June 7, 2011

∴ iCloud Feature: File and Document Storage

Apple's iCloud service provides each user with up to 5-gigabytes of free file and document storage. Your iTunes-purchased and iTunes-Matched music, essentially every song stored in your iCloud library, don't count against that number. Nor do the apps and books you purchase from the iTunes Store, nor photos taken or imported by iPhones or iPads and pushed to and from iCloud (more on Photo Stream in a future post). What does count toward the limit?

Email. If you use today's MobileMe service for your email, or plan to move to a .me address when iCloud opens for business, the email you send and receive will be stored on iCloud servers and automatically pushed to all of your devices. Apple's email application, re-engineered for iOS 5 and OS X Lion, will let you access and store that mail locally. iCloud storage for those messages and attachments counts toward your 5-gigabyte limit.

Documents. This is a catch-all word to describe 'stuff you create, edit or view with another program.' That's my description. Basically anything you have floating around your Documents directory (My Documents on Windows) falls into this category. Create or edit a file on one device and it's automatically pushed to iCloud, then out to all your other devices. This is the "everything, everywhere" that I was hoping Apple would include in iCloud, making the service more than just iTunes in the cloud.

Document storage in iCloud can replace Dropbox for those who use that service, and because Apple will expose an application programming interface (API) for it, we can expect document editing tools such as Microsoft's Office suite and popular text editors like Text Wrangler to offer direct load/save to it. Apple's own mobile office products, iWork, already include iCloud access capability. There's no limit to what can be stored and accessed with this part of the service, however, all of these files count toward the 5-gigabyte limit.

(5-gigabytes is two-and-a-half times more free storage than you get from Dropbox. Expect to see the Dropbox folks bump up their free offering in the coming months. Also expect to see Apple offer more storage for a nominal fee.)

Backups. Today, your iOS devices are backed up each time you tether them to a computer running iTunes. Since iCloud is Apple's move away from iTunes on the desktop, those backups have to go somewhere else. They will go into your iCloud library, and count against your 5-gigabyte limit. The backups happen via WiFi or 3G when you charge your device.

The great news is that when you buy a new device, it need not be plugged into a computer running iTunes before using it. You'll just turn on your new iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, sign into your iCloud account, and the service will ask if you'd like to restore a previous device to the new one. Select the old device's backup file and in a few minutes you have a fully-restored replacement for your old device. Android users have enjoyed this capability from day 1, and now Apple customers may do the same.

By moving your file and document storage to their iCloud service, Apple fully moves your desktop and laptop machines away from the center of your data world. Those machines have been "demoted." You no longer need worry where one document or another resides, because iCloud is the canonical data store. That means your official data repository is in one place, on Apple's servers, and the iCloud service takes care of pushing new, changed and removed content out to your devices.