June 6th, 2011
11:44 PM ET

Apple's iCloud: A bold step, but not far enough

When Apple boss Steve Jobs took the wraps off iCloud, the company's new cloud services, he gave us a glimpse at the future of computing.

(Confused by cloud computing? Watch News Stream's handy explainer right here!)

What is iCloud? It's a system for storing various bits of your data online, and pushing all that data to all your devices so that they are always in sync. For example, let's say you create a document on your Mac. Without needing to hit "Save", iCloud will automatically save a copy of it online, and push it out so you can edit that same document on your iPhone or iPad.

Apple calls iCloud a breakthrough. Jobs says it's the culmination of a decade-long effort to kill the desktop file system.

It's certainly a bold step forward. But is it bold enough?

iCloud is Apple's attempt to update the "digital hub" model it's used to great success over the last decade. The "digital hub" is the idea that your computer is in the middle of your digital world. Your computer is the master; your phone, camera and music player must all plug into your computer to sync data. Everything is controlled by the computer. Everything is stored on your computer. Want to take a few songs on the road with you? Pick it from your computer's library and send it to your music player.

Except, as Jobs explained, our digital world is a little more complicated today. Take music. Before, only your computer could buy songs. Now? You can buy songs on your computer, phone, tablet or even on an iPod touch. Sharing a song you've bought on one device requires plugging it into the computer to sync, then plugging in the other device to sync that one too. It's cumbersome. It's time consuming. It's messy.

Apple's solution is to "demote" the computer from the central controller to just another device. Now, whenever you buy something, it's immediately available for all the other devices to download wirelessly, including your computer. The cloud is now your digital home.

Except it isn't.

For all the great features in iCloud, there are some startling restrictions.

You may notice that I said you can download whatever you buy to other devices - not stream, download. It does not appear that iCloud will let you seamlessly access your entire music library; if you want a certain song on your iPhone, you need to download it to your iPhone. Amazon and Google's cloud music services allow you to stream music, saving valuable space on your devices and giving you instant access to everything you have (assuming it fits within their storage space, of course.)

You also have to download your data to the appropriate app. Take Apple's demonstration of documents in iWork. You can't access those documents on a website, like Google Docs; you need to open them in one of Apple's iWork apps. You need to buy those apps for iCloud to work. And those apps only exist on iOS devices or the Mac.

I know there are some of you who are about to say: What did you expect? It's Apple. Of course they're pushing Apple apps and Apple devices. This is true. But this also runs against what the cloud is supposed to be.

To me the cloud is embodied by Hotmail, or Google Docs: I can access those services on any device that has an Internet connection. I do not need an Apple device or a particular app; all I need is something with a web browser and a working Internet connection for complete access to my email or my documents.

Photo Stream, Apple's picture sharing system, is the best example of iCloud's power and its limitations. Photo Stream instantly shares photos you've taken with your iPhone with all your devices, so your iPad or computer (or even another iPhone) can immediately browse your latest snaps.

But it was interesting to hear Jobs talk about the computer's demotion to "just another device" minutes before saying that the only thing that will hold all your photos forever is, guess what, your computer. iCloud's servers will only hold the last 30 days worth of photos, long enough for you to sync your devices.

That more than anything shows what iCloud truly is: It's not really about storing data. iCloud is really a glorified sync service that works through online storage. It's clever, and it does look like a really good way of keeping all your devices in sync. But it could have been so much more.

soundoff (50 Responses)
  1. Ville

    "But it could have been so much more." Like what? I'm just curious, I'm not saying it's perfect, I just want to know what you are missing?

    June 7, 2011 at 12:23 am | Reply
  2. Lorenz

    iCloud is useful, sure, but not being able to stream my entire music library from the web or any iOS device is a major deal breaker. I own 50 GB of music, I don't want copies of my entire music library on all my devices, it's not like these devices have that much storage to begin with. I just want to steam my music, and have only one hard copy of it.

