Apple has announced that iOS 5.0 will allow people to use an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad without first connecting to a computer. You can download software updates wirelessly, and if you do have a computer you synchronize your data with a PC or Mac without wires. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because Apple is also launching a new cloud-based service called iCloud which allows you to backup your data and synchronize it across devices automatically.
You can use iCloud to backup your entire device to the cloud. That means if you buy a new iPhone, you just login to your account and most of your data can be restored to your new device. But on a day to day basis, iCloud also lets you synchronize apps across devices, calendar appointments, contacts, and other data — including iTunes music.
All told, there are 9 key components of iCloud, including the complete device backup and restore functionality. 3 of which used to be part of the company’s $99 per year MobileMe service: Calendars, Contacts, and Mail. The iCloud service lets you continue to manage all three of those apps, but now you can do it for free.
The free iCloud service also works with the App Store, letting you download apps you’ve purchased on any device connected to your ID. You can see a list of apps in your account and click a download link next to any app you’ve already purchased to download it again for free.
Apple’s iBooks service now synchronizes bookmarks, last page read, and other information across devices. This lets you start reading a book on your iPad, and instantly pick up where you left off on an iPhone or iPod touch. Amazon’s Kindle apps and devices already do this, but it’s nice to see it built into iBooks as well.
iCloud will allow you to backup and restore your entire device.
Apple launched new versions of its iWorks suite of apps last week, allowing users with an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad to create, edit, and view spreadsheets, documents, and presentations. It turns out that iCloud functionality is already built into these apps, allowing you to synchronize your documents across devices.
There’s a new Photo Stream service which uploads all of your photos to iCloud and allows you to stream your photos to other devices including an Apple TV.
Finally, Apple is adding iTunes to iCloud. Any song you’ve already purchased from iTunes will now show up in iCloud, allowing you to download your tracks to any device with a click. All future purchases will also be synchronized.
Amazon and Google have recently rolled out online music lockers which lets users upload songs to the cloud for storage, allowing you to stream your tracks to multiple devices. Apple is also taking a different approach. Instead of having you upload your ripped CDs and other music, you can pay $24.99 per year for something called iTunes Match which will scan your music collection and compare it with the 18 million tracks in iTunes. When matches are found, those songs will automatically be added to your account.
So the basic iTunes in the Cloud for purchased tracks is free. But if you want to access your existing collection on iCloud, you have to pay $24.99 per year and you don’t have to upload anything (except for tracks that aren’t already available from iTunes), which makes the process of getting your music collection into iCloud very, very quick.
Apple will offer 5GB of free storage for mail, contacts, and calendar. The entire service will be available for free when iOS 5.0 hits the market this fall. The iTunes in the Cloud features will be available starting today as a beta update for iOS 4.3 users.
Apple is positioning iCloud as an innovative new service that lets you backup your devices without a computer, access all of your iTunes and App Store data without relying on local backups, and access documents, appointments, contacts, and mail from any device. But honestly, the service sounds a lot like what Google already offers. Android users already have their calendar, contacts, and mail stored online and synchronized between devices. You can access your Android Market account across multiple devices. And Amazon and Google are already offering similar music services.
But I’m not aware of another company that’s currently offering as much of a cloud-based service for free as Apple will be bringing to the table with iCloud this fall. The only problem? You’re sort of locked into using Apple’s music store, calendar, appointment, and contact apps, email service, and other tools. But Apple will also be offering iCloud APIs which will allow third party developers to latch into the service so soon you may be able to use other apps with iCloud as well.