Welcome to the Internet, Steve

Does the release of iCloud mean Apple finally gets the Web?

Steve Jobs introduces iCloud

Apple has never quite embraced the Internet. Sure, it runs the world’s largest digital store, selling more music and apps than anyone else. But if you believe that the “cloud” is becoming the nexus of computing—if you believe we’re entering an era in which we’ll store most of our music, movies, photos, and documents online, making them available wherever we have a network connection—Apple’s products have long seemed antiquated. The iPhone and iPad, for instance, have always required you to sync data through a wired connection with your PC—an annoying tic that lags far behind Google’s cable-shunning Android OS.

I don’t think it’s right to say that Apple didn’t get the cloud. It’s more that the Internet’s everything’s-free ethos hasn’t meshed with the company’s business model. Apple makes loads of money by selling hardware and software at a huge markup. The idea of giving stuff away—and supporting that plan through ads—was anathema to Steve Jobs and company. Apple charged $99 a year for MobileMe, its online e-mail and calendar sharing and syncing system. Google, of course, gives all those programs away for nothing.

But starting today, to hear Steve Jobs tell it on Monday afternoon, all that’s changed. At Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference, the CEO announced that the company is killing MobileMe and replacing it with iCloud—a new system that will build Internet-smarts into all of Apple’s gadgets. It was an impressive demo, not least because Apple has decided to give away nearly all of these services for free. If the company can make iCloud run without hiccups—an open question, considering all the trouble it had launching MobileMe—it will be one of the biggest tests yet to Google’s cloud hegemony.

For a few months now, Apple’s executives have been claiming that the iPad has ushered in a new computing era—the “post-PC” world, as they put it. Taken together, the features Jobs announced on Monday are the company’s down payment on that claim. iCloud largely dispenses with the need for cables, meaning that you can use the iPhone and iPad even if you don’t own a laptop or desktop. This could become a major selling point for iPads: Outside of the United States, and especially in Asia, there are hundreds of millions of people in this boat, Apple says—people who want to use phones and tablets as their only computers, not just as an adjunct to the machine on their desks. “If you want to cut the cord, you can,” said Scott Forstall, Apple’s head of iOS development.

In many ways, though, iCloud is less forward-looking than tail-chasing—a belated response to Google’s cache of free Web tools. Now your iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch will automatically sync your e-mail and calendar across your devices, instantly, over the Internet. Yippee!—but I’ve been able to do that on Android phones, or even on my iPhone using Google’s services, for years. This explains part of Apple’s motivation here. Android devices are selling well, and Apple is desperate to keep the iPhone and iPad ahead.

But I bet that’s not the only reason Apple has changed its tune about the cloud. Baking the Internet into its devices just makes for a better user experience—and a better user experience is always Apple’s goal (and makes for terrific TV commercials, too). There’s no better example of this than the magnificent new photo-syncing feature: Any picture you take on either device will instantly appear on all of your machines (including your Windows PC). And when you import pictures from your digital camera into your computer, they show up on your iPhone and iPad, too. Apple does this all for free—its servers will store 30 days of your photo stream, no matter how large your photos, and it will automatically sync your last 1,000 photos with your devices. (Documents will work the same way. When you edit a presentation on your iPad, the changes get sent to your Mac and PC.)

Apple has also decided not to cede any ground to Amazon and Google when it comes to digital music storage. Over the last few months both Amazon and Google launched online “locker” services that allow you to upload your songs to their servers. This eliminates the need for syncing—you’ll always have your music wherever you have an Internet connection. But these lockers have a huge shortcoming: Uploading music can take weeks. (That’s no lie—I began uploading my music to Google’s new service early in May, and all the songs in my 30GB library only made it up to Google’s servers last week.)

Apple’s iCloud dispenses with that hassle. For one thing, the company has obtained agreements from record labels that allow you to sync any song you’ve already purchased on iTunes to all of your devices. For music that you haven’t purchased from iTunes—in other words, for stuff you’ve gotten from CDs or through less legal means—Apple has another plan, called iTunes Match. iTunes will scan your library, match your songs to copies it has in iTunes, and then allow you to access those iTunes songs on all your devices. In other words, you don’t have to upload any music—you get all your songs everywhere in minutes, not weeks.

iTunes Match is a brilliant solution to the problem of uploading, but it’s also an expensive one. Apple had to sign deals with record labels to make the service possible—and if you want to use the service, you’ve got to help defray the costs of those deals. At $25 a year, iTunes Match is the only part of iCloud that will carry a fee.

Is it worth it? If you don’t have a lot of music or a lot of devices, you probably don’t need iTunes Match. If you want to sync your music between, say, your iPod and your laptop, it’s easy enough to just use a USB cable every couple of weeks. But if you’ve got a bunch of music on a bunch of devices—your Windows machine at home and your Mac at work, your iPad and your wife’s iPhone—it’s worth considering.

I wouldn’t dive in just yet, though. That’s because I imagine that the $25 a year fee will one day go away. Apple has demonstrated, with everything else in iCloud, that it’s willing to give away its whole digital catalog in order to keep its hyper-profitable gadgets ahead of the competition. As soon as Google offers iTunes Match-style scanning-and-matching for free—which is exactly the sort of thing Google would do—Apple won’t be far behind. Now that Jobs has finally found the Internet, don’t expect him to give it up.