We've become acc-ustomed to Apple launching a succession of beautiful objects every year. This week's announcement was different. Steve Jobs didn't have a piece of brushed metal or glass to show us. Instead, it was about a big, revolutionary, and yes, perhaps beautiful new idea: the iCloud.
Once upon a time, a computer was a grey box with a bulky monitor that sat in your office or at home and held all your data. Then came modems and the net, and we began sending emails and surfing the web.
Today, the internet is everywhere and we can access it from our phones, laptops, desktops, and tablet computers through Wi-Fi and 3G mobile networks. Since most people have at least two devices -- a phone and a computer -- if not more, we want to keep our data such as music, calendars, address books and emails synchronised across all of them.
It also seems ridiculous to buy an expensive computer just to plug an iPad into it every other week, but it makes sense given that Apple began as a computer company.
Google, on the other hand, was born on the web and stores data online in a "cloud" of servers. Its Android phones and tablets have never needed a computer to sync with, not least because Google isn't particularly interested in selling hardware since its profits mainly come from search advertising.
Since then, Apple has been in the uncomfortable and unfamiliar position of having to catch up with a competitor. It's only with iCloud that Apple has reached parity with Google, and not a moment too soon.
More and more of the media we buy is being digitised for consumption on phones and Kindles and iPads. Consumers quite reasonably expect that if they buy a song (or book or film), it should be available on all their devices immediately.
The best way of accomplishing this is to move everyone's media into the cloud so that it doesn't need to be copied from device to device. In the past few months, Google and Amazon have launched services that allow users to upload their music into the cloud for access from any device.
From the record companies' point of view, this is more or less fine, providing that only legally purchased music is uploaded.
Apple has taken a different route with iCloud. It struck a rather clever deal with the big record companies, and the result is iTunes Match, a $25 per year, US-only service. iTunes Match looks at your entire music library and compares it with the 18 million songs in its database. If it finds a match, it automatically upgrades that song and makes it available across all of your Apple devices.
Most importantly, iTunes Match does not and cannot check whether your music is pirated; for all it knows, it's all pirated. But what the record companies seem finally to have recognised is that if piracy can't be extinguished, they might as well make money out of it. In effect, it's a $25 a year amnesty.
Yet while iCloud will be free for most users, its convenience still comes with a cost. Seventy-five million users' passwords and personal data on Sony's PlayStation Network were recently accessed by hackers, handily demonstrating that even the biggest companies don't have bulletproof security.
If we are going to entrust all our data and work to a single company and a single point of failure, whether it's Apple or Google or Amazon, we need to be confident that we're safe.
We also need to be aware that this isn't all for our benefit, either. There are billions to be made from accurately targeting consumers with adverts and recommendations, and with a record of every piece of media we consume and purchase, companies can influence our tastes and behaviour in ever more subtle and powerful ways.
For Apple though, iCloud isn't about advertising or targeting. It's about something far more important -- the post-PC world. Only five years ago, Apple made half of its profits from laptops and desktops and the software for them. Today, computers represent only a quarter of profits, while mobile phones and tablets count for the rest. Apple recognises that to maximise profits, it needs to place mobile devices at the core of what it does. (© Daily Telegraph, London)