Rhodri Marsden: Apple clears the air for file-sharers with iCloud


Despite the mighty horsepower of the modern smartphone, we've been taught to think of it as a little brother to the computer. When we buy one, there's a cable enclosed that lets us hook it up to a laptop or desktop to perform various tasks – transfer files, download updates or just charge the thing up. Apple has been particularly enthusiastic about this enforced tethering; proud ownership of the iPhone goes hand in hand with grim battles with the bloated and widely loathed iTunes software, that supplier of the mother yeast on which all Apple devices depend.

So it felt like a watershed moment when Steve Jobs, after striding onstage on Monday to bizarre shouts of "we love you" from the crowd, announced iCloud (pictured) a new central data hub for the iPhone and iPad that doesn't require a pesky cable. "It just works," he said, proudly. To which we mumbled: "Well, yes, we'd hope so."

iCloud is, of course, invisible; a conceptual entity that synchronises contacts, diaries, email, pictures and so on across the web, pushing data out to your iPad, iPhone or Mac. It's not just a big disk in the sky, Jobs was at pains to tell us (in fact it's a $500m data centre in North Carolina); this is a new approach, a new way of thinking about our data. So what are the plus points?

Well, Apple's software updates will happen over the air, as with Android, rather than via a dreaded iTunes procedure. If you take a picture, it'll wing its way to iCloud and back out again to your computer, or to Twitter if you fancy sharing it. And email, calendar and contacts synchronisation – previously part of an overpriced service called MobileMe – will now come free of charge. The only downside, as Apple-haters have keenly pointed out, is that it's another one of Apple's closed, proprietary set-ups. On the one hand it frees you, but on the other it ties you in even more closely within Apple.

The most striking announcement on Monday, however, came as an aside from Jobs in one of his famed "and one more thing" sign-offs, and it took an hour or so for observers to appreciate the full significance. It concerned iTunes in the Cloud, a music service competing with Amazon's Cloud Player and Google Music. The dull part: all the music you've bought from the iTunes store will be automatically synchronised to all your devices. The bombshell: a service called iTunes Match.

If the music sitting on your hard disk can be digitally matched to one of the 18 million songs in the iTunes store, it will be replaced (up to a 20,000 song limit) by a high-quality Apple-authorised version. Not only does this make a mockery of Amazon and Google's offers to store your Mp3s (which inevitably involves tedious weeks spent uploading them) but it's also an astonishing amnesty for filesharing. Apple have no idea where those Mp3s of yours have come from; you may have ripped them off from a CD, or from a friend's CD, downloaded them via Rapidshare or The Pirate Bay. It's all the same to Apple. You just pay them $25 a year for the service, and all those Mp3s you've spent years accumulating – by fair means or foul – are instantly validated.

How times have changed in the space of just over a decade. When www.mp3.com launched a similar service, www.my.mp3.com, back in January 2000, the major record companies immediately cried foul; it's unauthorised duplication, they said – and a test case from Universal saw mp3.com meekly apologise, cease and desist.

In 2011, the majors have signed a deal with Apple which effectively lets them make money from piracy via the back door. It remains to be seen how many of us will cough up the $25, but it's undoubtedly a steal (no pun intended); sure, you'll lose access to those high-quality files if you stop paying the $25 every year, but think how much better you'll feel by assuaging your guilt. Presuming you felt any in the first place, of course.

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