First Take: Apple's iCloud service

The introduction of the iCloud at today's WWDC keynote signals Apple's shift to cloud-based backups, syncing, and moving files seamlessly among all your devices, whether you have an iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Mac, or PC.

The introduction of the iCloud at today's WWDC keynote symbolizes Apple's shift to cloud-based backups, syncing, and moving files seamlessly among all your devices, whether you have an iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Mac, or PC. Just like Google's offerings (Doc and Calendar syncing, and Picasa, as examples), iCloud lets you sync media, apps, music, documents, calendars, and more automatically. It's important to note that Android has had the download and sync features since February of this year.

As usual at Apple's keynote events, Steve Jobs was not the only person on the stage demonstrating the latest and greatest from Apple. Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, came up to talk about multitouch gestures on the Mac, for example. Craig Federighi, senior vice president of Apple software, then came up to demo some of the new features of full-screen apps. But when it was time to talk about iCloud, it was Steve Jobs who did the talking. In other words, however you feel about iCloud, it seemed to be the "main event" that Apple seemed to be most excited about.

iCloud is Apple's move toward making your most important data and content available on all your devices. If you buy a song on iTunes, it will be automatically pushed immediately to devices under the same account, for example. For more on iTunes and Apple's iTunes Matching features, read Donald Bell's coverage.

Similarly, when you take a photo, your image will immediately become available under your Photo Stream on all devices and desktops. Read more about the new Camera app and iCloud Photo Stream features in Lori Grunin's post.

iCloud will offer wireless backup of all your phone's settings including contacts; purchased music, apps, and books; pictures; device settings; and app data. (Credit: Donald Bell/CNET)

Beyond those two multimedia additions, you'll also have what Apple calls "all-access apps." This means that regardless of what device you used to buy the app, your purchase info will be sent to the cloud and that app can be pushed to all of your devices. If you lose your iPhone or buy a new iOS device, you'll be able to get all your old apps and info onto the new device wirelessly, just like on Android. Many users have complained about the need to always sync on the iPhone (while Android users have had this convenience since February), but with these added iCloud features, it just might be the reason you decide to go with an iPhone on your next upgrade.

Along with all-access apps, you'll have the same type of access to your iBooks. Just like with apps, when you buy a new book, it is first sent to iCloud, then sent to all your iOS devices, desktop, and laptop computers under the same account. As an added bonus, if you're reading an iBook and place a bookmark or highlight text you want to look at later, when you visit the same book on another device you'll be able to pick up reading where you left off, and all your highlighted text and notes will be there.

Apps can store documents in iCloud, iCloud can push documents to devices automatically, and documents update on all devices when changes are made. (Credit: Donald Bell/CNET)

iCloud will also save and distribute all your documents to all your devices. This means you'll be able to edit a document in any of the iWork apps (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) and the content will be pushed to your other devices and desktops. Google Docs already has this functionality (as a Web-based offering, you're always working in the cloud), so as far as currently available office apps, Apple has done little new here and you'll initially need to buy the iWork apps to use these functions--a cost not incurred by using current Google offerings. But Apple also announced the availability of the iCloud tools for developers to use in third-party apps, which means that future office apps, work done in other supported specialty apps, and even games will seamlessly sync across all your devices and computers.

A new regular backup feature will send all your data on your iPhone to iCloud once a day. So, beyond your app purchases, iBook reading and bookmarking, and other iCloud features mentioned here, there will also be a daily backup of docs, iTunes music, your calendar, contacts, and app data, so you always know every device has the latest data.

At the keynote, Apple illustrated how Calendar data would automatically sync to all your devices. (Credit: Donald Bell/CNET)

In addition to the daily backup, your Mail, Calendar, and Contacts will be backed up to iCloud. Similar to the Google app experience, but on iOS devices, you'll now have all your mail, appointments, and contacts automatically pushed to every device. It even works with Microsoft Exchange server, so Office (Windows or Mac) users can have e-mails automatically pushed to Outlook.

When you're able to set up iCloud this fall, you'll get 5GB of data storage for free and a free e-mail account.

Overall, it looks like Apple's free iCloud service will make syncing your data and media a painless, wireless task, but Google already offers many of these features on the Android and Google Docs. While many features offered with iCloud mimic what Google Docs already offers, additional features like wireless iOS upgrades, wireless buying and sharing of music and photos, and the ability to keep every device up to date with the latest data, make it an excellent upgrade for iOS users. It will be interesting to see what pitfalls emerge with what will be an enormous amount of traffic initially and if Apple is able to pull it all off when iCloud and iOS 5 become available this fall.

About Jason Parker

Jason Parker has been at CNET for more than 13 years. He is the Senior Editor in charge iOS software and has become an expert reviewer of the software that runs on each new Apple device. He now spends most of his time covering Apple iOS releases and third-party apps.