As the WWDC invitations said, one of the very prominent points of Apple’s keynote was iCloud. And in introducing that, CEO Steve Jobs said, “Keeping these devices in sync is driving us crazy.”

Frankly, that resonated for me. As a laptop, smartphone and tablet user, having all my stuff synced without versioning problems or some pre-planning has been … challenging. (Actually, I had a different word in mind, but it wasn’t exactly posting-friendly.)

Now, Apple certainly didn’t come up with the notion of cloud services — Google and Amazon both have offerings — but in the end, it may not matter who came up with what first. The question for an awful lot of users is about who delivers on them the best.

 

iCloud 101

The intention behind Apple’s newly announced iCloud is to offer online syncing services that are simple. Super simple. (Maybe even idiot-proof.) And that’s the key — users hardly have to lift a finger or learn any new procedures. All docs, data and content are synced to the cloud for accessibility everywhere users are, on all of their computers and iOS devices, all without a learning curve.

So users make a change on their iPhones, iPads or computers, and it just shows up on their other devices automatically.

On paper, this looks promising. iCloud is a leap forward from the soon-to-be-defunct MobileMe service, spanning nine key components:

  • Contacts
  • Calendars
  • Mail
  • App Store apps
  • iBooks
  • Wi-Fi-only back-up (including purchased music, books, pics and vids, device settings and App data)
  • Documents in the Cloud (integrates files with native Pages, Numbers, and Keynote applications across all iOS devices and Macs. The data can sync to PCs too.)
  • Photo Stream (syncs to and from the Mac, PC and Apple TV)
  • iTunes in the Cloud (buy once, and the song is downloadable on as many as 10 devices)

While those are all free, Apple does have “One More Thing,” and it has a minor price tag: iTunes Match. For $25 per year, the companion service minimizes uploads by comparing a user’s library against Apple’s own inventory of songs. If a match is found, the service will use Apple’s DRM-free file (in 256Kbps AAC) instead. The service only uploads the user’s song file when no match is found. And even if the original song files are low quality, it will still play the better quality version from Apple.

This is the only way to get music that wasn’t purchased from iTunes into iCloud, and it has much of the blogosphere buzzing right now. Some think it practically sanctions music piracy, since the service works regardless of where the songs came from.

But that’s not the only reason iTunes Match has grabbed attention: It’s the most obvious thing that sets iCloud apart from the rival services.

 

How iCloud compares to the competition

As much as people may geek out about various technologies (including me, admittedly), there’s a line of thinking that tech doesn’t really succeed if it calls attention to itself. Like when a user is trying to get something done, the tools just shouldn’t get in the way. Or in Apple parlance, they should “just work.”

Clearly, that’s what Cupertino is going for here, and they’re not the only ones. Google and Amazon both have their own cloud services to help users keep consistency across their devices. But that begs the question, between Google and Amazon, aren’t most of our needs already covered? We’ve got music lockers, online documents, photo streaming services, not to mention online contacts, calendars and mail.

Yes, but they’re not the same — and Apple is wagering that the specific distinctions it is implementing will be important to its userbase.

Take Google Docs, for instance. With it being a web-only cloud editing and storage tool for docs, connection problems can pose huge problems. So an array of applications popped up to integrate with it and offer some offline editing features, but the features differed and often the support just wasn’t very good. In fact, they sometimes made things worse by messing up formatting or causing other problems. (Google’s own offline mode was pulled, but after an outcry, the company promised to bring it back sometime this year.)

In this case,  Google Docs came first, and then the applications — i.e., the part that people interfaced with — had to adapt themselves to work with the service.

With Apple’s iCloud, the service was rebuilt to fit Apple’s existing programs. The service works with Pages, Numbers, Keynote, not to mention iCal, Addressbook/Contacts and Mail. iCloud molded itself to be like a native extension of many of the apps that users were already familiar with.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear if iCloud will work with PDFs, Microsoft Office docs or spreadsheets. Word and Excel are still the major document editing programs, and if there’s no support for them, it would render this part of the service pretty useless for a lot of people.

Amazon, on the other hand, doesn’t offer online (or offline) editing at all. When it comes to documents, Cloud Drive is simply a holding tank.

 

“Sync, sync a song, sync out loud… “

Apple’s music cloud has been likened to Google Music (beta) and Amazon Cloud Player. Little wonder there: In all cases, the intention is the same — all of your music, with you everywhere you are. It’s just how they go about it that varies.

As far as we can tell, there’s no mention of iTunes-streaming via web browsers, unlike with Amazon and Google, which offer online music streaming. Stock iCloud accessibility looks like it’s limited to “download first, then play” functionality. And since it requires iTunes (Mac or PC) or an iOS device, it means that Android tablets and WinPho 7 phones won’t be getting any joy from this.

The differences don’t end there. Apple has its infamous iTunes music store, which is chock full with 18 million songs. Pay once, and the purchases are available on all of your compatible devices (up to 10). Amazon’s music store isn’t far behind, with 16 million songs, and it also makes purchases available across a user’s devices (via its browser-based Cloud Player and Android app). Google, in contrast, is the only one without its own dedicated music store.

The biggest differentiator, though, is Apple’s approach to getting non iTunes songs into iCloud.

iTunes Match is the product of Apple’s year-long negotiations with four major record labels — Universal Music Group, EMI Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and Warner Music Group. Thanks to these deals, this “scan and match” service has the authority to match the music in a user’s library against Apple’s own enormous inventory, bypassing the need for tedious uploads.

This is huge. It means users won’t have to spend days or weeks sending every song file they have to iCloud — only those that iTunes doesn’t stock. (In contrast, Google and Amazon require users to do manual uploads.) And for what amounts to a little more than $2 per month, users have no storage limits and can listen to great quality versions of their songs. This will thrill some users, while others will balk at paying just to get non iTunes-purchased songs into iCloud.

For more on these services, check out the chart below comparing the details, courtesy of PC Magazine.

Conclusion

iCloud looks like a well-honed implementation of cloud services that will thrill a lot of end users, particularly those who completely dive into the Apple eco-system. But cross-platform users with, say, an iPhone and a Galaxy Tab won’t be able to enjoy these features across all of their devices. This will be a big issue for an increasing number of people, particularly as tablets gain more adoption and a wider variety of models become available.

Also missing was word of cloud services for video. Of course, dealing with big video files would require greater bandwidth and storage capability. It is likely on Apple’s radar for future support, but the omission of movies or TV shows was strange — even if it was just a comment to say they were working on it.

But the big question in my mind is battery life. With all this syncing, iOS batteries will take a massive hit, no?

Even so, I can’t wait to get my hands on the final version. Odds are good that some iCloud refinements will come between now and the fall, when it launches. But even if they don’t, at least users have some choices with Google and Amazon on the scene — they could even be viewed as companion services. Amazon’s Cloud Drive works with iOS now, and Google Docs works well with Safari. And we know that both of these can hold definitely hold PDFs and other files.

What do you think about iCloud? Apple may not have invented the concept, but do you think they succeeded in reinventing how these services should work? And do you believe the average iOS end user will embrace this, or stick to Google/Amazon?

[image courtesy of PC Magazine]