Apple Unleashes iCloud Service, Slick Lion at WWDC 2011

Today was the kickoff keynote at Apple Inc.’s (AAPL) annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) 2011.  Apple doesn’t do anything small, and WWDC is is no exception.  Every rumor and leak is scrutinized in painful detail for weeks leading up to the conference.  And every detail from the conference will certainly be scrutinized.  With a thirst for brevity, let’s jump into the meat of this major event.

[For a companion piece on iOS 5, jump here.]

I. OS X Lion

i. Multi Touch Dominates UI Changes

After a brief introduction by an extremely gaunt Steve Jobs, apparently trying to maintain his CEO responsibilities despite being on medical leave, Apple’s Senior VP Phil Schiller took the reins, presenting OS X 10.7 “Lion”.

Mr. Schiller started with some metrics — Apple claims Mac sales have grown 28 percent year-to-year for the last five years, on average, while the PC market contracted 1 percent a year.  Apple says that three quarters of its sales are now notebooks.

Without pause Mr. Schiller then jumped into the Lion introduction, commenting, “Next up in OS X is Lion, a major release with over 250 new features. If you’d like we can go over every one of them today.”

As we’ve discussed in past posts, OS X Lion is shaping up to be a more major release than the standard short-cycle Apple operating system update.  One of the major reasons for this is that Apple is trying to introduce more iOS-like elements into OS X, much as Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) is trying to introduce more Metro UI elements into Windows 8.

The first new feature unveiled for Lion-powered notebooks is multi-touch gestures.  Using the touch pad, Phil Schiller showed tap-to-zoom, pinching, two-finger swiping, and scrolling “all with an incredible, physical realism that’s never been possible in a PC operating system before.” 

(That’s right, pay attention Apple fans, Apple’s SVP called Macbooks “PCs”!)

The proprietary Safari browser is now equipped with touch-equipped “momentum scrolling” and page swipe animations for articles in a compatible web format (the presenter used a BBC article).

Apple showed off some of these touch gestures in action, which include windowing controls, that looked like a slightly more touch-driven version of Windows 7’s various Windowing advances. A feature called “Mission Control” lays out your various app windows in a organized format for easy selection.  Apps go to the right, widgets go to the upper-left, and “spaces” are laid out up top. 

“Spaces” are a new creation in the OS, which act a Window storage site.  To make a new space you can hover over the upper right.  You can then drag as many Windows as you want into it to unclutter your desktop.  To delete a space, simply click the ‘X’ that appears when you hover over it, and the windows inside will fly out.

ii. Mac App Store

Aside from multi-touch Apple was also going hard at plugging its new Mac App Store, which it claims has become the “#1 channel for buying PC software”.  With Lion the company will introduce several new features into the store, including in-app purchases, push notifications, and a new app sandboxing mode to boost security.

They showed off the “Launchpad” feature, which acts as a storehouse for your purchase apps, along the lines of the app pages in iOS.  

Apple dropped a bit of a bomb, announcing that Lion itself, as rumored, was going to sell exclusively through the Mac App Store.  It claims no physical media (e.g. DVDs) will be shipped to customers.

The App Store download weighs in at 4 GB.  Apple dropped the price of an OS upgrade from $129 with Snow Leopard to $29.  And once you buy Lion, you can install it on as many of your “authorized” Macs as you want.

iii. Odds and Ends

While apps and multi-touch were the big ticket items, there was other interesting features demoed.

Apple showed off an improved “Resume” function, which restarted the computer in its same configuration as before.  It also demoed a slightly creepy “Auto Save” feature, which now saves documents regularly — even if you don’t.  You can explicitly instruct programs not to do this via a menu option, but be vigilant — Lion is watching you.

The feature has been integrated with slick version control that lets you copy and paste between versions of a document.  The feature was shown of with Apple’s document editor “Pages”, but expect these changes to be rolled into Microsoft Office for Mac, as well.

Apple also showed of “Air Drop”, a peer-to-peer wireless file transfer technology, which includes auto discovery.  You can transfer documents to an OS X equipped cohort by searching for local users and then dropping files/folders into their Air Drop box.  The transfers are “fully encrypted”, though Apple leaves the nitty gritty details of what encryption scheme it used unknown.

The company also showed off a new mail client, with built in search tokens, and new comment thread modes. The search tokens allow you to find emails much easier.

Aside from these odds and ends, Apple also teased at a host of other features, including Windows migration (transfers files from your Windows install), FileVault 2, FaceTime, and more.

iv. Release Date

OS X Lion will ship in July.  Apple has not specified an exact date. A developer preview is currently available, complete with 3,000 (!) new APIs, for your developing pleasure.

II. iCloud

i. Services

Steve Jobs was back to present iCloud.  He seemed in good spirits, quipping, “You like everything so far? I’ll try not to blow it.”

