Apple unveils iCloud, iOS 5 and Mac OS X Lion

Apple CEO Steve Jobs today took the stage at his company’s annual developers conference to tout the new iOS 5, the upcoming Lion edition of Mac OS X and the firm’s new cloud service, iCloud.

As expected, the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) keynote focused on software, and unlike the last several years, did not introduce a new iPhone.

“If the hardware is the brain and the sinew of the product, the software in the middle is the soul,” Jobs said at the beginning of the two-hour presentation.

Jobs, who remains on an indefinite medical leave , used his second public appearance this year to demonstrate iCloud, the new free online sync and storage service that for most users will replace the three-year-old MobileMe.

Most analysts and pundits had predicted that iCloud would feature a music streaming or subscription service . But they were wrong.

Instead, iCloud serves as a music, photo, app, document and other data sync service that keeps multiple devices up-to-date with user-purchased or -created content.

“I’m impressed,” said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, of iCloud. “The price is certainly right.”

iCloud will be free to owners of any iOS-powered device or Mac, Jobs said several times during his time on stage.

Unlike the music “locker” services that Amazon and Google launched earlier this year, Apple’s iCloud does not require users to upload their tunes to a central server. In iCloud, the tracks are not streamed from such a server, but are instead quickly downloaded at user request to up to 10 iOS devices or Macs, where they can then be played.

“This is the first time we’ve seen this in the music industry…, no charge for multiple downloads to different devices,” said Jobs.

Tracks and albums purchased through Apple’s iTunes are available for downloading — Apple called it “iTunes in the Cloud” — for free, but to do the same with other music, such as albums that a user has “ripped” from a purchased CD, customers will need to subscribe to “iTunes Match” for $24.99 annually – a service not yet available in Canada.

iTunes Match doesn’t require users to actually upload their music library to a server. Instead, said Jobs, the service scans a customer’s collection, matches it against the 18 million tracks in Apple’s store, then makes the matches available for instant downloading to the maximum 10 devices or computers.

“This takes minutes, not weeks,” said Jobs, taking a jab at rivals Amazon and Google. “If you have to upload your entire library to some service in the cloud, that could take weeks.”

Other features of iCloud include contact, calendar and mail synchronization across multiple devices — a duty the $99-per-year MobileMe currently serves — as well as syncing purchased apps, photos and iBook-bought books; storing email messages and documents; and backing up selected data.

Document syncing is enabled in the newest versions of Apple’s own productivity apps — Pages, Numbers and Keynote — but will require third-party developers to revamp their software to use iCloud.

Users will receive a 5GB storage allowance for storing email messages and documents, and for backing up other data.

Contrary to some rumors, which had pegged immediate iCloud availability, the service will launch along with iOS 5 this fall. Developers, however, will get their hands on a beta edition today, as well as access to the APIs (application programming interfaces) necessary to sync data in their programs using the service.

Gottheil applauded iCloud’s approach.

“It makes a lot of sense…. Apple doesn’t want to store all your stuff, but it’s going to try really, really hard to make it so that you can easily get to all the stuff you currently have,” Gottheil said.

He was even more impressed with Apple’s business sense, and saw iCloud as another way the company will leverage its software — or in this case a service — to sell more hardware.

“Apple’s saying, ‘We want everyone to join our club, but now we don’t charge a membership fee. You buy our hardware, and you’re in the club,” said Gottheil. “Apple will store your data, put your pictures and music where you can get them, all that kind of stuff. ‘Join the Apple club and we’ll take care of you,’ they’re saying. ‘Don’t pay any attention to the price of the thing [the hardware], what you’re buying is a way of doing these sorts of things.”

During the keynote, Jobs ceded the stage to other Apple executives, who highlighted Mac OS X 10.7, better known as Lion, as well as iOS 5, the next version of the mobile operating system that powers the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.

Philip Schiller, Apple’s vice president of marketing, and Craig Federighi, the company’s vice president of Mac software engineering, walked the audience of developers through 10 of the new features in Lion, which Apple will release next month.

Apple plans to sell Lion exclusively through its own Mac App Store for $29.99, the same price as the 2009 upgrade to Snow Leopard.

Previously, Apple had charged $129 for its operating system upgrades.

Scott Forstall, Apple’s senior vice president of iOS software, introduced iOS 5, and like Schiller and Federighi, focused on just 10 features.

Apple said the iOS upgrade will ship this fall, presumably alongside or perhaps slightly before the launch of the next-generation iPhone.

Most experts expect Apple to debut the iPhone 5 — called the iPhone 4S by some — in September.

“iOS 5 is a major release,” said Forstall. “This is incredible for our developers and our customers.”

Among the iOS 5 features Forstall highlighted were in-app notifications, a magazine- and newspaper-subscription tool called Newsstand that periodically downloads new issues in the background for offline reading, a new tool for short lists or reminders not tagged to the calendar, and tighter integration with the micro-blogging service Twitter.

“We want to make it even easier for all our customers to use Twitter in our iOS products,” said Forstall, who demonstrated a single-sign-on for the service and built-in Twitter support for several Apple-designed apps, including Camera, Photo and Safari.

Apple will also refresh the iOS version of Safari for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch to offer browser tabs — which the desktop edition already sports — as well as Reading List, which lets users mark Web pages, then synchronizes the list across multiple devices for later reading.

Other apps included with the operating system will also receive new features and tweaks, including Camera — which will let users zoom by pinching fingers on the screen, and allow simple in-app editing — and Mail. The latter will offer full-text searches

The highlight of Forstall’s presentation, however, was the announcement that iOS 5 will cut the cable and allow users to activate a new device and grab software updates on existing ones without connecting to a Mac or Windows PC running iTunes.

Apple has named the feature “PC Free.”

“You can now set up and activate your device right on the device and you are ready to go. It’s that easy,” said Forstall.

According to Apple, PC Free will rely on a Wi-Fi network to synchronize and back up user-owned content from their mobile devices to their iTunes library housed on a Mac or PC.

Gottheil was more taken with Lion’s new features than iOS 5’s.

“They smoothed some of the rough edges to iOS,” Gottheil said, “but in terms of sheer creativity and innovation, I like Lion better. Desktop OSes are 20th century, and intrinsically limited. But Apple’s gone back and said, ‘What can we do to give [Mac OS X] a new life?'”

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld.

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