    June 7, 2011 at 12:31 am | Reply
  3. aroth

    It's not bold or "a breakthrough". It's Apple following in the footsteps of Amazon and Google, both of whom beat Apple to the punch.

    June 7, 2011 at 1:39 am | Reply
  4. dssad

    Our computing world is getting more and more complicated every day!

    June 7, 2011 at 1:55 am | Reply
  5. Mark Bristow

    This is Apple, of course they are going to restrict. But again, the limitations of IOS 4 have now been super seeded by IOS 5. Apple learn. For a second cloud based service they have hit the nail on the head. And its FREE! For free, how can you expect it to go beyond? Maybe on this platform, like spotify, in the future we may see iTunes stream for a small fee a month. iCloud is a whole lot of service for FREE.

    "But it could have been so much more..." lets see what the next 12 months has to offer eh?

    June 7, 2011 at 2:10 am | Reply
  6. Beyers

    Does this mean that you pay for the download every time ?

    June 7, 2011 at 2:16 am | Reply
  7. Rupert Eden

    This is a good day for the major music corporations who stand to rake in billions but a truly sad day for the little guys at home building a web site about model trains or show dogs, fishing anything using iweb and mobileme. I am very sad to see Apple go down this road when it owes us "little guys" who stuck with the brand through thick and thin over the last 20 years !

    June 7, 2011 at 3:41 am | Reply
  8. Adam

    WHY would you want to use a web app for anything? You honestly want to constantly rely on your data connection to get anything done? There are benefits to both systems of delivery but I prefer to download and know that I have it. If you are looking for basic function and sometimes painfully slow performance, then web apps are fine.
    Streaming? Not something that interests me that much but again, having to have a constant, uninterrupted internet connection isn't something I want to be tethered to (or paying for).
    The whole demotion of the "real computer" to another device obviously only can apply in certain ways. For the grannies who only check their mail and look at a couple hundred photos of their grandkids, the iCloud thing is fine but clearly, if you want to do anything beyond that, you need a "real" computer. I don't personally know anyone who could survive with an iPad alone.
    For me, I think iCloud covers about 75% of what I want. Writing a negative hook article to get front page cred? I guess that worked on me Ravi. Next time, use your imagination and come up with some creative options for what you feel is missing. Maybe check in to why Apple COULDN'T offer streaming and give us the back-story. BTW, what's with references to the "explainer"? Are all CNN articles breaking down vocabulary into "explainer", "see-er", "show-er", "do-er"? Are we suddenly all 4 years old?

    June 7, 2011 at 3:52 am | Reply
  9. marperl

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    June 7, 2011 at 3:53 am | Reply
  10. Rich

    The whole push towards cloud computing won't work for all.
    Unless you have a fast, reliable connection you'd be crazy to rely on a cloud.
    My wireless 3G/4G connection gives me the freedom to go anywhere thats close to a cell tower. But if I'm not close – and I'm usually not – then all I have is whats on my laptop.
    So for me its all PR BS. You might as well be speaking Martian.

    June 7, 2011 at 4:49 am | Reply
  11. cestmoi_in_africa

    What about hackers? This sounds like a whole new challenge for them to access even more. Just how secure will all of this be? That seemed to pop up right away as a concern. However, I'm sure this is just the beginning. After the first iCloud will come iCloud 2, 3 and so forth. But hopefully with each one, the bugs and concerns from the previous will be worked out.

    June 7, 2011 at 5:24 am | Reply
  12. Bob


    June 7, 2011 at 5:52 am | Reply
  13. PMP

    The idea of Apple's cloud system is overhyped. So Apple offers storage space and media service through Internet. The first has been around for years and the second, well, it sounds like iTunes if you still have to download the media. So what exactly is new? Syncing? Nothing new there either.

    I wouldn't overhype the cloud in general either – if cloud computing is comparable to using an internet service instead of installing it as an piece of software, we've all used it since Internet basically began.

