- The Tech Night Owl — Cutting-Edge Tech Commentary - https://www.technightowl.com -

Apple’s Plans Are Not So Cloudy Anymore

In announcing that, as expected, Steve Jobs would deliver the keynote at next week’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference, Apple revealed more than you might have expected. Predictably, you’ll hear about Mac OS X Lion, and iOS 5 — yes, Apple admits such a thing is under development. Surprisingly, Apple’s terse announcement on the event also mentions the long-expected iCloud.

Usually, Apple isn’t terribly revealing about the topics of discussion at a keynote or special media event. Certainly, the first two topics were givens. The Mac community has been discussing Mac OS 10.7 Lion for months, as more and more features are fleshed out and revealed by Apple, not to mention developers who seem to have forgotten their Apple nondisclosure agreements. You just know that an iOS 5 was on the horizon, although there have been few hints as to the bill of particulars, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

The big surprise was the revelation that there is an iCloud, and that it would be a cloud-based system of some sort. Apple acquired the iCloud.com domain some months back. If you test it, it points to the replacement, CloudMe, at least for now. You can expect that redirect will vanish next Monday.

After Apple spent a bundle building out a huge server farm in North Carolina, speculation has grown over what purposes it might serve. Certainly iTunes, the iOS and Mac App Stores, not to mention MobileMe, ought to provide a decent amount of traffic for Apple’s new data center. The other purposes iCloud will serve remain an open issue. Some regard it as the potential MobileMe replacement, with better email and online storage capabilities. In recent weeks, published reports claim that Apple has been negotiating with the major music companies to allow you to store — or mirror — your iTunes music library in the cloud without having to upload those files first.

Now you’d think that, since you already own your music, it doesn’t matter where you put the files, or what devices you use to listen. But with the entertainment industry, logic and reason often take a back seat to greed. Confronted with diminishing CD sales, and flattened digital content downloads, perhaps Apple was able to convince the industry that a subscription-based online music service, with cloud-based storage, might also represent yet another way to make a buck.

Yes, it’s possible Apple will offer some basic iCloud services as a free value-added extra for customers who have already enriched the company by buying iPads, iPhones, iPods and Macs. Maybe the basic features from the failed MobileMe service, such as email and limited online storage, will be included. If you want more, such as the ability to sync your music and movie library on iCloud’s servers, you will pay a monthly and/or annual subscription payment. If that’s the case, existing MobileMe subscribers, who already paid up to $99 per year plus tax, should get a substantial credit for their support, and, of course, their payments.

Typically, Apple would be late to the party with a cloud-based scheme. Both Amazon and Google have already introduced such services, perhaps partly in response to Apple’s expected moves. It’s also typical of the industry that these services are basically unfinished. You have to upload your files to the cloud first before you can access them. There are no music industry contracts, at least net yet.

When it comes to iOS 5, the expectations are focusing on two features that some regard as critical. One is widgets, something similar to what you already have in Mac OS X, though it hasn’t been so successful. The other feature, if it arrives, would address an area where today’s Android OS has it over Apple, and that’s the notifications system — and maybe it’ll appear in the form of a widget. Push Notifications in the iOS today is workable, but seriously flawed. You see notices in a modal dialog box, meaning you can’t do anything until you dismiss the prompt. If a new message arrives, it simply replaces the previous one. You can’t access a separate menu or function that’ll recall those messages, something that you can do with an Android OS device.

If anything, you have to wonder why Apple implemented notifications in such a flawed fashion, and why it’s taken so long to get it right, assuming that’s what they intend to do.

Beyond that, the wish lists are high, and, as usual, Apple will be able to fill only some of the gaps. I would hope that Mail will, at last, incorporate more of the features of the Mac OS X version, such as a spam filter, and rules. With rules, if you redirect messages from specific senders, or with specific subject lines, to different folders, they will still be redirected even when your Mac isn’t running. As it stands now, I have eight rules of this type. When my Mac is in Sleep mode, the messages that would be processed with those rules are left in the Inbox, leaving it to me to move them manually when I’m back on my Mac.

Even better, it would be really neat if Apple would let you import rules from, say, Microsoft Outlook for the Mac (and perhaps its predecessor, Entourage), so those rules would also be supported. Imagine if you could also import the rules you establish in other email apps, such as Thunderbird, or the email component of Opera, but I’m not expecting miracles.

What I am expecting is a fascinating keynote, and I have an outside hope that Mac OS X Lion will go on sale almost immediately after the event. But I’m not taking any bets, and don’t get me started about the possibility of a “one more thing” pronouncement, where an iPhone 4GS will debut.