On iCloud, Baby

Apple did something really odd today. Something they almost never do. They pre-announced the agenda for the keynote of one of their events, WWDC, taking place next week. Yes, they probably did this in an attempt to set expectations — read: no new iPhone coming — but in doing so, they also managed to do something even stranger: they outed a completely unreleased product. iCloud.

So what is iCloud? Apple only states that it’s their “upcoming cloud services offering.” Of course, a number of other details have been rumored for months now. I figured it was a good time to break down what we know — or what we think we know about what’s coming. Erick did a bit earlier. I’ll do a bit more.

Ultra Mega Datacenter

The talk about Apple’s cloud strategy really began when it was revealed that they were building a massive datacenter in North Carolina about a year ago. That datacenter only recently was completed and brought online. And it’s thought that Apple poured over $1 billion into it.

At 500,000+ square feet, it’s something like five times larger than Apple’s other datacenters. And yes, it is believed to be the main hub for iCloud (though they are thought to be building another large datacenter in California as well).

iTunes in iCloud

The most talked-about aspect of iCloud is definitely the music portion of it. Because Apple has been negotiating with the music industry for months — and because rivals Google and Amazon have as well, a number of things have leaked about this service.

Right now, it’s believed that Apple either has three or all four of the major music labels signed up for a service that would allow Apple to stream music from their servers to users’ computers, iPhones, iPads, etc. Unlike Google and Amazon (which don’t have the label deals yet), Apple’s service will apparently allow a program (likely iTunes) to analyze a user’s computer and see what songs they have on their hard drive. Those songs would then be mirrored in iCloud — meaning no uploading would be required, a hugely important detail.

Another potentially huge detail is the talk that Apple’s deal with the labels may even include non-iTunes-purchased songs in users’ iCloud. This means that music obtained through other means (read: piracy) may still work with the system. That would be a big win for Apple, and one you can bet they’re paying for.

But not so fast. While the label deals are signed (or will be this week), Apple still apparently does not have the publisher deals signed. While generally less talked-about than the label deals, the publisher deals are still vital for a full-fledged service. Apple may be able to get these done this week as well, or it may take a little while longer. After years of being pushed over, it seems the publishers are negotiating harder than usual this time.

We had originally heard that Apple’s plan was to launch their cloud music service at their annual music event in the fall. But now that we know for sure that iCloud is being formally unveiled at WWDC, it seems likely that they will at least mention it there, and probably preview it. But that doesn’t mean it will be ready to go. In fact, it may require iOS 5 (I have no actual details here, just thinking out loud), which also isn’t due until late summer or early fall (though it too will be shown off at WWDC).


One other potential wildcard: what if Apple unveils a version of iTunes that works fully in the cloud — as in, in the web browser?

Rumors of iTunes.com has persisted for years. And while iTunes the desktop app will undoubtedly still be required for a long time to come for iDevices, iTunes in the cloud could offer some basic functionality, such a music-streaming over the browser.

iMovies in iCloud

Earlier today, CNet’s Greg Sandoval had a story about Apple’s hopes that the movie and television studios will also get on board with their iCloud offering. Unlike the music side of things, there hasn’t been much stated about this side of the coin. But it’s arguably even more important.

For years now, I’ve been complaining about the untenable model Apple has in place with regard to iTunes and films/television shows. The issue is that they take up way too much space on hard drives. If these services were as popular as Apple hoped, everyone would run out of hard drive space very quickly. There needs to be a cloud solution here.

Sandoval notes that while the sides are talking, and some are thought to be close, there are some big holdups. One is the idiotic HBO rule (where movies can’t be on sale online when they’re being aired on HBO). This rule is a hold-over from a different era and should be eliminated. But that’s Hollywood.

Another issue is, of course, piracy. Sandoval quotes Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes as talking favorably about a cloud solution for movie storage, but only with the Ultraviolet system in place. For those unaware, Ultraviolet is a new form of DRM that is backed by all the major studios and several device manufacturers and content sellers.

Unfortunately, Sandoval leaves out one key detail: the one company not on board with Ultraviolet is Apple. They have their own DRM system that they’d prefer to use. This is going to be a hold up — especially with studios like Time Warner. They have to know that if they back Apple and UV, it will undercut the latter. So do they try to force Apple on board with UV? That probably won’t work too well.

iDrive in iCloud

Presumably, iCloud will replace MobileMe (which itself replaced .Mac and iTools). At its most basic, MobileMe is storage space in the cloud (on Apple’s servers) and a syncing service. A main front-facing version of this is iDisk.

This system currently works fairly well, though for whatever reason, it’s not nearly as seamless as other third-party options like Dropbox. One can only assume that Apple will try to remedy that with iCloud. While there haven’t been many hints of it yet in OS X Lion, don’t be surprised if iCloud is tightly intertwined into the new OS. As well as iOS 5.

And expect the other MobileMe services (email, calendar, address book, Find my iPhone) to make the leap over the iCloud as well. And don’t be surprised if the most basic ones become free — more on that below.

And what about this: what if Apple offers developers some storage space on iCloud for their own apps? This could allow them to use Apple’s services rather than another third-party like Amazon S3. It’s pure speculation, but it doesn’t sound so crazy, does it?