    Meaning, I regard search engines as "cloud services" since I use them only over the internet, and they work fine – in fact, I'd be very reluctant to install a database of internet on my computer. On the other hand, I'm a much happier user of free installed graphics software such as Gimp instead of using Aviary. I don't see it as a network/connection issue, I see it as a UX issue. What works best, use that one, or use both (hands up who has a Gmail account in their email client, or uses GoogleDocs for household or secondary job spreadsheets and todo's).

    I personally love the cloud system for its sync capabilities. I have three devices and a paper calendar, and the paper calendar is losing the fight as it's the only one that doesn't receive or send added information automatically. Pretty soon the same will happen to software without a sync save option – I'm getting tired of dragging files to Dropbox. Lazy me.

    June 7, 2011 at 6:17 am | Reply
  14. Zophorian

    For devices that you own, the cloud works best as a glorified sync device. It isn't that expensive to get a program that deals with .doc's for your phone or tablet: $15 maybe. You can download to your device and then edit there with or without a connection. That is nice. And many of the programs that allow you to sync with Google Docs will sync once you have a connection again– making sure your edits are 'backed up' in the cloud. (I think the same goes for media files as well– on your own device it is nice to have them there and to be able to 'back them up' on the cloud.)
    Online apps is useful for when you are using someone else's device, say a computer at an internet cafe, someone else's tablet etc. You know, those times when you want to show off your photos on a bigger screen than your phone, or you need to edit or print a document and your phone has no printer or large keyboard. Then you can just jump on any device, be it running Windows, Mac OS, iOS, Ubuntu, Chrome OS, etc. All you need it a web browser and you can get things done.
    I think Android has a good handle on doing things both ways, that is just part of why I like my HTC.

    June 7, 2011 at 7:33 am | Reply
  15. Farid

    Not a good idea i think, too much relaince on network and availabiliy, liberty and privacy of data at risk also...

    June 7, 2011 at 7:53 am | Reply
    • Zaney

      They want to get everything Mac into one place from iPhone, iPad and Mac nnsciyg to one place but only providing 5GB for free, good money making plan.But Micro$oft are now doing the same along with Google, but Micro$oft we hear are looking to something very similar to Apple, with the new Microsoft shop where you buy high end Microsoft laptops, PC's and so on and all software will be written for this just like Apple.But what does this mean for the likes of Dell, Acer and so on?Google say they are happy to step in and allow full license to their new Chrome system to go on all 3rd party systems.Will be interesting to see

      March 5, 2012 at 2:14 am | Reply
  16. Sker

    C'mon, why do u expect so much? It's called iCloud rather than just cloud. Everything is curated and managed in the Apple family.

    Behind that fancy name and the metal logo, it's a chunk of floating cloud hanging in the middle of the air. It holds nothing.

    BTW, for those who aren't really into Apple products, it's better to stay down to earth.

    June 7, 2011 at 7:55 am | Reply
  17. Elmobram

    This is obviously just the first steps to promote people using multiple devices. Once they have people used to syncing all their devices (and more importantly stable 4g comes into play) they will start to demote the hard drive. Trouble is at the moment if it was all in the cloud and you couldn't get a signal your experience would be fairly poor. I think the way we think of the cloud will become apples big thing but they need to know they can get people on it first.

    June 7, 2011 at 9:07 am | Reply
  18. duzurik


    this presumes we all have an always on, high speed internet connection. we don't.

    i too prefer to have the "real" file with me.

    but true, there's room for improvement.

    June 7, 2011 at 9:08 am | Reply
  19. Vivien H.

    it could have been much more...like iRavi i guess...

    June 7, 2011 at 10:49 am | Reply
  20. patricksims

    So, if i want to enjoy cloud capabilities, I should now throw away a perfectly good, mint condition iPhone 3G and buy a new iPhone 4 (or wait for the iPhone 5).... I also have a 3 year old MBPro that accepts all current updaters and every new function works fine on that and it also doesn't appear to be in danger of being declared obsolete anytime soon, so why does Apple discontinue iPhone upgrade support after only 2-3 years??

