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iCloud OS and Realizing the Connected Digital Hub

Technology

Yesterday, Apple announced OS X Yosemite and iOS 8, updates to the company’s two big operating systems. There is a lot to love in each respective update, but by far the most intriguing to me is how both systems are coming closer together server-side.

For a long time now, many have suggested that iOS and OS X will eventually become one operating system. The fear is that both would be hampered in the transition, with iOS dragged down by complexity and OS X stripped of all usefulness in the name of simplicity. Apple’s next move, though, shows the company’s commitment to letting each OS do what it does best while unifying both of them in invisible ways. Behind all of it is iCloud, the real OS at the heart of Apple’s future.

Apple’s history with cloud services has long been dubious. The company’s failures in this space get far more attention than what it gets right. iTunes Radio, for example, is viewed by many as a half-hearted attempt to take on bigger streaming services (one of which, Beats Music, Apple just bought). iTunes Match, however, is a pretty damn good example of using a cloud service to keep a library in sync across multiple machines. For $25 a year I get all of my iTunes library on all of my devices with metadata like play counts and star ratings kept in sync. There is a disconnect here, though, because having a pile of files taking up space on your machine is so five years ago. Still, iTunes Match seems to me an excellent execution of keeping digital media in sync.

Which brings us to where Apple is taking iCloud in the OS updates coming later this year. The biggest headline is iCloud Drive. In short, iCloud Drive is a Dropbox-like folder with app-specific folders for sandboxed media. Previously, iOS apps could sync documents over to the Mac only if they had a corresponding Mac app. Those documents would only be accessible by the one app on both platforms (though there were workarounds for this). Now, all documents in iCloud can be accessed through the new document picker on Mac and iOS, so you can (finally) start a document in one app on iOS and finish it in another on your Mac without having to make a copy of it.

What’s more interesting to me is the new iCloud Photo Library. What iTunes Match is to your music, iCloud Photo Library is, at least in concept, to your photos. Photos will no longer (all) be stored on the phone, they will be accessible via iCloud, so you can look years into the past at your photos and download them as needed.

There’s even a new Mac Photos app that will ship “early next year.” It is essentially a Mac version of the iOS Photos app that hooks into the iCloud Photo Library. Credit where it’s due, John Gruber nailed this in his WWDC 2014 Prelude over the weekend:

To that end, here’s what I’d like to see: a ground up rewrite of iPhoto, designed as a client for an iCloud-centric photo library.

When presenting the new iCloud integration with Photos, Craig Federighi put a slide up that said the following:

All your photos and videos
Original format & resolution
Uses your iCloud storage

That’s huge. No, literally, that’s, like, way too huge. Original format and resolution? Video too? iCloud pricing is changing to accommodate massive photo libraries. Your first 5 GB (a pittance, really) continues to be free, but under the new pricing 20 GB of iCloud storage will be just $0.99 per month, and 200 GB will be $3.99 per month. Currently iCloud storage is billed annually, with an additional 20 GB going for $40 per year, 50 GB fetches $100 per year.

The new pricing isn’t nothing, but it’s a helluva lot cheaper than the competition. Dropbox charges $19.99 a month or $199 for the year for the same 200 GB. Apple’s bill clocks in at $47.88 a year, a quarter the cost of Dropbox.

With iTunes Match, Apple proved adept at keeping metadata in sync to manipulate media in multiple locations. Extending that to photos and videos could prove monumental to the creative process. Keep everything in sync, editable from anywhere.

I imagine that Photos for Mac will replace iPhoto and probably Aperture as well. If it can seamlessly import my Aperture library with edits and versions, then I can’t wait to get on board. Photo Stream has been the main reason I’ve stuck with Aperture all of these years, but it’s clunky and hard to manage. The idea of keeping the photos from my Nikon and the photos from my iPhone in sync in one beautiful, organized (and I hope fast) library is something I can get behind.

Not too long ago OS X updates cost $129. That price dropped like a rock until the updates became free. iOS updates have always been free so long as you own a supported device. It should be clear now, though, that the real OS Apple wants to sell you is iCloud. On their own, the free OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 offer an incredible value to consumers with a variety of improvements. But their true power is unleashed with iCloud storage.

Yesterday Apple only announced pricing for their 20 GB and 200 GB plans, but they did say they will offer up to 1 TB in iCloud storage. I could see myself inching toward 1 TB (my photo library, at present, hovers around 300 GB) over the next few years in an effort to free up space on my iPhone and iPad without sacrificing great old memories.

Back in January of 2012, shortly after the introduction of iCloud, Tim Cook said the following on an Apple earnings call: “iCloud is more than a product, it’s a strategy for the next decade.” That strategy is coming into focus. iCloud is now more than just the glue between OSes; it’s an OS unto itself. This should have been clear long ago. In his last keynote, in introducing iCloud, Steve Jobs described it thusly:

We’re going to demote the PC and the Mac to just be a device, just like an iPhone, an iPad or iPod Touch, and we’re going to move the digital hub, the center of your digital life, into the cloud.

The “digital hub” insight is what drove Apple’s success in the last decade. The plan was always to have iCloud drive success in the coming decade, but it’s only becoming clear now as they build it out.

So I’m excited for the iCloud OS, Apple’s next big thing we didn’t even realize was a thing.

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