Apple's breathless marketing pitch says it all: "iCloud stores your music, photos, apps, calendars, documents and more. And wirelessly pushes them to all your devices - automatically. It's the easiest way to manage your content. Because you don't have to.''
At first blush, iCloud, which will be free with iOS 5, sounds great. All services previously available under Apple's MobileMe system will be moved over, including contacts, calendar, and email. All apps and ebooks will be instantly available on up to 10 linked devices. Users will get 5GB of free storage - but content purchased from Apple doesn't count toward this total. For an extra fee, users can buy additional storage. There's also the iTunes Match service, which makes personal music collections, including music not purchased through iTunes, available through the cloud.
There are other vendors offering cloud-based storage - DropBox, Box.net, and Mozy, among dozens of others. But the only competitor to offer close to the range of functionality offered by Apple is Amazon, with its Cloud Drive product.
Like iCloud, Amazon Cloud Drive offers 5GB of free storage, and unlimited free storage for all digital content purchased through Amazon. Additional storage is less expensive with Amazon - $20 for an additional 20GB, while Apple's preliminary release indicates $40 per year for an additional 20GB.
But the big difference between Apple iCloud and Amazon - and all other online backup systems - is that iCloud's functionality will be very tightly integrated with both Apple devices and third-party applications. For example, app developers could use the iCloud to store data such as high scores and in-game credits, without having to set up their own Web services. Users would be automatically signed in the minute they opened the app - no need to create new user accounts for each game or application.
Similarly, users will no longer need to connect their iPhones or iPads to a computer to do a backup of the device. Instead, synching will happen automatically, wirelessly, and in the background.
With Apple iCloud, it's a one-stop-shop, says Brian Greenberg, CEO of storage vendor General Systems Dynamics. "Other cloud platforms have some of the services that iCloud will have, but not everything... Though we're used to using multiple services for different products, having to log into different sites for all these services can complicate life."
One company already planning to take advantage of the new features is Munich-based Algoriddim, which makes consumer audio software.
"We have the Djay app on the Mac, iPhone and iPad, with slightly different features and price points," says Frederik Seiffert, the company's head of product development. "What we plan to do is give the user a seamless experience when they use our app on different platforms. Some users might use the iPhone version to try out mixing some songs while they're on the bus. Later on, when they're at home or in the club and DJ'ing live, or Mac or iPad version would have those markers, those queue points, automatically synched."
The users won't need to set up a new user account when they first use the app, and Algoriddim won't need to set up its own Web-based synching functionality, he says, benefitting everyone involved.
"It's a natural progression for Apple and validates where technology is going in general these days," says Ed Laczynski, vice president of cloud strategy for Datapipe, a Jersey City, N.J.-based IT and cloud services provider. "I have some of the beta stuff from them, playing around with the SDK [software development kit], and it's finally going to untether the iPhone from the computer."
Datapipe uses iPads as presentation devices in its conference rooms, loading them up with marketing materials and supplementary documents.
"This cloud capability will make it even easier for us to deploy [an iPad]," he says. "We can sync it up without having to physically connect it to the computer."