Preparations begin at Moscone West, San Francisco for WWDC 2011 | Photo: @argv0
As we begin the run up to WWDC 2011 it is time to look at a number of rumours that have surfaced over the last few months and see if there is a discernible pattern emerging that will give a picture of how Apple will play out the second half of 2011 and beyond. In a number of Fast Forward feature articles World of Apple will attempt to do just that.
One of the most complex pieces of the puzzle is Apple’s cloud vision, with little more than a few scant rumours to go by looking at this potentially huge move for Apple relies on a lot of forward thinking. In addition Apple’s moves in regard to the cloud will no doubt affect how it develops products that will integrate with the cloud, I’m not just talking about software but also hardware. What’s presented in this article is a compilation of not just rumours but also knowledge and ‘smart speculation’.
Let’s quickly look at what exactly the term ‘cloud’ means, many people use it in many different ways but with this article I want to focus on just one particular aspect of the cloud. The term cloud refers to resources and applications stored in a remote location to the users hardware and accessed via the internet. The cloud takes many different forms, for example cloud storage such as Dropbox allows me to seamlessly store files in the cloud and have them accessed from any internet connected device, anywhere in the world. Software can also operate solely out of the cloud, for example Gmail is effectively an email application in the cloud.
Of course Apple already makes extensive use of the cloud through its MobileMe service; email, contacts, bookmarks, and calendars are all stored in the cloud and accessible via the internet. Apple also has a number of cloud software options, namely the MobileMe applications but also iWork.com a service launched in January 2009. Whilst iWork.com pales in comparison to Google Docs or Microsoft’s Windows Live Office, it does allow the storage of documents for viewing and commenting but not editing—as of yet.
So let’s look at storage first, I’ll assume that Apple will not regress its current cloud services and only improve upon them so contacts, email, bookmarks and calendars will remain stored in the cloud and accessible via any internet connected device. MobileMe’s current syncing is relatively robust, making it a cinch to move all this data between new computers and iOS devices.
iTunes in the cloud
The biggest rumours around Apple’s cloud movements surround not only the gigantic pair of data centres that the company has built in North Carolina but also how iTunes will fit into the space. Recent moves by both Amazon and Google give some hints as to what is possible with music in the cloud arena. Announced in early May Google Music is a service that allows streaming of music stored in the cloud to Android devices and any device capable of using Adobe Flash. Google’s offering is remarkably similar to that of Amazon’s Cloud Drive service that allows music stored in the cloud to be streamed to devices or to Amazon’s special Cloud Player app.
Following the release of these two offerings from Google and Amazon a number of music labels came forward to express how much they hoped Apple’s service to be superior to both the current available services. Both Google and Amazon lack licences from the big four music labels, leaving them wide open to copyright issues. It is already known that Apple has inked a deal with Warner Music Group and other labels are said to be behind Apple’s initiative. So what could Apple deliver that is so different?
As documented by this VentureBeath review of Google Music the issues facing cloud-based music are huge and difficult to overcome and I believe Apple could easily be ahead of the curve on a number of these. To get music to existing cloud services it needs to be uploaded, this is fine if you have 500 songs but Google can currently store up to 20,000 songs, that’s well in excess of 160GB of music. Just imagine having to upload all that. The key difference is that a lot of music has already been bought from Apple, it wouldn’t be hard for Apple to fill your “iTunes locker” with already purchased music leaving the user to upload the odd CD or free song they’ve amassed elsewhere. It is even possible if Apple has negotiated so that a simple scan of a users iTunes library will yield the same results in an online locker that no uploading would be involved at all.
The other question is how Apple will allow the streaming of the music, I’d like to think that Apple has built a cloud-based iTunes app for organisation and streaming of the music and will make the integration with iOS, Mac and Windows very seamless with the ability to cache playlists for offline playing.
So what does this rely on? One thing we know Apple is garnering that both Google and Amazon don’t have, is the support of at least the big four music labels, report after report over the last month have pointed towards Apple negotiating hard with the labels. Luckily for us those involved with music labels are often equipped with gassy mouths and a number of sources inside labels have confirmed that Apple is signing streaming licenses. We’ve heard that from inside Sony, EMI Group and Warner Music Group with Universal Music Group being close to sealing the deal.
It should be pointed out that Apple needs more than just deals with labels, the company will also need to pen deals with publishers. As outlined by All Things Digital‘s Peter Kafka whilst Warner, EMI and Sony have signed; their publishers Warner/Chappell, EMI Music Publishing and Sony/ATV have not and will need to do so before Apple can go ahead with its iTunes cloud initiative.
