iCloud: Apple's next empire?

May 31, 2011

Finally. Apple sent out a press release announcing it will unveil it's new cloud service called iCloud at the Worldwide Developers Conference on June 6. Cult of Mac news editor John Brownlee chatted with readers about the upcoming announcement, speculations, if cloud computing is all it's cracked up to be, and anything else Mac addicts dared throw his way.

Hi guys. This is John Brownlee. I'm the news editor over at cultofmac.com and we'll be talking a bit about iCloud, which Apple just announced would debut at WWDC and is rumored to be their big push to bring iTunes into the cloud.

There have been whispers about Apple's cloud ambitions for the last couple of years. Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously put them to rest last year by saying that Apple was "skeptical" of the cloud, but it looks like that skepticism only lasted as long as it took them to get their own service in line.

Amazon and Google have recently unveiled their own streaming cloud media lockers in an attempt to beat Apple to market, but to do so, they had to forego inking deals with the music labels. Apple's supposedly got all the contracts signed, which means we should be seeing a much more evolved product from them. It doesn't always pay to be first.

We're about to kick off now, but feel free to ask any questions you might have about iCloud or what's coming at WWDC, and I'll do my best to answer. 

Isn't this really all just speculation? I mean, Apple is famously secretive, and the details revealed in their product announcements usually contain enough surprises to make the rumors look silly.

It's true that Apple is notoriously secretive, but it's disingenuous to say that we never know what Apple's planning. While Apple's good at keeping things close to the breast, the same can't be said about their partners, who all leak like sieves. The music industry, in particular, is very chatty, and since Apple has been signing contracts with them for iCloud, they've been leaking a good number of details. Sure, at the end of the day, Steve Jobs himself will tell us what iCloud is or isn't... but we think we know the jist.

From what I've heard, this is going to be a paid service. How is this going to affect the experience for those who don't want to use iCloud, if at all?

It looks like when iCloud launches, what it will mostly due is scan your iTunes library, look at your tracks, and mirror them on Apple's storage. This means that you can stream your music onto any iDevice, as long as it's connected to the internet through WiFi or 3G, and without dealing with local storage. So if your 32GB iPhone isn't enough for your music collection, you can still have access to all of it in the cloud.

iCloud will probably evolve into something bigger over time, but immediately, if you don't want to deal with iCloud... well, you don't have to, especially if you're satisfied with the storage space on your iPhone. 

That said, I expect Apple to try to whet appetites for iCloud by offering a free introductory period.

Will there be an integration of Mobile Me and iCloud and will Apple begin allowing multiple devices to sync wirelessly ie. ITunes?

We tend to talk about iCloud as synonymous with media streaming, but in actuality, streaming music is likely to be just a small part of iCloud. What iCloud seems to really be is a rebranding of MobileMe that INCLUDES media streaming, so all of the past MobileMe products should still be supported... along with the ability to throw your media library into the cloud.

As for wireless syncing, don't expect it this WWDC, in my opinion. Steve Jobs has gone on record in one of his emails saying he really wants this to happen, but it's still just too slow to sync over WiFi. I don't expect that to change this year.

How will this effect data plans on iPhones if one uses it for streaming and is not wifi connected?

That's a great question. While Google, Apple and Amazon are pushing to put media into the cloud, carriers are tightening data caps, making it more expensive to actually consume media that way. However, you can actually stream a LOT of music on a 2GB per month standard contract, so I imagine for most users it won't be too dear on their mobile data plans. Apple will probably offer options to stream in different bitrates as well, to help manage cellular data caps. 

Incidentally, I think data caps are why Apple's paid more attention to signing deals with music publisher than with Hollywood: Apple wants to do video right, and data caps need to loosen up again for them to bring video to iCloud.

So what will pricing be like? Will it be 99 a year, or will it be less? Will the pricing be monthly or yearly? What do you think? - @brandonderrick

I think iCloud will inherit MobileMe's pricing, which is $99 per year. I think, though, that media streaming through iCloud will probably have an additional fee attached. Previous rumors pegged it as 20 bucks per year. That brings the whole package up to $119, which is an Apple-like price, but maybe Cupertino will surprise us.

Why will this be so different than the google and amazon cloud storage just released? Why are the music companies so important to Apple and not the others?

Great question. In a rush to be first, Amazon and Google launched their cloud media lockers without signing deals with the record industry. Their argument was "Hey, we don't need to sign a contract to let people host their MP3 files on the Internet."

