Apple Unveils iCloud with Few Surprises
Apple Unveils iCloud with Few Surprises

If you've been following the speculation surrounding Apple's iCloud keynote speech today, then the details that finally emerged proved very little in the way of surprises.

Steve Jobs & Co. laid out a vast array of cloud-based products and services designed to eliminate the home computer as the hub of our digital lives, replacing it with cloud-based servers connected to multiple Apple-made devices. Going forward, at least in the Apple ecosystem of devices, the home computer is just another device, on equal terms with the iPhone and iPad from a content perspective.

Music, of course, is a big part of the iCloud strategy (so large that Jobs saved details on the music portion of the service until the very last item of the day). It consists of three basic features.

- Any song previously bought from iTunes now appears in a searchable purchase history, which can be access from any Apple device. Users simply select the song they want to hear, and it downloads to that device for playback. Free.

- Going forward, any new song purchased in iTunes will automatically be synched to any Apple device-iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch and so on. No extra downloading needed. Also free.

- Any music managed by iTunes but acquired through some other means than the iTunes store can be synched to a scan-and-match style music locker-a feature called "iTunes Match"-which would then give it the same synching benefits of iTunes purchased music. The songs provided will be at 256 kbps. Any songs not matchable to iTunes' 18 million-strong catalog will be individually uploaded. This feature costs $25 a year.

All these "iTunes in the Cloud" features are just one of nine total iCloud services offered at launch. The others include photos, books, documents, apps and utility functions like email, calendar, and contacts, plus a general backup feature. For those other types of content, the system is simple: any content created or acquired on one iOS device is automatically synced to the cloud and pushed down to all other iOS connected devices. The three different features of the music element are the only exception.

iCloud replaces the entire MobileMe line, which Jobs on stage said "wasn't our fines hour." The MobileMe syncing feature for mail, calendar and contacts was a rare misstep for Apple, and the iCloud feature was long expected to replace it.

As for the music, it flatly beats both music locker offerings from competitors Amazon.com and Google in terms of both cost and features. As the only licensed service, it does not require users to spend days, or longer, uploading every individual file from their music libraries for online backup. And in the context of the broader Apple iCloud strategy, its certainly a nice addition to the many other features Apple introduced today.

But in the grand scheme of digital music, this is not the revolutionary new music experience so many had hoped for. There's no music recommendation features, no sharing functions, no discoverability. It's hard to consider this anything but a minor step, albeit an important first one.

We'll break out the bigger-picture analysis of this news in a separate post. Details soon.