    June 7, 2011 at 11:16 am | Reply
  21. Bernie

    iCloud appears to be one more step towards realization of SUN's good old motto http://thenetworkisthecomputer.com/
    Could the next step be unlimited storing and syncing?

    June 7, 2011 at 11:22 am | Reply
  22. power4things

    Steve tries to make things simple for the Apple-ites (a little cloud ...). Why on earth would you give this man all your personal data and files? If you do, the circle is complete – he truly has you by the hairs. And right when security issues with remote data are at an all-time high.

    June 7, 2011 at 11:53 am | Reply
  23. Forest Liu

    iWork files should also work on Apple's still relatively mildly promoted iWork.com... but I agree, what happens to moving files between different apps? That stays cumbersome...?

    June 7, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Reply
  24. Phil

    This is **exactly** what I've been waiting for and frankly the semantic argument of calling it a glorified syncing service is completely moot as far as I'm concerned. This service – whether you call it synco-sanco or buttery crumpets – addresses the biggest problem with management of my digital devices and does it more than adequately.

    The idea of this utopian 'always on' ability to stream content is frankly stupid to me. It's clear the author does not have to pay for his data plan and likely lives in a jurisdiction where the connection is so ubiquitous and high speed so as not to be a concern. (Where is this place anyway???) Meanwhile for those of us back here on earth, who don't live in the dream world of tech journalism, this approach will be absolutely fine and dandy thank you very much.

    June 7, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Reply
  25. John

    In most places in the world internet connections are still much too unreliable. Many people rightly don't trust them to always work.

    Experience has taught me to always copy an email text with ctrl-c before hitting send, because all too often something goes wrong and the email is lost. Also three times I experienced a loss of connection right when I clicked to make a payment with my credit card over the net; each time I spent considerable time, effort and money getting things straightened out with customer service.

    Internet is inherently unreliable. I would never trust my valuable files to an unknown server somewhere, not knowing if I would be able to access them when I needed them!

    June 7, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Reply
  26. JP

    This is not a new concept. I heard of the Google Cloud at least 2 or 3 years ago. Cloud computing has been in the works even longer than that. Once again, here's Apple trying to act like they invented something that others have already created. Nice. (In case you are wondering, the iPhone was not the first touch phone. I had one in Norway long before that.)

    June 7, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  27. JT

    "To me the cloud is embodied by Hotmail, or Google Docs: I can access those services on any device that has an Internet connection. "

    Hotmail? Are you serious? We haven't used that crap-ware in over 8 years. And Google Docs was just banned 4 months ago from use at my university because it just doesn't work with our server.

    June 7, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Reply
  28. Gordo

    I just don't get the economics of cloud storage. You can buy a 1TB HD for around $50. To get the same storage on Amazon you'd have to pay $1000 per year. You buy a RAID network attached storage enclosure, pop in 2 1TB hard drives and connect it to your home wireless router. You can stream all your content off the NAS box to devices on your home LAN. You can even configure it as an FTP server (remember FTP, file transfer protocol? what cloud storage was called before marketing hype people got hold of it) that is accessible from outside your home network.

    One thing you can be sure of, once private companies have your desktop and your data they will enjoy moore's law (falling storage prices, faster cpu's) but your subscription prices for cloud services will only go up.

    June 7, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Reply
  29. Roger

    The point is not about "what iCloud could have been" (or might turn into – it's not even out yet...), but about what is really useful for the majority of users. Which's where Apple seems to be hitting the spot for a long while now. While tech savvy enthusiast debate about "open" and "closed", "proprietary" and "free", people that want to have a phone and an iPod, a convenient way to make presentations or show photos just buy in because it takes less time and effort and produces higher quality results than any "free" or "open" non-apple alternative around. So the point is not that Google Docs is around for half a decade or so and is fully browser-based, but that Google Docs are less popular than the so much more recent DropBox. Which means that despite being universal, open, free and fantastic, Google Docs doesn't fulfill a real need or doesn't address it well enough.

    iCloud is certainly a leap forward and it is being done for all the right reasons. It is not an exercise in applied math – it is a strategical move that follows the way PC and mobile computing market has evolved in the recent years. Now – many where there before Apple (Google, Amazon, etc) but they all came there for the wrong reasons. Which in turn made their solutions either too complicate or inadequate for real-life users. Apple's iCloud is being made for the right reasons and hence follows real-life users and market demand, which's the key to a success in any business, especially the one Apple's in. So it's not a question of this step being bold enough. It's not about being bold and courageous. It's about giving your clients real solutions. And in that sense iCloud hits the spot perfectly.

