Details on iCloud Still a Bit Foggy

Yesterday’s announcements from Apple at WWDC showed that there are major changes coming when it comes to how Apple users think about media and data. Yeah, I’m talking about the iCloud features. Most of what we heard yesterday had already leaked, and quite honestly while we learned some new details, we’ve still got quite a few more to uncover before the fog lifts on iCloud. Assuming you’re running iOS 4.3.3 on your iDevices you can try some of the iCloud features out now. Most notably, you can find out what Apple’s approach to having your music and Apps stored in the iCloud means. Simply put that means that music, Apps, and iBooks, purchased on one device can now be downloaded from the iCloud onto another without having to sync both devices back to a computer.

The iTunes Match feature isn’t ready yet, but is promised for the fall at a cost of $25 per year. Supposedly this feature will scan your music collection and let you move music you may have ripped off of CDs or other sources to your devices in the same way.

Let’s be clear about one thing here though. This isn’t a music streaming service. We’re talking about moving music from the iCloud to multiple devices where it will reside, and not just streaming from your library stored on Apple’s servers. That’s certainly a different approach from how Amazon and Google are approaching music. And I’m sure all of it is tied up in licensing agreements between the labels and Apple. (Remember Google and Amazon are playing a different game here with the music labels.)

This is all headed towards that “magical and revolutionary post-PC world,” and is accompanied by announcements that you won’t have to have a computer to use that iDevice of yours in the future. No syncing back to the mother ship. Or as Apple said yesterday, “we’re demoting the PC to just a device” and “move the digital hub into the cloud.”

It all sounds well and good. Over the air syncing is something many, including myself, have been asking for. The fact that we’re now seeing the term Delta Update (that means just the new bits of an App or OS, not the entire thing)  become common in these conversations points to what we’ve all known is coming in the intense competition with Google’s Android, which has had OTA syncing for quite some time.

But there are some questions out there that make it tough to see the iClouds through the ground fog at the moment. Don’t get me wrong here, this is far from some kind of final judgment because we won’t see most of this roll out until the heat of summer has started to turn into autumn. Instead these are some questions I have about Apple’s iCloud from what we now know.

Time to Sync. Over the air (OTA) syncing of the OS, Apps, Data, music, etc.. sounds like what the promise of always on, always connected has always offered. Not having to connect up to a PC makes so much sense for these mobile (or portable) devices as well. Having everything backed up in the iCloud also makes good sense. But, if you’re one to have lots of music and lots of Apps on your iDevice, you’re still going to spend quite a bit of time with that new purchase before it all gets to your device. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it all happens in the background, but I can’t see the fundamental difference in the Out of the Box (OOBE) user experience here beyond not having to cable up to a computer. You’ll still have to wait for things to sync up.

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WiFi Only? Keep in mind that Apple is looking for most of the heavy lifting of syncing and backing up data to happen via WiFi and while your device is plugged in. Obviously that’s to save battery life, and also to keep you from exceeding your data plan cap. But, is there a way to make sure this happens just on WiFi or can it be done over 3G (or someday 4G)? I’ve seen reports that say it can happen either way, and reports that say only via WiFi. So, we’ll have to continue to follow that news. If it can happen via 3G I will guarantee you we will see an abundance of posts this fall from users who received enormous bills after all of this overnight syncing leads to overages.

Why no Streaming? Like I said, I’m sure this has to do with licensing. Remember, Apple has been in bed with the music labels for some time now and this is the first time those sheets have been changed since Apple agreed to tiered pricing. While on the surface the $25 a year fee sounds like a pretty cheap subscription fee on some level, you’ll still have to download the files to your iDevice. At the moment I can’t see that working in my iDevice scenario. I keep my music for listening on an iPod Touch. I keep music files I may be working with for a show on the iPad and the iPod Touch. Very little music (and other media) go to my iPhone, because I use the other devices for playback. Streaming would work for that occasional time when I want to listen to something on my iPhone (usually a podcast or audiobook), but I don’t want my iPhone filled with songs and media. Your scenario may be different here. Can this be selective? And if so, how selective? Answers to come.

What about original music and media files? As to the music and media files I use for work, most of that is original stuff that I’m sent by my colleague to review. That’s not going to get mirrored back from Apple’s iCloud in the way the latest song purchase would be. It might be able to come across as just another file, since Apple indicates that the iCloud isn’t just for music. But will it integrate with iTunes? How will the playback of those files work? Will I be able to sync those files up with a computer if I want to be regressive when it comes to this post-PC world? Again, we’ll learn more in the future, but at the moment questions remain.

Photos. Apple is also looking at getting your photos into its servers as well. But there’s that “they will be stored for 30 days” comment that makes me think we’ll see some sort of tiered pricing structure (similar to Flickr’s Pro accounts). That’s not a bad thing, but at the moment the emphasis is on free, free, free when it comes to iCloud. But what if you don’t want to pay for more or longer storage? What happens to those photos after 30 days? Are you supposed to make sure you have them saved on some disk somewhere? Most smart users who treasure their photos will d0 this anyway, but it doesn’t sound very post-PC to me at the moment. Again, the devil will be in the details.

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I think after the rush of yesterday’s announcements starts to settle a bit, we’re going to find out that there are quite a few details about iOS 5, iCloud, Lion, and others things that we will be seeing roll out from Cupertino. What we really know right now is that change is coming. That’s always a good thing, right?

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