Kafka also says that sources in the music industry indicate that Apple “wants to launch–or at least announce–the cloud service at its developers’ conference in early June.”
With strong rumours that Apple purchased iCloud.com for $4.5 million from Swedish company Xcerion it is just another piece in the puzzle for Apple’s cloud vision. [Edit: 31/5, Apple confirms iCloud name in pre-announcement in press release]
What I’ve outlined above is a service that will very seamlessly offer access to almost all the data we all use on a day to day basis. But there are of course still pieces missing, email, contacts, bookmarks, calendars and music in the cloud, what about photos, documents, user profiles and so on? It’s a stretch to suggest that Apple will next month switch entirely to a cloud-based strategy but it will start pushing.
As far as storage is concerned Apple currently offers iDisk, a simple online storage area that is accessible online. iDisk offers rudimentary syncing but not nearly to the same extent as Dropbox. I suspect iDisk won’t go the way of Dropbox just yet but Apple will focus on making iDisk more the centre of where data is stored and making it easier for iOS devices to use that data and save data there.
Add into this the rumoured media/photo streaming that was first spotted in a build of iOS 4.3 back in April. Uncovered by a developer the references suggest a deeply integrated method of media sharing in iOS and presumably extending out into the cloud. The basic idea of the system, based on scant evidence is that a photo album on an iOS device can be made public, shared with others and will automatically sync changes across all shared versions of the album.
Such a deeply integrated cloud system that extends right across Mac OS X and iOS would mean changes for Apple hardware too. One of the best recent examples of how Apple’s cloud ambitions can formidably change Apple’s hardware is the Apple TV. The original Apple TV unveiled in 2007 alongside the iPhone was large, weighty and sold for $299. Compare that to the Apple TV released in 2010 which is smaller, lighter and sells for $99. The key difference in the two products is Apple’s media delivery which changed from storage on the device to streaming to the device via the internet or a networked computer.
Original Apple TV (left) and second generation Apple TV pricing (right)
With this change came another change: Apple stopped advertising the storage capacity of the device (see above). Whilst we now know that the current Apple TV has 8GB of onboard storage for the OS and Apps it is important for the consumer to know this. The key idea is that the less storage a device has the cheaper it can be manufactured, Apple sells the previous generation iPhone (with 8GB of storage) at a cheap price point, could they get away with selling “streaming only” iPhones and iPod touches?
The barrier to such a rapid movement towards streaming only devices is the networks they run on. Cellular networks around the world have become severely strained under the use of the iPhone and other smartphones, in fact many networks have begun putting limits on usage; not something that would be possible if all the data on the device relied on an internet connection, even with copious amounts of caching.
Apple ID Key
Often overlooked is how Apple ties services and hardware together, the Apple ID is already one of the company’s greatest assets. Attached to that email and password combination is access to the App Stores, iTunes, MobileMe or Find my iPhone and FaceTime just to name a few. Of course also hanging on many of those IDs are credit card numbers, hundreds of millions of credit card numbers.
There is some disparity across different IDs that Apple uses currently, for example my Apple ID is not linked to my MobileMe account but with an amalgamation of these IDs and with one simple login I can have a device populated with data from the cloud instantly. A device that now not only has access to all my music, movies and photos via media streams but my contacts, bookmarks, email accounts, calendars, Apps and App data but also my credit card. Apple no doubt has plans to move into the near-field payment systems that other rivals such as Google have begun to push out but that’s another subject for another day.
Apple is likely to offer a tiered package for its cloud services, currently MobileMe is sold for $99/year (£59) and includes many services such as email and contact storage that other services offer for free. I’d expect the current MobileMe elements to turn free with additional cloud services such as the iTunes locker and media streaming being available for a yearly subscription or even a monthly subscription to compete with the likes of Spotify.
Rumours today point towards Apple offering all its cloud services free to those who purchase a copy of Mac OS X Lion but it is not known whether this will be for a limited period of time or indefinitely.
Whilst solid rumours about Apple’s further movement into the cloud space are few and far between we do know that Apple will make an attempt to group its services under the iCloud umbrella. By taking its current MobileMe services, adding in an iTunes locker with the ability to stream to iOS devices, online storage for data and App content and linking it all together with a single ID then Apple will be creating a formidable service many other companies will struggle to compete with.
What we can be sure of is the key role that Mac OS X Lion and iOS will play in creating this cloud experience, the transition to fully cloud-dependent software is surely years away but with an increasing amount of data in the cloud it will make moving from one piece of hardware to another a breeze and will allow the streamlining of devices and reduction in pricing.