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iCloud 12 years on – a feature or a product?

From an auspicious start to a robust part of the ecosystem – how iCloud has come of age

iCloud - 12 years on - a rocky road

The cloud future

iCloud has not always been the polished, cloud-based storage, and app-based service we know today.

Indeed, originally, it wasn’t even iCloud, but morphed in to life from its sibling – MobileMe. That subscription-based service, was centred around your contacts, mail & calendar apps. These, as far as I recall, were the only apps that synced across devices. Functionality we now take for granted, was not even an option back then.

MobileMe, with all its limitations, finally gave way to iCloud in 2011. It was the start of cloud storage as we know it today. MobileMe users had an eight-month migration period to transfer all data, free. If you own a ‘@mac.com’ email address, I bow to you – one of the OG crowd!

Moving on

MobileMe, as I mentioned, was a subscription service, and not a cheap one either. At $99 a year, even then, it didn’t really offer value.

Apple made sure to herald the arrival of iCloud with numerous reminders sent to MobileMe users. Apple sent out 30 days left, 7 days left emails, and reminders to download all your photos files before the old servers were powered down for good.

Ahead of its release, Apple’s PR team coined a strap-line for iCloud – “it just works”, which even Steve Jobs laughingly commented;

“Why should I believe them? They’re the ones that brought me MobileMe!”

The 2011 keynote that Jobs announced iCloud at, was to be his last, being just weeks before his passing.

The lack of synchronicity within MobileMe, was one of its greatest failings. iCloud addressed that, and now all data would sync across all your devices. Are you old enough to remember when you used to buy a song on your iPhone, and then had to manually sync it to your Mac?

iCloud was a window to our cloud-based future.

With the development of iCloud, came the start of a big investment in to data centres – the original ones being located in Maiden, North Carolina. Data has obviously become a massive part of Apple’s plans, and budget.

In 2021, the company was storing 8 million TB of data on Google’s servers alone, costing the company exceeding $300 billion annually.

Although buggy at launch, which really was no surprise, it saw a massive uptake, with 20 million users taking to it within the first week.

Before the launch of iCloud, Steve Jobs, intrigued by Dropbox, met with CEO, Drew Houston. Although the meeting was generally positive, and upbeat, Jobs famously said Dropbox was a ‘feature and not a product”!

Dropbox, now valued at $4 billion, reportedly turned down a nine-digit acquisition from Apple.

What was new

Well, for starters, iCloud was a free service, that came with 5GB of storage, and unbelievably still does! Twelve years on, and you still only get 5GB of storage free. Apple, clearly, knows this is too small, as they’ll ‘loan’you storage when setting up a new iPhone, enabling you to transfer the data over from one handset to another.

As I’ve written before, services are a focus of revenue for Apple these days, and one that continues to prosper. In the first quarter of this financial year, the revenue generated by services alone grew 6.4%, and rose from $20.67 billion, to $20.77 billion, year-on-year.

More storage is obviously available for your iCloud account, but at a cost – this is Apple, after all.

But, as I mentioned, where iCloud was to really shine, was in its vision in the ease of pulling all your data together in one place. iCloud offered you a free email address, a fully synced photo album, their productive suite of apps – Keynote, Pages, and Numbers, Notes, Reminders, and a calendar that supported CardDAV and CallDAV.

On to something big

Apple, got it right at the second time of asking.

Where MobileMe was limited, and flawed, iCloud offered a framework for Apple’s cloud future. Without iCloud, Apple Books, Apple Music, Siri, Safari, and even Home would all suffer.

iCloud has come of age, and although we all take it for granted, it sits there quietly working for us in the background. It’s worth reminding ourselves what this powerful application is doing for us day-in-day-out.

Backing up

Backing up is always a boring subject, but one that you’ll be grateful is there one day. No longer do you have to worry about backing up your iPhone, or iPad – iCloud takes care of all that for you.

Once per day, your devices will quietly back up your videos, photos, data, settings, apps, and purchases.

Passwords

This is something I couldn’t be without. I don’t use any third-party password managers, and so far, Keychain has always delivered for me.

It will suggest, create, and sync passwords cross-device. iCloud Keychain uses end-to-end encryption, and was an early adopter of this level of encryption for a password manager.

iTunes Match

Another service that I love, and have used for years.

It is now part of the iCloud Music Library and will let you store purchased content, matched content, and uploaded content, in what is essentially, a music locker.

Owning many rare soul albums and CDs from the late-seventies, and early eighties, this service is heaven. Once ripped into any of my devices, the songs will then be available to stream, or download to any of my devices. You can now sync across ten devices, too.

Photos

Whenever a new iPhone is released, the biggest excitement is always over the camera. Why? Because we love our photos, and iCloud takes care of that for you in several ways.

Photo Stream will save your last 1000 photos for you for free, for thirty days.

iCloud Photos differs, in that this service stores all your photos in original resolution, and with all their metadata.

The originals, which now that iPhone can take raw images can be quite large files, can be viewed on the Photos app on your Mac or icloud.com. The Photos app, in particular, benefits owners of Macs with less storage – they can view all their photos, and then choose to only download full-res files as they wish.

Shared albums

iCloud‌ Shared Photo Library was new in ‌iOS 16‌, and greatly anticipated.

Within the Photos app, you can create a shared library and then invite anyone with an Apple device to view the photos, contribute photos to the library, and edit the photos contained within it.

All participants have the same permissions, meaning they can add captions, or favourite images etc.

iCloud Drive

This is where it gets a little closer to Dropbox, as iCloud Drive is a file hosting service.

Since iOS 11, the Files app has been integral on all devices. You can store any kind of file – music, audio, photos, images, PDFs, jpegs – just about anything, so long as they don’t exceed 50GB.

I often create folders in my drive so that I can start, or save a project in my studio space, safe in the knowledge that it will be waiting for me back home. Mac-to-Mac, it’s a failsafe I’ll regularly use.

I have a Dropbox business subscription for the bigger files I need to share, and save, but I still love the ease with which the Files app works. It’s particularly handy on iPads & iPhones.

The other bits

The far-reaching effects of iCloud go on and on.

Messages, Family Sharing, Private Relay (a kind of VPN), and Hide My Email, are all services that Apple has developed, and brought to iCloud.

Wrapping up

It’s been quite the ride for Apple and their quest to offer cloud storage, and full integration of services across all your devices.

After the flop of MobileMe, they clearly drew-breath, and decided on the future. It’s when writing stories such as this, I am left to wonder how far in to the future Apple plans.

Staring with a fresh sheet twelve or thirteen years ago, do you think they knew what they’d be wanting to achieve today? It happens too often for it to be a lucky coincidence if you ask me.

We know they employ the best, and you don’t become the runaway success that they have, without some special sauce.

Although on the face of it iCloud is not too sexy, you have to admit, what it is now capable of, is pretty special. If you’re reading this, then chances are, you too are walled within Apple’s ecosystem. If you are, take a moment, and thank iCloud for making your life that bit easier.

iCloud – the unsung hero.

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