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

Banished components of MobileMe

There are also two missing components that are currently included in MobileMe: iDisk and Gallery. Rather than providing simple cloud storage for photos and documents like MobileMe, iCloud offers a far more sophisticated type of cloud storage, complete with version management and push updating across the devices you use.

Rather than being a "virtual disk in the cloud" like Dropbox or the former iDisk, there's now no need for users to manually copy documents to iCloud, manage those documents between devices, or think about how to retrieve those documents from their computers or mobile devices. iCloud taps into both iOS 5 and Mac OS X Lion at the system level, turning iCloud into a core operating system feature that just happens to be hosted by Apple rather than running locally on the machine.

Also missing from MobileMe is the entire concept of web hosting. Apple initially sold its .Mac service as an assortment of email and web hosting features, but relatively few saw the value in having Apple host their content; for users with serious needs for web hosting, Apple's offerings were too little, while casual users rarely had enough need for web hosting to make figuring out how to use .Mac worth their while.

With the transition to MobileMe, Apple downplayed its web hosting services and focused on push messaging, aiming directly at mobile users. This proved to be more popular and valuable to Apple's customers. The move to iCloud just moves further in that direction, erasing web hosting entirely along with the little used iWeb app for Mac OS X, and instead delivering personal document management tools that will be more valuable to most Mac and iOS users.

The result is that iCloud's services are now free rather than $99 per year, with users only needing to pay if they use more than 5GB of storage. The downside is that a few MobileMe users will need to find alternative web hosting services. Fortunately, they are plenty of free or inexpensive web and cloud storage services available to fill the void Apple is leaving behind.

Apple's MobileMe iDisk features were so little used that various features, such as its ability to stream background music playback, were not discovered by the mainstream media until nearly a month after they were released, and services offering similar features, such as Google Music, are still commonly believed to be unmatched by Apple by many tech pundits.

Beyond web apps

It's important to keep in mind that iCloud itself goes beyond just being a suite of web apps; just like MobileMe before it, iCloud is integrated right into the operating system as a core service on both iOS 5 and Mac OS X Lion.

Developers have expanded opportunities for integrating the new service into their own apps, and Apple has taken the lead in weaving its iCloud services deep into iPhoto, iTunes, iWork, messaging apps, and even core OS features such as Mac OS X's "Back to My Mac," which provides a secure way to discover and reach network sharing services on your home machine remotely across the Internet.

The next segment looking at iCloud will examine how Apple is serving up its a new generation of cloud storage and document sync features that extend beyond the web apps, basic push messaging and content sync features of today's MobileMe.

Inside iCloud: Apple's new web services for iOS and Mac OS X Lion
Inside iCloud: Apple's new Documents & Data cloud service