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Apple's iCloud reps best vision yet for consumers

While Apple's iCloud may seem like just another cloud storage service to some, it represents the best vision to date of a truly integrated cloud computing user experience for consumers.

Apple's much-anticipated announcement of cloud services for its OS X and iOS device portfolio was as sleek and integrated as most everything the Cupertino, Calif., company does.

While there has been extensive coverage of last week's announcement, I think the most important aspect of the announcement hasn't been given its due.

Apple now owns the beginnings of what will likely be the world's leading integrated consumer cloud portfolio.

Let's be clear. I'm not claiming Apple is the only consumer cloud service or that it will have the dominant share of cloud services overall. But Apple has the first end-to-end cloud experience from a consumer perspective. And--as is core to Apple's strategy--by owning every level of the user experience, the company can only make it tougher on the rest of the consumer computing market for the next several years.

"We're going to demote the PC and the Mac to just be a device," CEO Steve Jobs said. With those words, Jobs highlighted the reason iCloud will work. Computers are still difficult for many consumers, though the experience on both the PC and Mac side have gotten much better in the last 10 years. However, the rapid adoption of the smartphone--especially the iPhone--by consumers showed all of us that nothing needs to be difficult.

What seems to have occurred to Apple is that one of the primary reasons desktops and laptops have remained difficult to maintain is that they are the center of the computing universe for the consumer. Everything has had to be stored and executed there. So any required software must be installed by the consumer, and any required data must be acquired or generated by the consumer.

As we all know by now, the cloud combined with the mobile application model is a powerful disruptor. Want an app on your phone? Click "Buy It." Want access to data on multiple devices? Use online services to create, store, and analyze that data.

What Apple did was integrate the most common content-related functions directly into the phone, with no need to find, evaluate, or maintain the cloud services behind them beyond the initial configuration. It's just easy--remote control easy.

Now imagine Apple expandx that work to include video processing (with iCloud behind it), Garage Band track sharing (through iCloud), even a social network built around the consumer content stored in iCloud. All of it integrated in very intelligent ways, and all of it--or at least a "starter" version of all of it--included in the price of the phone.

Believe me, I'm not a fan of the "Steve Jobs will decide when and how you get your content--and for how much" scenario. (I've stopped buying from Apple for that reason.) CNET editor Dong Ngo put this discomfort in terms that I think will resonate with many digital media consumers:

The second side effect is the loss of control. As iCloud is integrated into apps and devices, that might mean users will not have control over it, and may even not be able to opt out. If you store your purchased digital content in Apple's iCloud storage space, that could mean the company has control over what you can view. It's unclear if you can even upload your own content, ripped music from your CDs or music purchased from other services for example, and store it in Apple's iCloud. Judging from the way iTunes syncs contents with devices, it's a safe guess that the iCloud service will offer users much less control over it than other existing cloud services.

However, I absolutely admire the user experience that Apple continues to drive. As Pip Coburn, author of "The Change Function," might say, it both solves a "crisis" (content sharing between devices) and has an extremely low total cost of adoption--a magic formula that will probably put aside concerns about control for many, many people.

To be sure, I think iCloud should be a wake-up call to the two companies that should have delivered these services by now, Microsoft and Google. It also validates a market in which Amazon.com has quietly been building up an impressive portfolio.

iCloud also gives us another reason to wonder whether any company can out-innovate Apple in the consumer computing arena...or the consumer cloud.