Making a rare appearance since going on medical leave, Apple Inc. chief executive Steve Jobs, received a standing ovation as he strode onto a stage in San Francisco and unveiled Apple Inc.'s latest vision: a world where its users will have seamless access to music, photos and information shared across multiple devices.
"Keeping these devices in sync is driving us crazy," Mr. Jobs said at the company's annual gathering of application developers.
Mr. Jobs said it was high time the process was simplified. This was possible, he said, by moving the vast majority of this information onto the company's own servers, into the so-called "cloud," where it could easily be shared.
"We have a great solution for this problem. We are going to demote the PC to just be a device. We are going to move the digital hub, the centre of your digital life, into the cloud."
Apple's new service, called iCloud, will suck a user's existing iTunes library onto the company's servers, allowing users to access music from various devices, whenever they want. A user's photos, word documents and other information - such as magazine subscriptions - will also be accessible, eliminating the onerous task of hooking devices up to a PC to download music and other files.
The new, free service - which follows similar "cloud-based" music-sharing services from Google and Amazon - replaces Apple's $99-per-year MobileMe, the company's previous, failed attempt at cloud-based information sharing. Mr. Jobs himself admitted at the event that MobileMe was not "our finest hour."
At the conference, Apple executives also unveiled a new mobile operating system with a host of new features. One of these is iMessage, an instant messaging service that poses a serious competitive threat to Research In Motion Ltd.'s popular BlackBerry Messenger service. The service has helped the Waterloo, Ont.-based giant gain a share in the consumer space outside of its core base of corporate clients.
What the cloud is
The so-called "cloud" you've been hearing about is simply a crowd-friendly euphemism for technology companies hosting vast amounts of data on their own servers, as opposed to storing them on individual devices such as laptops or smart phones.
Companies such as Google and Amazon have huge "server farms," entire buildings dedicated to hosting data on powerful servers. They are protected by complex cooling systems that use an oxygen-Hoovering fire alarm system instead of spraying the expensive network equipment with water. These vast storage areas, such as Apple's new 500,000 square-foot server complex, are the guts - the plumbing - that increasingly power modern technology.
They have simply been hidden away and sanitized with a fuzzy, likeable marketing term: The Cloud. What's not to like about a cute cloud? Plenty, actually, in this interconnected age of hackers and metastasizing network outages, where one company's problem quickly becomes everyone's. A recent network crash at Amazon, which is surprisingly big in the cloud business, shut down hundreds of popular websites such as the location check-in service Foursquare.
But, without the cloud, innovative services like Google's Gmail e-mail service would be impossible. PCs, laptops and phones do not hold the 7.5-odd gigabytes of information contained within your Gmail account by themselves. Whether people actually want a broadening of this, in an era where technology giants like Sony and Nintendo seem to be hacked every other week, is another question. But as more companies rely on it and build devices with it in mind, the cloud is only set to get bigger.
How the cloud shades our lives
First off, it's clear that the cloud is growing partly through hype: Let's not forget that the cloud is being pushed by companies who will profit from vacuuming up your data and personal information. But, for plugged-in consumers, the cloud is increasingly shaping and simplifying how people interact with their devices, in a world where we increasingly have two or more "things" that can connect to the Internet.
The cloud also has the possibility to revolutionize how, for example, a business shares documents between multiple locations. The cloud is even shaping what devices actually look like: Google's new "Chromebook" - a thin laptop that boots up in seconds, can only operate a Web browser and hosts everything on the cloud - is some of the first hardware designed with the cloud in mind. "In the future, we will be using thinner devices," says independent technology analyst Carmi Levy. But, he adds, "when you put a Chromebook up against a laptop, the value proposition for consumers is very difficult to make at this time."
In 2007, Google applied to patent floating server farms: Huge, bobbing containers chained together on the water, housing valuable network equipment, powered in part by the flow of the tide, and cooled by sea water. This almost dystopian vision - of people's data being stored on some futuristic island of metal - is a sign of how big, and how competitive, the cloud is set to become. Apple's $1-billion data centre in North Carolina is further proof of the high stakes.
This is big business, and even telecom companies like Bell Canada are getting into hosting, offering a clutch of new services to businesses large and small. Apple's new iCloud service and the broadening of the iTunes ecosystem follows the launch of similar music-hosting services from Google and Amazon. Google has frequently tried to make Gmail a more social gateway to the Web like Facebook, while Facebook and others try to encroach on Google's former monopoly on Web searches. Many of these companies make money through targeted advertising, so it behooves them to lure in as many people as possible, usually by making the service free and simple.
By making iCloud free, Apple just upped the ante for competitors offering similar cloud services for a fee, with a less integrated and less familiar ecosystem than iTunes.
What Apple gets from the cloud
Apple has consistently and gently led consumers by the fingertips into the future, popularizing existing technologies such as MP3 players and tablet computers with easy-to-use, beautifully designed devices. Its iTunes software accomplished a similar thing with music downloads, revolutionizing the music industry in the process. Apple, of course, profits from this handsomely.
And so as it tries a similar feat with the cloud, it is worth remembering that Mr. Jobs has a clear goal in mind: Spending millions of dollars in R&D to cement Apple at the top of the technology hierarchy and put its logo on as many devices and online services as it possibly can. Music? Think Apple. Word processing? Think Apple.
"They've certainly put a lot of money into iCloud," says Charles Golvin, a technology analyst at Forrester Research. "What's the return? I think the return is in customer loyalty." That means that, firmly in Apple's cloud, consumers will be less likely to buy devices from a rival - chiefly Google and Research In Motion. Consumers may be less likely to buy a smart phone powered by Google's Android operating system over an Apple iPhone if they think it won't sync properly with their iPod or iTunes library. The same goes for an iPhone user thinking of purchasing a new laptop or personal computer.
Also, by leveraging its relationship with the music industry, Apple can simply mimic users' iTunes libraries online without forcing people to upload their huge stash of music and entertainment. That could potentially be a big deterrent for people considering going with Google's or Amazon's new music service. Apple is making the cloud easy and familiar. But, as the amount of information stored in the cloud continues to increase, others are, as well.
The cloud, it seems, is getting crowded.