselves.

Apple’s photo sharing service Photo Stream, at first glance, has all of the cloud goods. It automatically finds photo media on any device and uploads into Apple’s servers where it can be viewed across and shared among multiple devices. But closer inspection reveals that photos stay in the Cloud only for 30 days, meaning to keep them, an Apple user will have to permanently store them in the PC or some other device. As in the previous examples, Apple is using the cloud to temporarily store content, but its primary function is still mitigating the critical handoff between other devices, not as the focal point for photo storage and management.

More: How Apple's Cloud Strategy Fits its Business Model

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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