Gallery in iCloud

One element that could get a larger revamp is the Gallery functionality currently baked into MobileMe. Some of it is good right now, but most of it is too clunky. While we know that Apple is going with deeper Twitter integration in iOS 5 to easily tweet out pictures (among other things), they likely want a better solution of their own as well. A revamped Gallery offering could do this.

One thing we’ve been hearing whispers about is that Apple is thinking about how best to share moments (pictures and images) with those people close to you. Think: Path instead of Flickr. Apple could do this via a new photo-sharing app, but it would probably be easier to bake it into the Photos app. There would then be a web-component to this, obviously.

Location in iCloud

Along those lines, another element that there have been whispers of for a while is a location service that Apple could offer. Think of it as “Find my iPhone” but for people. In other words, it could be something like “Find my child”, or “Find my friends“. There hasn’t been a lot of talk about this in recent weeks, but Apple was definitely working on something in this space. It could be a part of iCloud or it may not.

iWork in iCloud

Another aspect of Apple’s current cloud services that is often overlook is iWork.com. While it’s been out there for a while, Apple has never felt comfortable enough to truly tout it (it’s actually still in beta — very Google-like). Maybe now’s the time.

We just saw the iWork suite of apps come to the iPhone today, so perhaps Apple is gearing up for more of a push in this direction. If they want to keep up with Google Docs as well as continue to compete with Microsoft Office, Apple will have to do this sooner or later.

Voice in iCloud

Another aspect of iOS 5 that we’ve heard some talk about is the Siri integration. Apple acquired Siri last year, and is believed to have put that team to work on some new, cool services for iOS 5. Some of those may be based in iCloud, some may not. But one piece of underlying technology, created by Nuance, is definitely believed to be a part of iCloud.

Ever since the Siri acquisition, Apple is believed to have been in negotiations with Nuance on everything from an acquisition to a big-time partnership agreement. It’s now believed that the latter is in place and could be announced at WWDC.

From what we’ve heard, Nuance software is already running on Apple’s servers in their North Carolina datacenter. It’s believed that Apple could offer third-party developers access to this technology (which may or may not happen at WWDC). This could well be a vital part of the backend of Apple’s iCloud strategy.

Notifications in iCloud

We’ve also heard that the notification system in iOS is getting completely revamped in version 5. Apple famously took their time building their current Push Notification system — it took them about a year to complete it for iOS 3, months longer than anticipated.

The current system leaves a lot to be deserved and a revamping will be much welcomed. Presumably, this will now run over Apple’s new cloud infrastructure as well. A lot of developers would love more control over these notifications as well.

Game Center in iCloud

One element of iOS that has been very underwhelming has been Game Center, Apple’s iOS gaming network. Right now, it’s little more than a leaderboard with a clunky system to play games with other users. Might Apple use iCloud to turn the service into a more worthy Xbox Live and PSN competitor?

Activation/Syncing in iCloud

A wildcard for iCloud is if Apple will finally offer the ability to activate devices without tethering them to a computer? If that’s the case with iOS 5, it may also rely on Apple’s new server system. Also interesting could be app syncing, which you can do now, but it’s more of a manual process through the App Store. This would bring iOS closer in functionality to Android in this regard.

Pricing of iCloud

The big question about iCloud from a consumer perspective will be around pricing. Right now, MobileMe is $99 (or $149 for a family pack) for a year. For individuals, this includes 20 GB of space spread over all the various services. That won’t be nearly enough space if iCloud is to include music storage — let alone movie/TV storage.

But remember too that with mirroring, Apple isn’t actually storing many copies of individual songs for users. Instead they’ll have one (or a few) central repositories that users will access depending on their ownership rights. This will keep the costs lower for Apple and, in turn, for users.

Apple likes to keep things simple. Because of that, it seems unlikely that they’d offer a many-tiered plan for iCloud pricing. Instead, I suspect they may have two (or three) options. At the base may be a free option with Calendar, Address Book, Bookmarks, iBooks-sync, Find my iPhone, maybe even email. Above that may be a paid option at the $99 price point, or slightly higher (perhaps monthly?). This would presumably include iCloud music and perhaps more iDisk storage. Maybe they’d have another tier if they can get the movie/TV studios on board.

If Apple were to offer developers space in iCloud to use for their apps, this would likely have a different pricing structure, that could be tier-based.

Hey! You! Get off of iCloud

The fact that Apple is unveiling iCloud alongside major revamps to their two flagship OSes (iOS and OS X) suggests deep ties to those two OSes. And the fact that this is taking place at WWDC suggests that Apple will have plenty of new things for developers to work with in the cloud.

It still seems pretty likely at this point that all of this will just be a taste of what’s to come. This will be Apple previewing services for developers to begin to help guide them how to utilize these new tools. Don’t be surprised if new builds of both iOS and OS X Lion are released to developers with iCloud integration as well. Final releases for consumers would come later (in the summer for OS X and in the fall for iOS).

The fact that Steve Jobs will be on stage for the unveiling seems to speak well for the state of iCloud. There’s no way he lets Apple repeat the disaster that was the MobileMe roll-out. He must think iCloud is a winner right off the bat.

We’ll be there next week covering all of this live.