Oct 222011

Droppin' on y'all

On October 12th Apple had their largest upgrade rollout ever. On top of that, the iCloud service went public. Let’s look at all that was going on for a typical Mac + iDevice + Mobile Me user that day:

  • On the Mac, install OS X Lion 10.7.2, Lion Recovery Update, and iTunes 10.5
  • On the iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad, install iOS 5
  • On one of these devices, go through the iCloud setup to create an account or migrate an existing Mobile Me account
  • On the other devices, set up iCloud
  • Repeat as necessary if you have multiple Mac and/or iOS devices

For an individual with multiple Macs and iOS devices, that’s a busy day. For a household with multiple people with multiple Macs and iOS devices, that’s a busy weekend or two (I’m in to my second).

Considering all that was going on the update and cloud services held up pretty well, with some temporary outages here and there. Apple’s authentication process for the iOS 5 update seemed to be hardest hit. This resulted in many people having trouble getting through the iOS 5 install process after the download. Within a few hours the problem had abated. Later in the week Apple reported that they would have to throttle iCloud conversions due to the heavy load. I’m not sure if this is still going on, but I’ve migrated three accounts so far without any trouble.

So what did all this get us? On the surface and in casual use little appears to have changed. But there is a lot of new stuff.

iOS 5:
The Notification Center is a big time-saver or time-suck depending on how you view notifications. It covers everything from instant messages to calendar invites to task reminders and of course letting you know it’s your turn in Words with Friends. You can configure how (or if) it displays notifications from each and every app, so you can set your own personal level of distraction.

Reminders is a to-do list with the neat trick of being location-aware, so that reminders can be triggered by location in addition to date and time. For example, you could set a reminder to pick up band-aids when you are near the drug store. Or, not to stare at the teenage girls when you are picking your son up from middle school. Handy.

Twitter is integrated throughout the OS as a service that any app can tap in to. So tweeting can happen from the Photos app directly, for example. Or the Flashlight app. The likely upshot of this is tweets will become more prevalent and less interesting, so use with caution.

The ability to sync iOS to iTunes on a Mac or PC over wi-fi is a new feature that would have been more important to have years ago, since with this update iOS devices gain a great deal of independence from desktop syncing due to the iCloud services. More on that below.

Apple says there are more than 200 new features in iOS 5. For a full rundown visit the iOS Feature page.

The purpose and design of iCloud seems to be narrowly focused on liberating iOS devices from dependance on a Mac or PC. iCloud becomes the dock for your device, and it’s always connected. In many ways iCloud is the biggest update to the iOS ecosystem, and also the most hidden. So what is iCloud?

It’s a service that provides e-mail, calendar and contact storage in the cloud. It also replicates content and provides backup services for your iOS devices and apps. For a complete rundown visit the iCloud Feature page.

It does these things as automatically and unobtrusively as possible. You don’t ‘sync’, you don’t launch an ‘update’, iCloud just pushes and pulls data to and from your device as it sees fit, behind the scenes and without any input on your part. Clearly, the message is “don’t worry your pretty little head about it”. And that gets to the heart of what iCloud isn’t.

iCould isn’t a general-purpose online storage system. You don’t get and put files there like with Mobile Me’s iDisk. iCloud doesn’t help you share things with people. Photo Stream doesn’t share pictures, which Photo Gallery did. iCloud is for your devices, and if anything it makes it even harder to share your iOS device, since there can only be one iCloud account on it and any changes to apps or their data automatically occur on your other devices.

So iCloud = Personal. Not for sharing. Why not? Well, Flickr and Twitter and Facebook and everyone else does that and Apple has no reason to compete with or restrict use of those services. There is no revenue in it for them since Apple isn’t chasing eyeballs to push ads at. Their revenue comes from increasing the value proposition of iDevices and Macs, and encouraging owning multiples of these things. iCloud does that.

At first, iCloud’s limitations seem irritating. But by focusing on cutting the cord to iTunes, replacing the most useful features of Mobile Me, providing those features for free to everyone and making it frictionless for the user, they have built a foundation for cloud services for the masses. Again they are focusing on a broad audience of non-technical people, rather than chasing a feature set desired by techies. So as a recovering (i.e. deteriorating) techie, I’m learning to stop worrying and love the bomb*.

*iCloud = the bomb.