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Thursday, August 04, 2011, 01:00 pm PT (04:00 pm ET)

Inside iCloud: Apple's new web services for iOS and Mac OS X Lion

Apple's iCloud services, announced this summer at the company's Worldwide Developer Conference, are quickly maturing for their initial release this fall. Here's what's new and what's changed.

Speaking at WWDC, Apple's chief executive Steve Jobs presented iCloud as three groups of online services that would be provided to iOS and Mac OS X Lion users in a composite package under the new brand name, replacing most of the company's existing MobileMe services.

The package is referred to as various "cloud" services because they are hosted on remote servers and available to desktop or mobile clients anywhere on the Internet through its nebulous cloud of network routers.

iCloud combines an improved group of messaging-related services originating in the existing MobileMe (including Mail, Contacts, Calendar) with a greatly expanded set of document and media-related services (including Photo Stream and Documents & Data), as well as an entirely new iCloud backup and new "iTunes in the Cloud" services to keep content (from music and video to apps and iBooks) wirelessly up to date across a user's devices.

A host of improvements over MobileMe

The first segment of iCloud services are essentially the next generation of Apple's existing MobileMe web apps. The company has enhanced its MobileMe web apps for Mail, Contacts and Calendars, unifying their look with the company's native iPad apps.





Besides the new look consistent with iPad (and Mac OS X Lion) apps, the other obviously discernible difference in iCloud's online Mail, Contacts and Calendar clients is a lot more speed. Working within the apps is simply much faster.

That may be due to the fact that nobody is using iCloud yet apart from Apple's developers testing the new system, but Apple has also greatly expanded its server-side capacity with the introduction of its new data center in North Carolina in addition to newly leased space in Silicon Valley.

One of the core advantages to cloud computing in general is that the vendor can flexibly allocate new server hardware to handle demand from users. This wasn't done exceptionally well for MobileMe, which is fairly slow in the US and painfully lethargic in many other countries.

However, it appears Apple has learned a lot since, and the deployment of its massive new server in North Carolina (along with other leased data center locations) will go a long way to backing up the intention of delivering a service that can sustain better performance. It's still not clear whether such a centralized service will work well for users outside the US, without some kind of help from CDN providers or local outposts of Apple run server locations. With more and more of Apple's business occurring outside the US, this will be an increasingly important issue.

The performance of iCloud's web apps is a combination of server capacity (now greatly enhanced), server-side software sophistication (which keeps improving, as noted below), network speed and latency (which Apple can't control for clients) and client side browser sophistication (which similarly keeps improving, allowing HTML5-style apps to increasingly improve in responsiveness, in part by leveraging hardware acceleration and improved JavaScript execution).

On page 2 of 3: What's new in iCloud's web apps.