Get the Lowest Prices anywhere on Macs, iPads and Apple Watches: Apple Price Guides updated January 25th


Inside OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion GM: using iCloud as the smart, automated way to store documents

In OS X Mountain Lion, iCloud begins to take shape as the smart, automated way to store documents on a per-app, device independent basis, incrementally displacing the local file system that non-technical users have long struggled to comprehend and replacing it with a cloud-based service that connects and synchronizes desktop and mobile devices via the Internet.

Steve Jobs debuted Apple's iCloud strategy last summer at the company's 2011 Worldwide Developer Conference. Over the past year, iCloud may have appeared to be simply a renaming of Apple's beleaguered MobileMe, as it has principally provided the same email, contacts and calendar services that MobileMe has since 2008 (and .Mac had since 2002). However, Jobs' vision for the future of iCloud went well beyond the commonplace internet accounts at the heart of MobileMe and its .Mac predecessor.

Jobs initially outlined his vision for cloud computing in a presentation at WWDC 1997, where he described the cloud storage network technologies put into place at NeXT over the previous decade. At the time, these features were simply too complex and expensive to broadly offer to consumers. However, fourteen years later Jobs described at WWDC 2011 how Apple would be deploying iCloud as the "next big insight."

Jobs' "big insight" focused on the problems of having multiple desktops and mobile devices, each with its own local file system storing documents, music, photos and other media. "Keeping these devices in sync is driving us crazy!" he said. “We’ve got a solution for this problem. We’re going to demote the PC and the Mac to just be a device. We’re going to move your hub, the center of your digital life, into the cloud.”

iCloud takes shape under OS X Lion

Seven years ago, speaking at the "All Things Digital" conference in 2005, Jobs noted that "in every user interface study we’ve ever done," Apple found that "it’s pretty easy to learn how to use these things until you hit the file system and then the learning curve goes vertical. So you ask yourself, why is the file system the face of the OS? Wouldn’t it be better if there was a better way to find stuff?"

Jobs then contrasted the conventional OS-level file system for managing documents on a computer to an email application, explaining that "there’s always been a better way to find stuff. You don’t keep your e-mail on your file system, right? The app manages it. And that was the breakthrough, as an example, in iTunes," Jobs stated.

"You don’t keep your music in the file system, that would be crazy. You keep it in this app that knows about music and knows how to find things in lots of different ways. Same with photos: we’ve got an app that knows all about photos. And these apps manage their own file storage."

Six years later, Jobs unveiled iCloud as the solution to multi-device, cross platform media and document access, moving a variety of data stores that were once tied to a particular Mac into the cloud.

iTunes Match

"iTunes in the Cloud," and in particular its iTunes Match feature (above), would allow users to access their Mac's entire iTunes music collection from their iOS devices, for example, while iCloud's new PhotoStream feature (below) let users see their photos anywhere, from mobile devices to their Macs to their living room television via Apple TV. New purchases from the App Store, iTunes and iBookstore can now appear on any other device the user owns, automatically, via iCloud.

With iCloud, end users don't have to think about where those individual media or app files are stored or how, any more than they have to worry about the precise changes in voltage or magnetic fields that store the bits that represent the data in those files.

In addition to managing apps, photos and music, Apple's iCloud continues to link together users' Macs and iOS devices with network Mail, Contacts, Calendars and Safari bookmarks (and now open tabs, as shown below), having added "everywhere access" for Reminders and Notes and Messages and FaceTime.

iCloud tab listings

Related networking features are also tied to the same iCloud account, including Game Center friends and achievements, Back to My Mac remote access, and the Find My iPhone and Find My Mac services for locating, alerting and remotely wiping missing devices.

Mountain Lion & Documents in the Cloud

The big new iCloud feature in Mountain Lion, however, is completed support for Documents in the Cloud, the foundational network architecture that erases users' dependance upon manually managing documents in the file system.

Apple first debuted the feature in its mobile iWork apps, allowing iOS users to, for example, start work on a Pages document on their iPhone, subsequently make changes on their iPad, and then access the same up-to-data document on their iPhone again for presentation or printing.

In Mountain Lion, developers can add iCloud's "Documents in the Cloud" features to their own apps, allowing users to access and edit documents stored in a central repository (Apple's iCloud servers), so there's no need to manually manage version control or sync updates between a user's computers or other devices.

Additionally, Apple supports cross platform editing of documents between iOS and OS X, erasing the boundaries and limitations of the conventional local file system, physically stored on a single device. While this may sound similar to basic cloud-based file sharing such as Dropbox or Apple's iDisk from ten years ago, it's a lot more sophisticated under the hood, particularly in terms of its app-based security model, as is described below.

Apple hasn't yet released support for "Documents in the Cloud" in its own OS X iWork apps including Pages, Numbers and Keynote because this feature requires the as-yet-unreleased OS X Mountain Lion. But last year, Apple updated its iWork apps to support the new features of OS X Lion after its public release, including Auto Save, Full Screen apps, Resume, and Versions. So it makes sense to expect new OS X updates to iWork as soon as Mountain Lion ships.

On page 2 of 3: iCloud's Documents & Data