But Apple doesn't just want to give users a dropbox on the internet to upload their MP3s. What they want to do is scan all the music on your hard drive and then mirror your music collection in the cloud, without you uploading a single byte of an MP3 file. 

So at the bare minimum, what iCloud should let you do is automatically mirror your music to the cloud for streaming, no uploads required. And you know those crappy old 128k MP3s you downloaded a decade ago? Apple will be able to replace those with high-fidelity versions in the cloud, automatically.

Basically, Apple signed contracts with the music industry so they could do the cloud right. Amazon and Google tried to beat Apple to the punch, and that meant launching with barebone skeleton services that don't really do much.

Do you think there will be a "netflix" option? I would love access to Apples online movie library to coincide with Apple TV and a monthly subscrption fee.

I don't think so. I think iCloud will be starting with just music. While we have a lot of reports suggesting that Apple's been signing deals with the music industry, we haven't heard a peep from Hollywood saying that Apple's inked deals with them to start streaming movies. iCloud may compete with Netflix in time, but I don't think it'll happen until 2012 or even later.

I dont get what this will actually allow you to do? Explain? Iphone 4s at WWDC

I think iCloud will inherit MobileMe's subscription plan: a yearly fee after a 60 day free trial. As for the media streaming part of iCloud, I imagine if you have an iCloud account, you'll get a certain amount of storage space for free, and then be able to pay for upgrades... this is similar to the way Google Music and Amazon Cloud Locker work.

Iphone 4S at WWDC?

I really don't think so. Apple's been setting the expectation for months that WWDC this year will all be about software. They're tipping their hand: no new hardware this year. It'd be a pretty weird and jerky move for Apple to spend so much time trying to convince people a new iPhone's not coming, just to surprise them with the handset at WWDC.

Also, frankly, Apple just released the Verizon iPhone in February and the white iPhone 4 in April. If they released a new iPhone at WWDC, they'd just alienate people who signed new two year contracts for the supposedly "latest" iPhone less than half a year ago.

So what about us users who signed up for mobile me and a month later it was taken down. I paid my 99 bucks already. - @Sticklerm3

Automatic upgrade to iCloud, which should be better, anyway.

what do you think about the supposed "mirroring" feature we have heard about, do you think thats going to happen?

The mirroring feature is the ability for iTunes to scan your existing media library and automatically make it available to you in the cloud without actually uploading any Mp3 files. And yes, I think we'll see this, because it's the only reason Apple would have inked deals with the music publishers when Google and Amazon had decided they weren't going to bother. It's Apple's killer feature, made possible by their existing domination of the digital download market and the fact that they have a strong media syncing and purchasing engine like iTunes to make mirroring in the cloud happen. Google and to a lesser extent Amazon don't have either of these advantages.


1. Will Apple have a service that does what Spotify does for it's premium members and 2. what is going to happen to mobileme?

1. I wish, but no. Apple's not going to offer a la carte music streaming like Spotify, because Apple makes a huge, huge amount of money on digital downloads. Apple doesn't want to replace track and album sales with subscription revenue: they want to supplement track and album sales with additional subscription revenue. They want to double dip and have people to buy a track, and also pay to stream that track from the cloud. Anything else would undermine a core aspect of Apple's business.

2. MobileMe will be rebranded with iCloud, and gain media streaming.

My mobile me free trial will end during the WWDC. Should I cancel my trial? Will I lose my @me.com email address? Or should I allow the paid subscription to go through (hoping some kind of refund or compensation depending on the price of icloud)?

I really don't think Apple's going to let people down who are currently caught in limbo between MobileMe and iCloud . I think you'll be okay if you allow the paid subscription to go through.

Will the iCloud feature be able to store files other than video and music (i.e. documents, apps etc.). I think iCloud would be a waste of time and money if all it can do is just stream one's iTunes library...

Well, MobileMe already allows you to store things like documents through iDisk. Apps are an interesting possibility: there have been rumors that Apple might release an iPhone Nano with very minimal local storage, which wouldn't allow the kind of apps we currently see on iOS. If so, it's possible that iCloud could at some point be used to stream apps to devices, sort of like OnLive does as a thin-client for games (see here). 

That's just speculation, though, and if it happens, it's over a year away. For right now, the only thing I'd be willing to bet on is that iCloud will stream your music, and also keep iDisk functionality.

