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Apple takes to the cloud

Along with providing an in-depth look OS X Lion, its new operating system, Apple yesterday also unveiled details of its iCloud service, becoming the latest tech company to turn its attention to the possibilities of online storage and file-sharing.

Apple chief executive Steve Jobs accurately described that problem consumers face as they find themselves surrounded by multiple home-based and mobile gadgets, each operating completely independently from each other. “Keeping these devices in sync is driving us crazy,” said Mr. Jobs.

His solution? Provide everyone with a personalized online data hub, so all our devices have access to the same services and information. “We are going to demote the PC to just be a device,” said Jobs. “We are going to move the digital hub, the center of your digital life, into the cloud."

The new, free service will automatically store on Apple’s servers many of the files that currently reside on an individual’s Mac, iPad or iPhone, and then make those files available on every Apple device owned by the same person. People will no longer have to manually sync mobile devices with their PCs, a task that has become increasingly difficult as the number of gadgets and apps have proliferated.

Of course, the concept of cloud storage is not new. Microsoft and Google, among others, have been offering cloud-based services for some time. Anyone with a Gmail account and an Android phone has become used to seamless syncing of their e-mail and contact lists. But iCloud offers an altogether more ambitious solution, embracing everything from documents to photos to apps.

At the center of the iCloud initiative is Apple’s music service, iTunes, which bears its own share of responsibility for the frustration and confusion that accompanies PC-tethered applications. iTunes in the Cloud, as the new service is called, will allow users to download any song they have ever bought on any device. Songs on a person’s iTunes library that were not bought from Apple can be added for $25 a year.

The biggest advantage of iCloud is that there is no new complicated operating system to learn. Everything will happen automatically, with files and content pushed to each device wirelessly in the background. There will even be daily back-ups, so nothing ever gets lost if a device fails or is misplaced.

On the downside, it can be argued that iCloud is yet more evidence of Apple’s go-it-alone approach, tying its own devices together at the expense of competitors and a more open file-sharing environment. Clearly iCloud offers even less incentive for existing Apple customers to look outside the brand for future hardware upgrades.

The iTunes in the Cloud service is available immediately. The other iCloud services will be available in the fall, when Apple releases the new version of its mobile operating system, iOS 5.

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