Mr. Jobs summarizes the new service, stating, “Some people think the cloud is just a big disk in the sky… We think it’s way more than that. iCloud stores your content in the cloud and wirelessly pushes it to all your device. It automatically uploads it, stores it, and pushes it to all your devices. Everything happens automatically and there’s nothing new to learn. It just all works.”

The first round of features of iCloud, the pricey new Apple domain-cum-service will mimic Android’s long-standing Sync services, and also transfer music, à la the new Google Music service from Google Inc. (GOOG).

Disparaging previous versions of his company’s Mobile Me services (“not our finest hour”), Mr. Jobs doled out praise for the “new” iCloud-driven Mobile Me.

The new service will go from a $99 annual subscription to the much more attractive price of “free”.  Apple says it will not vend ads via iCloud services.

It will push mail and notification via the platform to Macs, iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches, connected to your iCloud account.  Even non Macs PCs can access the service.  The cloud also allows for “automated daily backups” and plays host for your “camera roll” — an online pictures account.

Apple has new iCloud Storage APIs that allow documents and more to be uploaded to its cloud, cross-platform.  Photo Stream-ing from your PC to your iCloud will give you an album that is then accessible inside your Apple TV box — not bad (though not much of a reason to buy Apple TV, still).  Cloud photos will be stored for 30 days, automatically, though you can elect to save some longer.  Connected Macs and Windows PCs store all your photos (synced courtesy of the cloud), while iOS devices like your iPhone store the last 1,000 photos to save memory.

Apple also offers users 5 GB of free storage in their iCloud for “other stuff” besides music and photos (e.g. emails and documents).

ii. Music

And finally, we come to Apple’s long await streaming music offers — the meat of the iCloud.

iTunes will now sync purchased songs (stored as 256Kbps AAC) across the cloud, allowing multiple downloads of the same media at no extra charge.  Mr. Jobs makes the dubious claim, “This is the first time we’ve seen this in the music industry — no charge for multiple downloads to different devices.”

(*Cough*, Zune pass, anyone?)

So what about pre-existing songs?  Mr. Jobs comments, “With 15 billion songs, that’s a lot of songs out there. But, you may have some that you ripped yourself. There’s three ways you can deal with that.”

Those three ways are:
1. Sync your iPhone/iPad etc. via wire or Wi-Fi.
2. You can rebuy the song (ha, nice try, Apple).
3. Use iTunes match to get copies of the ripped music in your library via iTunes.

iTunes Match?  Ah, so here we finally come to Apple’s “subscription” service — sort of, at least.  Apple is offering for $24.99 USD a year (as rumored) the ability to match any music you have in your iTunes on your PC/Mac (including items from *cough* questionable sources).  The new iTunes 4.3 automatically finds and matches your songs and generates legal, happy, magical Apple copies of them.  The advantage her is the sound quality will be upgraded to 256 kbps AAC (vs. your pirated 192 kbps mp3, likely, unless you’re one of those audiophile torrent pirate types…).

Songs that don’t match are uploaded, so your bootlegs are safe.  But Apple has 15 billion songs.

The company showed off a brief picture show of its new data center in North Carolina, which will be playing host to the iCloud service. States Mr. Jobs, “It’s as eco-friendly as you can make a modern data center, and we’re pretty proud of it.”

III. Analysis

When Lion launches in June it will have arguably the most advanced PC user interface design of any major OS.  It will also have one of the busiest designs of any operating system UI-wise.  How these features balance out will ultimately largely come down to personal preference.  In other words, Lion could be the best thing sliced bread, or the biggest headache since your teenager started driving.

As for iCloud, the free part of the service largely matches Google’s slick offerings from Android OS and the browser Chrome, in a slightly different, but equally slick package.  For Google fans there’s nothing particularly compelling to switch, for Apple fans there surely will be.

When you come to streaming options, you arrive at arguably the most compelling argument to embrace Apple’s new products.  Google Music is debuting with similar features, but it merely uploads your library, so sound quality and multiple copies remain a problem.  With Apple’s service for a small premium $24.99, you’ll get an ostensibly organized library (though it remains to be seen how well this works in practice).  If the process is well coded, that could make this a huge hit for Apple.

More importantly, access to Google Music is currently limited, as the service is in “beta”.  Apple’s service should be broadly available for the masses when it launches shortly.

Apple doesn’t exactly suggest this, but its system essentially promotes a new kind of quasi-piracy.  Go, download a song via p2p/bittorrent, load in iTunes, and iTunes Match it.  Just like that you will have a “legal” copy.  Surely labels won’t be entirely happy with this — but hey, they’re getting something.

The concept is attractive and it may “just work” when it comes to luring in customers.

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