As Steve Jobs officially announced iCloud, a free service that gives an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad user access to his or her apps, and just about anything else via the cloud, pay-TV operators take note: That includes video. However...there's a catch.
iCloud is available with a total of nine functionalities. In addition to syncing mail, calendar and contacts, it works with the App Store, iTunes and iBooks as well, so purchases are backed up and available to any Apple device. Overall backup is another: a one-step sign-in process gives you access to everything on your device, to download to a new one, or restore to an existing one.
iWork is also iCloud-enabled, storing documents in the cloud so that changes automatically publish across devices. And lastly, Photo Stream allows photo sharing regardless of origin, and it syncs with a Mac’s iPhoto app, the camera roll on the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, Apple TV and even the PC. Photos are stored for 30 days but can be moved to a permanent album.
The service, meant to replace the paid MobileMe service, won’t be available until the autumn, when it will be automatically incorporated into the upcoming iOS 5 upgrade. iTunes in the cloud is one exception, and will be available with iOS 4.3. Yet Apple has pulled off a coup believes Giles Cottle, senior analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media.
"The ability to easily watch video content on any device is something the world’s operators and CE manufacturers have been trying to master for years, and Apple appears to have beaten them to it," Cottle said.
iCloud syncs purchased video content across devices, but unlike the music portion of the offering, it doesn't stream content from the iTunes media library. Files are uploaded and downloaded in full, which requires a hefty amount of on-device storage and can be prohibitively slow depending on connection speed.
Rumours circulated ahead of the announcement that Apple was in content carriage negotiations with studios and that Jobs would unveil a Netflix-like streaming subscription service for films-- something that would compete with iOS apps from Netflix, HBO, cablecos and IPTV providers. But those rumours failed to manifest into reality.
Nonetheless...iCloud is an important step towards the idea of video everywhere, and Apple's improvement in the user interface and functionality over existing offerings, including existing pay-TV options for video syncing, is notable.
"It's the fact that iCloud brings all of these compelling features together in a compelling, easy-to-use and intuitive manner – rather than the features themselves - that makes the iCloud proposition," added Cottle. "The basic user proposition of cloud services – being able to access your photos, documents, video and music everywhere – is fairly straightforward. But it was always going to take someone like Apple to really educate mass market consumers about the value of cloud-baesd services. We are, it appears, on the cusp of that moment."
Efforts to let users access all of their video content, be it purchased from a service, uploaded via DVD, rented or via subscription on-demand are in various stages of advancement. Home Sharing in iTunes lets Applephiles stream iTunes media libraries between up to five computers in the home without iCloud, plus iOS devices and second-generation Apple TV, but it only works over Wi-Fi. It's also cumbersome to set up. Apple TV users also have AirPlay, which wirelessly streams videos, music, and photos from an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch to the Apple TV console.
Google meanwhile says it will soon allow video streaming to Android devices via the Android Movie service, and users can rent and stream movies to a variety of mobile devices from Amazon. But neither allows users to access their hard-drives. Amazon’s Cloud Drive offers a way to upload content to the cloud and pull it back down to various devices, but it requires users to upload each video file individually-- a time-consuming process at best.
And first mover doesn't seem to be that much of an advantage to Giles Cottle. "Apple was not first to launch a cloud-based storage and content service: a host of start-ups, not to mention Amazon and Google, have made similar plays," said Cottle. "Lest we forget, though, that there were several inferior suitors to the MP3 player crown before Apple blew
iCloud itself will be free for up to 5GB of media storage (another problem for video) and will offer automatic wireless back-up of anything on the iPhone and iPod (items purchased from Apple don’t count toward the storage allotment). Users with a lot of legacy music uploaded or purchased from sources outside of iTunes will need to pay $24.99 per year for a service called iTunes Music Match to access the songs. No similar option is available for video.