    June 7, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Reply
  30. Jeroen

    I'm very dissapointed. I was hoping for a cloud service i could use professionally to store all my files. I appreciate the idea they want to take the filesystem out of the equation, but was actually expecting seamless integration with versions and timemachine in combination with a paid data plan. This is nice for syncing music and photo's, but useless for my Adobe and Vectorworks files. I know there will be API's available, but even if third party developers offer icloud support in the future, 5 Gigs is really nothing...

    June 7, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Reply
    • Kjell

      We’re living in itnnreseitg times where the way computing is consumed is changing dramatically, whether at the personal level with smartphones and iPads or at the server level in the cloud! Hear hear! I do economics research and geographic data analysis in the cloud, and the speedups from parallelizatiom and the vast amounts of RAM available for peanuts have totally changed how we work. The only real constraints we face now are our creativity and ability to code. Well that and waking hours.

      March 3, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Reply
    • Ngam

      While Amazon has a great service, I'm far too eevnstid in Apple's platform to switch over. I purchase all my media content from iTunes and I have all Apple devices (Apple TV, Mac Mini, MacBook, iPhone, iPad, etc). I will wait and see what Apple can provide. I just hope if I purchase media in the future, it remains on my hard drive the same way as it does now rather than rely on Apple managing my content entirely. The cloud storage should just be an added feature.

      March 5, 2012 at 3:25 am | Reply
  31. ugo

    apple announce a SDK for icloud. any developer can write a program for computer (PC or MAC) and ios that will sync its files.

    June 7, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Reply
  32. Andrew

    My music and movies collection is about 2TB. My internet bandwidth is limited to 100gb a month. How am I supposed to play whatever I want? i Cloud's time has not yet come. Besides, its nothing new or different than Amazon's or Google's offerings. It's bound to be a failure.

    June 7, 2011 at 3:06 pm | Reply
  33. Tom

    This product is the missing link. To say it falls short, is short-sighted. This is going to leave the competition scratching its heads for months to come. Anyone that maintains more than one device (which is most everyone I know) is excited beyond words at this release. The best technology is one that disappears into the background and requires little to no intervention on behalf of the user. This service is so well-integrated and useful, it feels as though it should've been there since day one. If it works as-advertised, it will be the best mobile sync solution available, and it will be the best by a mile.

    June 7, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  34. MiddleFinger

    All Steve had to do was a little math. A few hundred million users or more storing all their crap in the free cloud. After a few years, the system will be unsustainable, the power requriements unpayable, the bandwidth unconnectable, and the copyright control unmentionable.

    While a 30day refresh of your life might be as clensing as a housefire, it will also force users to decide what is worth keeping so as not to turn into digital hoarders.

    June 7, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Reply
  35. JR

    Hotmail or Good docs is just one version of the Cloud which is good enough for the specific applications i.e. when you are emailing and editing documents. Those applications do not require 10x megabyte internet connections.

    Streaming music does. Viewing high resolution photos does.

    Even if internet connectivity was as ubiquitous/reliable as say At&t 3G service, would that be good enough to rely on your version of the cloud 100% of the time?

    The answer is no. There is no such thing as 100% connectivity. As long as there is a network, there will always be congestion and clogging and disruptions and dead zones. So certain things you may always want to do locally, instead of reaching out to the cloud.

    Definitely so while wireless networks are still nowhere near the level of reliability and coverage required to make a disk less, processor less PC feasible. Even Google is relying on browser storage (gears) for its applications to make up for the times when there is no connectivity.

