iCloud, YouCloud, We All Scream For iCloud. But What Exactly Will It Be?

Next week, Apple will unveil its much-anticipated iCloud service at its annual developer conference, WWDC. Apple even put out a press release this morning pre-announcing the service—something it almost never does. Details began leaking out in March, and then the name was pretty much confirmed when Apple bought the domain iCloud.com. Yet for all the talk and speculation, we still don’t know exactly what iCloud will look like, or what services it will include.

Here is what we know so far (or at least what we think we know):

  1. iCloud will include a music locker that mirrors your iTunes collection online and makes it available via streaming to any device.  But as I’ve argued, it needs to be much more than this.
  2. It will be more than just music.  In fact, iCloud will likely replace Apple’s so-so MobileMe service.
  3. Not only that, iCloud could be baked right into iOS 5, which will also be announced at WWDC.
  4. Once it’s baked into the OS, any number of new iCloud services can be launched in the future, such as a location service for friends and family.

It isn’t too difficult to imagine other cloud services, some of which already exist as part of MobileMe, such as being able to back up and share photos or personal videos in the cloud, but done better. It is no secret that Steve Jobs was not happy with the initial launch of MobileMe three years ago. A recent article in Fortune describes how Jobs dressed down the group responsible for the initial debacle:

“Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?” Having received a satisfactory answer, he continued, “So why the fuck doesn’t it do that?”

For the next half-hour Jobs berated the group. “You’ve tarnished Apple’s reputation,” he told them. “You should hate each other for having let each other down.” The public humiliation particularly infuriated Jobs. Walt Mossberg, the influential Wall Street Journal gadget columnist, had panned MobileMe. “Mossberg, our friend, is no longer writing good things about us,” Jobs said. On the spot, Jobs named a new executive to run the group.

Even Walt Mossberg, Apple’s “friend” in the press, hated the first version of MobileMe. The service was fixed, but it never was never able to rise to the level of Apple’s other products. Now with iCloud, Apple might finally be ready to rethink the whole experience beyond the simple syncing and sharing of data to full-fledged apps with online components.

What does that mean? Well, for starters it could mean that Apple software on the iPhone, iPad, and desktop such as iTunes, iPhoto, and maybe even iMovie will also exist as Web apps. Or at least certain features will be available in the cloud. At a minimum, you should be able to access your collection in the cloud and share it with people online. Right now, all those pictures, songs, and movies are locked in people’s Macs and iPhones, and it is still a hassle to get them off your device and onto the Web.

But that is just Step 1. Remember, Apple is choosing to announce iCloud at its developer conference, presumably so that they can start developing their own apps for iCloud. If iCloud is baked into iOS 5, perhaps it will be more than just a set of Apple services. This is complete speculation on my part, but what if it’s a framework for developing iPhone and iPad apps with storage and software functions in the cloud instead of on the device? App developers could then choose to enable certain functions in the cloud. The storage limits of the device would become less of an issue as well.

Of course, this line of thinking raises a whole host of other questions. Who would host all of these cloud apps—Apple or the developers themselves, with Apple merely defining how the services must work? Once apps exist in the cloud, will it be easier to create hooks in between them? How will Apple charge for its own iCloud apps, as a bundled yearly subscription ($99/year) or a la carte? Will any of them be free? How will developers be able to charge for iCloud apps? Will Apple use iCloud as a way to bring over the subscription model for online publications to apps?

Other than the name and a few spare details, we know so little about iCloud. Hopefully, Apple will have answers to these questions next week. What do you think iCloud will look like?

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Photo Credit/Flickr/Kevin Dooley