Apple’s iCloud could, despite a few quirks, provide the basis for a vibrant, open ecosystem

Apple has finally bitten the bullet and embraced the cloud, breaking with its previous, incomprehensible reluctance to do so: as a result, it is now finally a step ahead of Google, which still hasn’t grasped why there still is a distinction to be made between server and client. Or, as John Gruber put it:

This is a fundamentally different vision for the coming decade than Google’s. In both cases, your data is in the cloud, and you can access it from anywhere with a network connection. But Google’s vision is about software you run in a web browser. Apple’s is about native apps you run on devices. Apple is as committed to native apps — on the desktop, tablet, and handheld — as it has ever been.

Somewhat belatedly, Apple beats its breast and admits the ‘PC as the hub of your digital life’ is a broken concept

Over-the-air activation and software updates—which should have been there all along—have finally come to iOS. Also, as widely expected, Apple finally launched its new, rebranded cloud service, iCloud—in the hope that it would prove worthier than its embattled predecessor MobileMe—and made it free. Steve Jobs was pretty candid about this, describing Apple’s vision of the PC as the ‘hub of your digital life’ as broken. It’s surprising that it took them so long to recognise this obvious fact, but it’s just possible that the solution they are now offering will put an end to what was increasingly becoming a major source of embarrassment.

Of course, a lot of the functionality touted by Apple in its iCloud presentation was already there: contact and calendar synchronisation worked well recently in MobileMe, after some rough beginnings—and at an exorbitant cost of $99; in fact, Google’s defective contact management meant that I continued using MobileMe for contacts while having binned it for my calendar and email. I don’t expect to switch back to Apple for either of the latter—certainly not for email until Apple allows me to use my own domain for email, like Google has done for years.

I’ll almost certainly be using Photo Stream, the new image storage solution which, I assume, will properly connect with Aperture on my Macs although only iPhoto was mentioned in the keynote.

The fact that Apple has unveiled what—on the face of it—appears to be a partially-open system is crucial

Apple’s economic model here, from what I have seen in the keynote itself, is unclear. Because Apple are releasing iCloud Storage APIs, iCloud won’t be a closed system. This means third party developers will quickly start offering storage on iCloud, creating an ecosystem sharing the convenience of what is likely to quickly become a major player in the Cloud segment, along with established players like Dropbox. At present, Apple are announcing they will store photos on their servers for only thirty days, as part of the announced free package; your iTunes purchases (or music you have ripped yourself if it’s available on the iTunes Music store) will be pushed to all your devices via iCloud—the rest of your music and other items can be added via iTunes Match for 25,000 songs, at an annual costs of $24.95: in total, Apple has announced that it is offering free storage of 5GB, but of course this service is only likely to gather meaningful traction if users are offered the opportunity to store all and any items they hold permanently—and obviously, that’s not a service Apple can viably offer for free.

iTunes Match will most likely turn out to be a nightmare for classical music listeners

Because most of my music is actually classical music that I’ve ripped from my CDs—in many case recordings that are old and not longer commercially available—I don’t expect iTunes Match will work well for me, another example of Apple’s insanely philistine approach to classical music, effectively behaving as if classical music didn’t exist: I very much doubt that Apple’s 5GB free storage limit will suffice to fit all the classical music I own which isn’t available on iTunes. Will Apple offer extra storage for an additional fee? This hasn’t been mentioned—but if they don’t, many users will be on to a serious problem.

Those who primarily—or only—listen to classical music will face another issue: indexation. The infrastructure for digital music (software, iPods, tagging, searching, browsing, etc.) is largely based on the Artist-Song-Album (ASA) concept. This works fine for pop music in general, and also for jazz and many other genres.

With classical music, however, this system simply doesn’t make sense: the notions of ‘interpreter’ and ‘composer’ simply don’t have the same meaning as they do with other genres; Something like “You’ve been listening to the final and fifth movement ‘Allegro appassionato’ from string quartet no. 15 in A minor, opus 132 by Dimitri Shostakovich, performed by the Emerson Quartet on their latest album on Deutsche Grammophon” simply can’t be reflected using the ASA system. Because of this I’ve actually retagged most of my music, switching artist and composer round, using scripts to automate the process. The logistics of this are well described in a 2006 article by Stan Brown; an alternative approach, which I actually prefer, can be found on scene24.net.

I’m pretty certain iTunes Match will not work with classical music that is available in the iTunes Store, but has been retagged to rid it of the absurdities of ASA: at best, the music will revert to its original ASA format; at worst, it won’t be recognised at all, meaning the corresponding music will count against one’s 5GB storage allowance.

iCloud is a step towards Apple winning the war of titans against Google—providing it accepts the development of a third-party developer-fuelled ecosystem to sustain its attraction to users

This issue apart, it simply doesn’t make sense for Apple not to offer additional storage plans, so that users can store all their data in one location: it has the makings of a system that allows it to compete head on with Dropbox and Box.net in a way that is both innovative and more tightly integrated with one’s various devices. The announced storage APIs make this scenario a near certainty. I suspect I will continue to use Dropbox to store and sync my photos and music, because of the likely issues in iTunes Match with classical music, and because I don’t think Apple’s privacy policy will be a stringent as the smaller players’.

I ought to add a final word about the Apple vs. Google battle. A couple of months ago, I had berated Google’s exclusive focus on the web browser—and, one might add, on its own Chrome browser. This tale has now taken on a new twist, with Apple frankly recognising its past mistakes and promising to atone for them. If their new-found determination to cut the cord and at last put the hub of their users’ web presence where it ought to have been for years—in the cloud—unfolds as promised, this war will increasingly become Google’s to lose. But for its change of heart to be a success, Apple will have give users as rich a choice as possible: this means providing well-designed applications for accessing their data, in the Apple tradition—something Google refuses to do—but also opening their cloud ecosystem to third-party developers and offering users—most likely at an additional charge—the opportunity to store than 5GB of data on iCloud.

By doing this Dropbox has become the solution of choice for cloud storage: only by doing at least as much to develop an ecosystem around its own cloud solution can Apple convincingly claim to have put paid to its past reputation for providing pleasant but utterly closeted walled gardens to its users.