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Service-syncing iCloud sets Apple’s course

Apple CEO Steve Jobs gestures his audience during keynote address Apple Worldwide Developers Conference San Francisco Monday June 6 2011.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs gestures to his audience during a keynote address to the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, Monday, June 6, 2011. Paul Sakuma~The Associated Press

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Updated: July 15, 2011 12:10AM

Full-blown Apple dog-and-pony-show keynote events are reliably exciting because they always feature one of two things.

You’re familiar with the kind where a shiny new piece of hardware like the iPad 2 is shown off for the first time, illuminated by spotlights on a softly underlit table. It’s all very photogenic but the real Tabasco comes in those rare events when Apple is ready to announce where it’s taking itself and its users over the next several years.

Monday, in a marathon two-hour presentation before thousands of Macintosh, iPad, and iPhone developers, Apple showed off the new edition of MacOS. It’ll be available next month for just $29 and includes loads of basic tweaks to how Macs and their users interact with apps, files, and workspaces. They also gave iOS 5 its first public demo. Suffice to say that Apple has gotten tired of hearing Google and other Android boosters make the same (and very correct) complaints about iOS year after year and has finally fixed things like the iPhone’s clumsy notifications system, weak e-mail client, slow camera app, and its over-reliance on your desktop computer for things like initial setup, installing OS updates, and syncing data.

But these were just “next logical step” announcements. With those out of the way, Steve Jobs (who had disappeared from the stage after welcoming the audience to the show) returned for what was clearly the main event: iCloud.

On the surface, Apple is just the third major consumer tech company to pull cloud services into their product spotlight in 2011. Observers who thought that the company would just introduce cloud services to allow iTunes to compete with Amazon and Google’s cloud music services clearly don’t know the company very well.

Yes, iCloud greatly enhances the music features of iTunes, iOS devices, and iPods. As with Google Music, you have one music library that syncs automatically with all of your desktop and mobile devices. Just like Amazon Cloud Player, music purchases that you make in the iTunes store instantly go to every library and devices associated with your store account, and you can also redownload anything you’ve ever purchased (including apps, interestingly).

“But what about those hundreds of CDs I ripped?” Unlike Google Music, which requires you to upload your music files to their servers, iCloud gives you the option of just having iTunes scan your library. The service will match your content to high-quality 256Kbps iTunes tracks that Apple already has on its servers, and sync those copies to your other devices. The whole process takes minutes instead of the days you’d spend uploading things to Google Music, and it costs $25 a year for libraries of unlimited size. Presumably that’s a license fee for the record companies.

But iTunes represents just a fraction of Apple’s ambitions. By the end of the year, iCloud will be wired into the DNA of everything Apple makes and the service will influence the entire user experience. The onstage demos were tantalizing. Apple VP Eddy Cue snapped a photo with his iPhone and by the time he picked up his iPad, the iPhone had already uploaded the photo into iCloud and the iPad had already downloaded it into its photo library. And iCloud can sync anything. Cue made an edit to a presentation file on his iPhone. Because he’d told the Keynote app to keep that file synced across all devices, the changes had automatically been applied to the copy on his iPad.

Dropbox is intensely useful, but in the end it’s just a cloud version of a removable USB thumb drive. I copy a document from here to there, then I pick up another device, launch the Dropbox app, and copy it from there to here.

Apple forcefully made the point that iCloud is meant to do no less than replace the PC in its current role as the hub of the digital experience, and relegate it to the status of Just Another Device that syncs data between itself and everything else.

And how much would the iCloud service cost for users?

Not a penny, so long as they’re using less than five gigabytes of data. Which is more than it sounds, because photos and anything you buy from iTunes doesn’t count against your quota.

We’ll have to wait until the fall to give iCloud a real workout. And it’d be silly not to point out that many of iCloud’s features have been seen, in bits and pieces, in previous releases from Apple, Google, and other companies.

But iCloud looks like an example of something that Apple does best. They’re not the company that might be first with a product or feature. They’re not out to win a bar bet. Their goal is to tell a story with their technology. And the mark of a great character is that you can feel their presence in a scene even if he or she is actually miles away.

It’s premature, but the simile has just popped into my head and I can’t resist making it: Apple wants to make sure that if iCloud were a character in a movie, then that character could only be played by Gene Hackman.

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