What is Apple iCloud?

It’s a wonderful thing when Steve Jobs stands in front of a captive audience in his black polo neck and blue jean combo to announce a whole set of products that are better than anything ever made before. It truly is.

The tech savy and the super geek nod with certainty as articles fire out onto the intertubes and the next morning’s future chip paper with phrases like “syncing” and “cloud” tripping off the column inches as if they’ve been in the Oxford English for centuries. As it goes, they haven’t. So, here, as ever, is Pocket-lint to do a little explaining of just what Apple iCloud is all about.

What is a cloud?

Well, that’s a good question. A cloud is actually just one cloud. It is the cloud (sometimes even seen with a capital C). As one wry observer put it recently on Twitter, the cloud is basically a fancy term for the Internet. It’s the space up out there in the ether that doesn’t exist on your computer or your mobile phone but on some mega servers stored in undergroud, climate controlled conditions in places like Texas with more real estate than fertile land.

So, when Uncle Steve talks about iCloud, he means a space waiting on Apple’s servers for you to use as you will; somewhere to store files, back them up or actually just use as a bridge between all your devices.

What can I put on iCloud

Well, it’s not quite as simple as that. iCloud isn’t just a free locker of space for you to bung in all your gubbins until you have to lean on it to get it closed. It’s not like that at all. It’s more about having a space available for nine of your apps to automatically work with, without you having to bother, manage or organise the toings and froings of pretty much any of it.

Which apps

Good question. These are they - Mail, Calendar, Contacts, Photo Stream, Backup, iTunes, Books, Apps and Documents in the Cloud (Keynote, Pages & Number - commonly known as iWork). That’s your lot.

And what do they do?

Sync, largely.

Sync...?

As in “synchronise”. The crux of it is this. You have a phone. You also have a computer. You might even have another computer, and maybe even a tablet and it’s what’s technically known as a massive ball ache when you have to get cables out and start shifting files you’ve bought or downloaded from one to the other.

Instead, iCloud works with those apps so that anything you have on one of them, you’ll be able to call down onto another device over the air. No cables. So long as you have a Wi-Fi or 3G connection.

Documents in the Cloud

It works in slightly different ways for each of them. For your iWork, any documents you’re working on automatically save up to your iCloud space as you’re editing them. Turn on another device in your collection and your iCloud will then push down these files and save any changes you make to them before getting synchronised again across all the devices you own via the iCloud once more. Capiche?

Contacts, Calendar & Mail

It’s a similar story with Contacts and Calendar. Any dates and meetings you add in, remove or edit; any new people whose details you take; all of this will be sent up to the iCloud automatically and synchronised across all your devices - laptops, tablets, phones etc - so long as they support iCloud, of course. As for Mail, what you send, receive, draft and delete will match up across the board too.

Music, Books & Apps

It’s slightly different with Music, Books and Apps. You might not necessarily want all of your music synced up on all of your devices. You might have some massive collection on your laptop and not enough space for it on your phone. So, instead, iCloud will sync the fact that you own these files by listing them on all of your devices but not actually hosting them.

Next to them on the lists, you’ll see a cloud symbol. Tap on that symbol and it will pull down the entire book, song or app for you to use on that device. If this seems a pain for music, you can select to automatically download any track bought on any other piece of kit that you own.


Camera Roll

Your Camera Roll is a slightly different kettle of fish. Naturally, videos and photos that you take on your iPhone and iPad are quite big, so to sync every single one and keep it up there in the iCloud space and on all your devices could be a bit of a storage issue. So instead, iCloud will keep hold of and push out your last 1,000 shots. That means you can have your last 1,000 iOS device taken snaps and vids with you on your laptop, phone, tablet and even Apple TV wherever you are.

iCloud will store new photos for 30 days before forgetting about them and not pushing them out any more. They will still exist on the device you took them on and on any other if you remove them from the iCloud synchronised album that they turned up in. On a Mac, that’s a specific album in iPhoto and on a PC it’s a folder in Pictures.

Backup

Last of all is the Backup app. Backup saves your device settings, app data, SMS and MMS messages, ringtones, home screen and app organisation as well as the files from your iOS device into the iCloud space. Should you change phones or tablets, you can call it all down automatically without having to set everything up from scratch again along with your apps, books and music.

Is that it?

Not quite. There's also the small matter of iTunes Match. iTunes Match is a service where the iCloud computers can scan your iTunes library and detect not only music that you’ve bought from the iTunes Store but also tracks you’ve got from elsewhere and added yourself.

Anything that you’ve got that is also sold in the 18 million track-strong iTunes Store is automatically accessible on any of your other Apple devices in the same way as your iTunes bought music, and that's without having to upload it. Any song it can’t match, however, it will upload to your iCloud for you.

The idea behind this is to save you having to spend weeks uploading your massive personal music library as well as saving Apple storage space at the other end.

All the music that you pull down from the iCloud onto your devices will come in as a non-DRM AAC file at 256kbps bitrate regardless of the type or quality of the original file that it matched from your machine. Great if you have a bunch of shoddy, badly compressed tunes. Not so good if own some superstar FLACs.

How much space do I have?

The short answer is 5GB, but it’s not as simple as that. Your music, photos and videos, books and apps don’t take away from that. It’s really just for your Mail, Docs and Backup preferences and it should be plenty for the average user.

Which devices does iCloud work on?

You can sync with iCloud on your iPhone (3GS & 4), iPod touch (3rd & 4th gen), iPad (1 or 2), Mac (OS X Lion), and even Windows PC (Vista and Win 7) to an extent too, as well as your Apple TV - again to a degree.

When is iCloud available?

Some of the features are available now but you’ll have to wait for Autumn 2011 for the lot. Those available in beta are - Books, Apps and Music but without iTunes Match. You’ll need iOS 4.3.1 running on your devices and iTunes 10.3. The arrival of iOS 5 will bring the rest.

How much does it cost?

All of the iCloud features apart from iTunes Match are absolutely free. Match will set you back $24.99 per year but that’s for as many songs as you own to a limit of 25,000, not including those purchased from the iTunes Store.

What about MobileMe?

MobileMe is no more. It’s done. Finished. The three apps it represented - Mail, Calendar and Contacts - have all now been re-written from the ground up and subsumed into the larger iCloud set up, and the idea of MobileMe as a $99 per year paid for has been service thrown out onto the streets as one of Apple’s few mistakes. Bereft of life, it rests in peace.

So what about all that stuff about a streaming service

Um...