I am a former Android user and preferred how software updates came wirelessly. Will Apple ever move to this or will we forever be tied to iTunes?

Apple's definitely going to move over to this at some point. Right now, updating iOS devices requires downloading 300+ MB files from Apple, one for each unique device you have. That's just untenable. We've heard rumors that Apple will start patching only the files that need updating come iOS 5, which will make over the air updates possible, but right now, it's only a rumor. It makes sense, though: as iOS becomes bigger and bigger, they're going to need a more graceful updating method. I'm keeping my figners crossed.

Are any security provisions being made for the iCloud in case of iRain? - @cyclerunner

Wokka wokka hey!

It appears that there are a lot of options "in the cloud" for users and many of them are free. Do you have a sense that Apple will continue to charge for the service aspect (email, bookmark sync) of Mobile Me or the storage capacity?

That's a good question. Some have speculated that MobileMe's core services could be made free with iCloud, and Apple's already made some of MobileMe's best features — like Find My iPhone — free. Ultimately, though, I think Apple wants to make iCloud indispensable enough that they can justify charging for it, not just by doing it better than the competition, but by deep baking iCloud integration into iOS. Expect iOS 5 to have a LOT of iCloud hooks in it. 

Do you think Apple (or the music industry) will allow you to stream all your music you've once bought via iTunes even if you don't have the files on your mac anymore?

I hope so. The music industry is extremely worried about piracy, though, and in negotiations with Apple, making sure users couldn't upload pirated tracks was likely a sticking point.

At the same time, though, why does Apple need to ink deals at all with the music industry if all they are doing is let people stream the songs they purchased through iTunes over the web? Apple's got records to prove that a particular iTunes user has paid for every track in his library, so what's the problem?

My guess is that iCloud WILL mirror your non-iTunes tracks, but that the backend will be loaded with software that will sweep your collection and purge from the cloud any files it thinks are pirated. If that's not what it does, well, as a guy who has an extensive library of jazz music not available on iTunes, I'll be pretty disappointed.

Switching gears a bit... what do you think we'll see regarding MacBook Airs at WWDC? I'm a college student entering my senior year in the fall, and I've been targeting an Air as a potential replacement for my rapidly aging old white MacBook, which I use all the time. Will the next MacBook Airs be legitimate replacements for full-time use notebooks?

I'm typing this on an 11.6-inch MacBook Air, and let me tell you, they already are legitimate replacements for full-time use notebooks. I know they look underpowered spec-wise, You can't believe how fast they run. Don't underestimate exactly how much of a computer's perceived slowness comes from its hard drive.

Anyway, expect new MacBook Airs next week or the week after: supplies are already low, and Intel's released some new Sandy Bridge processors that should fit in the Air nicely. Seriously, buy one, you won't regret it.

How far will Apple go to end to nightmare sync / dependency issue iTunes and iOS devices? Is it now time for iPhones and iPads to break free form iTunes?!

It would certainly be nice, but no: iTunes isn't going anywhere. As bloated as iTunes is, it wouldn't be easy for Apple to phase it out, and they don't really have any reason to: as easy as it is to grumble about iTunes, it's still a huge asset to Apple... an asset that Google and even Amazon don't have. I don't expect iOS to ever lose its iTunes dependency, but I do think that somewhere along the line, Apple will probably have to radically rebuild iTunes from the ground up.

Hi John, Will we get and update about the cloud under software updates on the 6th or thereafter? What are your predictions? :)

My prediction is that iCloud will be available immediately on June 6th, and Steve Jobs will also announce that Lion has been released and is available on the Mac App Store. I think most of the keynote will be spent introducing iCloud, then detailing the features of iOS 5. iOS 5 will come out in September, but I think Apple fans have both Lion and iCloud to look forward to playing with next week.

Guys, thanks so much for the questions. I hope I answered them for you, but if I missed your question, please feel free to either email me at john.brownlee@gmail.com or ask me via Twitter @DrCrypt.

Also, if you don't already read us, please check out Cult of Mac at cultofmac.com. We're the best Apple news site on the web, and we'll be covering WWDC live exhaustively all next week.

See you guys later! Thanks again!

In This Chat
John Brownlee
John Brownlee is news editor at Cult of Mac and has also written about technology, art and culture for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, Gizmodo, Kotaku, Lifehacker, AMC, Geek and the Consumerist. He lives in Cambridge, MA with his charming girlfriend and a tiny parakeet.
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