Will Apple’s iCloud Finally Kill Off iTunes and End the Scourge of Sync? My Week in Apple Hell

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new “Photo Stream” mirrored on all of your devices, including your Mac or PC and your Apple TV. That will all sound familiar to users of existing cloud-based systems, such as Google Calendar, but for Apple it’s still a big step. “We are going to demote the PC to just be a device,” Jobs said. “We are going to move the digital hub, the center of your digital life, into the cloud.”

It can’t happen soon enough for me—or for a lot of other people. In a September 2010 column, I singled out iTunes as the weakest element in Apple’s growing ecosystem. “Apple’s strategy of using iTunes as the catch-all vehicle for every new feature and function that requires the intervention of a PC is starting to backfire,” I wrote. “It’s an extraordinarily creaky and unstable foundation upon which to build a new media empire.” That story attracted the third-largest number of reader comments in Xconomy’s history, with about half of respondents agreeing—as one reader put it—that “iTunes is pretty much made of fail these days.”

When you put the iCloud announcements at WWDC together with some of the other features that Apple said it’s building into Lion and iOS 5, it begins to look as if iTunes’ future role will be greatly diminished. The loudest applause during the WWDC keynote—aside from the welcome accorded to Jobs, who has been on medical leave—came in response to the announcement from Scott Forstall, Apple’s senior vice president of iOS software, that starting with iOS 5, iPhones and iPads will be “PC-free.” No longer will you need to plug your new iPhone or iPad into your computer to activate it when you get home. Everything will happen over the air. You can even throw away the little white USB cable: synchronization, daily backups, and software updates will now happen automatically over Wi-Fi. “Now, if you want to cut the cord, you can,” Forstall said.

What’s left for iTunes to do, if you don’t have to plug your iOS device into your computer every day to sync? Well, it will probably still be the place where you go on your computer to buy, download, and manage songs and other media; to rip or burn CDs; and to sync with your non-wireless Apple devices like the iPod shuffle, nano, and classic. In other words, it will be reduced to its pre-iPhone rank as a media management program—which is all it was meant to be in the first place.

As he described iCloud, Jobs came back again and again to one of his trademark phrases: “It just works.” I sure hope it does—but given Apple’s history with the synchronization issue, my bet is that the transition from iTunes to iCloud will be a bit stormy. After all, which copy of my contact list will be the one that makes it to Apple’s cloud: the real one on my iPhone, or the empty one on my new Mac, which so far refuses to sync properly? Will iCloud be smart enough not to turn my duplicate calendar entries turn into triplicates? What if everything works fine on the device side, but human error brings down Apple’s data center, the way it did for Amazon’s supposedly fail-safe EC2 computing cloud this April?

We’ll see about all this soon enough. I’m just saying that our flight to the cloud has barely left the ground, so there’s bound to be some early turbulence. But as long as Apple keeps iTunes off the plane, I’ll be happy.

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • Erika J

    Wade, I hear what you’re saying, and I’d like to avoid syncing, re-syncing, and fixing the data mishaps caused by syncing-gone-bad. But I DON’T LIKE Apple (or anyone) “automatically” uploading my data to the cloud. My data is MINE, and I want it where only I am at fault if it gets hacked or is otherwise compromised or stolen. I do not believe in 100% uptime, and I do not believe in 100% security. I don’t think of myself as paranoid, maybe just a bit of a control freak (and a digital fuddy-duddy to boot!).

  • Wade Roush

    @Erika — I notice that you have a Gmail account (an e-mail address is a required field for commenters on Xconomy). Your e-mail is definitely your data too, yet it’s been living uneventfully in the cloud since 2004. I guess I feel like cloud security is a solved enough issue that, for me, it’s a smaller concern than the pain of syncing and re-syncing.

    Also, if I remember right, Jobs said in the WWDC keynote that cloud syncing will be turned on by default, but there will be a button in the settings menus for turning it off. So people who prefer to continue to sync just with their local machine can do that (and via Wi-Fi finally, yay!).

  • Great piece, Wade. Have been following your thoughts on this issue. Two interesting aspects of this will be how iCloud works with other services such as Google Calendar & Contacts, or whether we’ll all be forced into MobileMe redux. There are people who will want an all-Apple world but there are others who might use iTunes for media and other “cloud” services for email, contacts, calendars. It is possible to sync these today for iPhone and iPad but the set-up process is not user-friendly, is prone to errors, dupes, etc.
    Another key question is the connectivity piece. If done wirelessly over cellular, it will chew through those MBs awfully quickly. If relying mainly on WiFi, there will be large swaths of time for some people when they will not be able to “sync”.

  • Don Sakers

    Savage MobileMe all you want…Itwo weeks ago I brought home a new iMac and had my calendars, contacts, and bookmarks synced with iPhone/iPad/MacBook/old iMac within ten minutes. They’ve stayed perfectly in sync since. Perhaps iTunes is bad software — I wouldn’t know, I sync that stuff with MobileMe.

    Of course, now it’s too late for you to get MobileMe and enjoy the hassle-free sync life — and since so many pundits badmouthed it, Apple is making it go away. I just hope iCloud works half as seamlessly as MobileMe sync.

  • I use Mobile me and it worked fine on my iphone. When it got to my ipad, it scrambled the photographs associated with each person in my contacts list. I can’t figure out how to unscramble them.