Apple's iCloud and Cloud Computing: 10 Key Questions Answered

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The Apple World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) keynote address -- the way Steve Jobs and crew announce new initiatives to fanboys (and girls) -- was even more anticipated than usual this year, so much so that Jobs made a special appearance despite being in the midst of battling a rare form of cancer.

Apple's update to its operating system, named Lion, certainly is worth the pomp and circumstance if you are a Mac user. But, without question, the announcement that had people buzzing was the long-awaited release of iCloud, Apple's new cloud computing service promising to sync all sorts of things across all sorts of devices. As soon as I mentioned "the cloud" to several friends, a familiar glazed look came over them and I realized there are some questions that need answering before the average user gets overly excited.

Here are ten questions answered to help you get a better grip on just what "the cloud" is.

10. What is "the cloud?" "The cloud" refers to online storage. In short, "the cloud" is a bunch of servers that can store your information and data -- music, photos, applications, documents, e-mail, calendar events, contacts, etc. -- for you and make it accessible wherever and whenever you want it.

9. Don't I have a computer for that? Well, yes, but there are certainly times when people want access to files when their computer isn't available. Many of us are used to being able to check our e-mail on our phone and on our computer. Think of this as a way to access music, documents and photos the same way you view e-mail.

8. Isn't that what servers are for? Quite right, but the difference here is in the interface. Without it, you would need different kinds of software and knowledge the average person doesn't need or want. Just as you could upload a photo to an online server and send a link to someone, services like Facebook, Instagram and TwitPic have simplified the process.

7. Are there other cloud services besides iCloud? Absolutely. For businesses, there have been a wide range of services available for quite some time. For individuals, Google and Amazon both offer cloud services. In fact, much of what Google has offered for the last year or two, Apple is just now delivering to Mac users.

6. So, why wouldn't I just use Google? You might. If you are an Android user or a Windows user, Google might be the best choice for you. Unfortunately, the iCloud is an Apple product and, as a result, is available to Mac users only for now. 5. What does Apple offer that the others don't? There are a number of things, but, the most immediate impact will be felt by music lovers as iCloud syncs ALL your music in one central location, whether you purchased a song from iTunes or not. It checks your songs and then links them to a single shared copy in "the cloud" meaning you don't have to upload every MP3 you own (something that can take hours or even days depending on the size of your music library). Because Apple worked directly with the record industry, they are the only service that can provide access to virtually any song in this way.

4. What does it cost? For everything except music you didn't purchase through iTunes (this includes songs you downloaded illegally -- naughty!), it's free up to 5GB. Considering most of your songs won't count toward that space (remember just one copy of each song is stored in "the cloud"), that's probably more than most people will need. There will be additional price points for more storage. If you have songs on your computer that didn't come from iTunes, Apple offers a service called Match that will analyze your songs and grant access to the iTunes copy for $25 per year for the first 5,000 songs (another $25 annually for up to 20,000 more). If no such song exists -- that awesome version you and your garage band did of "White Room," for example -- you can add it to the cloud for free though it takes a little time the first time you upload those files and it will eat into that 5GB of storage space.

3. Why do I care? Regardless of the kind of computer or phone you have, it is clear that storage of files online is the way the computing world is going. It's already a very cheap way to back up your computer in case of a crash (there are services available for well under $100 per year) and with digital files like music and movies (imagine what will happen when the movie and television studios allow access to all of their media like the music industry has) growing larger and filling up more space on your computer, it makes sense to move them somewhere that has a lower impact on your PC and makes them available to multiple devices like a phone.

2. When will it be available? iCloud will come as part of the Lion upgrade later this year.

1. Should I sign up? If you have more than one Apple device and/or you have a sizable library of music and/or photos, yes. If you have just one Mac and limited numbers of music or image files, you can probably hold off for a while.

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