    MSFT is still selling $300 Office suite in 2011. That tells me that a smart, capable client is still very relevant and cloud may have to graduate through multiple levels of maturity before an average user can get away with streaming almost everything.

    June 7, 2011 at 8:48 pm | Reply
  36. Wasted1

    Download mp3 tracks to a cloud then a PC. Get two identical files, almost immediate streaming and freedom.

    June 8, 2011 at 6:08 am | Reply
  37. heroesimdbdotcom

    iCloud is a good innovation from apple, i like it. But one need a good deal with some discount

    June 8, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Reply
  38. Eric

    iCloud's not designed to stream for a very basic reason: data caps. Bandwidth costs money. Apple is trying to combine the potential of cloud computing with the convenience of local storage from what I can tell. Especially given that AT&T has already eliminated their unlimited data plans and Verizon is allegedly next on the unlimited plan chopping block, it costs a lot less to download a song to local storage one time then have it there until you decide to delete it than it does to stream every song, every time. As bandwidth becomes cheaper and more efficient, it would make more sense to stream. At the current time, mobile streaming is not cost-effective on the whole and there is also the issue of network outages. I can't tell you how many times I'll be listening to an audio stream on an application like Pandora or MLB At-Bat 2011 and have it cut out on me. Those are specialized services whos needs can't be met by the iCloud, but the problems that do exist with streaming via these services are a sign of where there are going to be problems with cloud streaming, especially on mobile networks where streaming audio and video content is still very expensive. iCloud will evolve as speed and coverage continue to improve.

    June 8, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Reply
  39. Phil

    I don't agree with the author here, sorry but it's so easy to point out the "shortcomings" (and al too often these shortcomings are direct results of tech geek outcries on the web the minute a new product or service has been announced by any tech company, not just Apple). They're just a non issue for most users. So in your opinion, because Apple chose to store and push (not exactly the same as syncing) it's iCloud service is flawed since they should have offered streaming? I don't agree as it would require me to have a constant connection to the internet in order to get to my stuff, pay exorbitant prices to the network provider(s) so that even if the iCloud is a free service, it would still cost me a fortune to use the service.
    I just doesn't make any sense YET to stream. It does however make a lot of sense to be able to have access to your whole digital life and more without any user action and without ever having to worry about "syncing". I have tried lot's of syncing apps, not a single one of them offered me a worry free experience, all of them required action on my part to keep my stuff in sync, even Apple's sync services. Forgot to sync a document or photo I want to work on or show? Though luck unless I would run a NAS server. To me iCloud is a big deal and a bold move in the right direction, for now. At least I don't have to worry anymore about making sure everything I need is properly synced or uploaded to my dropbox, idisk, evernote and the lot. For Apple, the number one goal has always been a worry free user experience wich started with the mac and they continue to expand this into the iPod's, iPhone, iPad and now finally their cloud service...

    June 10, 2011 at 10:32 am | Reply
    • Beo

      I only use iTunes to sync my iPad, and yes, it seems there is an update wiiatng every few days when I go to do that. I thought at first that the previous updates simply were not being applied, and it was the same one over and over.I don't understand why a player/sync program needs to updated so bloody often. But then, there are many things I don't understand about Apple. I concede their understanding of their target consumer, and how they kick Microsoft's rear in the user experience department and in raw consumer-oriented innovation. But I'm not one of their targets, and there are times that I don't get why their customers will put up with stuff that, if they saw Microsoft doing it, they would go into vaporous spells.

      April 2, 2012 at 10:17 pm | Reply
      • David

        My iTunes library is 156GB 99.9% leleiimattgy purchased on CD over the last 20-or-so years. Given the obscene amount of money we pay to access mobile data in New Zealand, there's no way I'd spend hundreds of dollars per year just to access the music I've bought.Suspect I'll take the 5GB free, use dropbox for some spillover, and backup my media library to an external HDD semi-regularly.(suburban_ennui has made 73 comments)

        May 20, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
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