iOS 4.2 Beta: Indicator of a Future All-Cloud Apple?

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In an article today on AppleInsider, Josh Ong details changes in the upcoming iOS 4.2 software update. One small detail caught my eye: There’s an option to enter an Apple ID username and password in the MobileMe setting. It’s a subtle addition, but it might just be the seed of a revolution in personal computing.

Apple appears to be encouraging MobileMe subscribers to connect their accounts with their Apple ID.

It looks like Apple is making it possible for iOS-device owners to use MobileMe by signing-in with their Apple IDs – and perhaps, tie together their existing accounts. In this one small step lies the key to an amazing array of functionality.

The Apple ID is used in many places: on the desktop for authorising a Mac/PC with an iTunes account, in the iTunes Store for making purchases, setting-up and using a Ping (and perhaps, one day soon, Facebook) account, storing and sharing documents on iWork.com, and using FaceTime on the Mac as a core account (with MobileMe or other email addresses added afterward). It’s also used when making purchases from the Apple online store. In time, it’s safe to assume it’ll be used on the upcoming Mac App Store, too.

MobileMe, on the other hand, is used primarily to synchronise email, contacts and calendars, along with bookmarks and, if you like, System Preferences and even Keychains across Macs.

So, to echo Steve Jobs, What if an Apple ID and a MobileMe account got together? I think the offspring would be nothing less than revolutionary.

Next Steps

An AppleID/MobileMe hybrid brings the Apple universe together, both on the Mac and on iOS devices. I suspect next summer’s release of Mac OS X 10.7 Lion may prove to be the final leap from today’s sort-of-connected world, to an always-connected world, where the simple rule is: Wherever you can use your Apple ID, you have access to your Email, Contacts, Calendars, Bookmarks, Music, Movies, Pictures, Ping, all your iWork documents and all the software you ever bought in both the iOS and Mac App Stores. All of it ready to be streamed or downloaded, some of it automatically, most of it on-demand.

If the new MacBook Air truly is the future of MacBooks, it’s a much more likely future. If we want our notebooks to be thin, light and go for days on a single charge, we must be prepared to ditch today’s optical and hard drives. Flash storage can fill the gap, but it’s too expensive to store all the media users want access to. Streaming data, therefore, presents the best next step, practically and economically, in personal computing.

If you’ve ever bought a Mac and enjoyed the experience of seeing your MobileMe data populate your Address Book, iCal and Mail apps, imagine being able to take the process much further, and watch all your software, multimedia and personal documents also become available… all because you signed-in with a single username and password. Authentication could even be handled by your iPhone, if rumors prove true.

There’s nothing really comparable to this on other platforms and for ordinary consumers. Windows Live connects Microsoft’s Hotmail, Photo Gallery, Skydrive and a few other services in a loose manner, but it’s pretty fragmented and doesn’t show signs of becoming a cohesive solution any time soon. Google’s ecosystem is a strong contender but remains devoid of the spit-and-polish and ease-of-use for which Apple’s products are famous.

Of course, for all of this to be a practical and reliable really would require a truly enormous state of the art data center. If only Apple had something like that

The Work Does Itself

This is also, incidentally, why Apple will never buy Dropbox: They don’t need to. Dropbox is a service that depends on users manipulating data directly in the file system, and that’s a paradigm Apple wants ordinary users to abandon.

In this hypothetical (and, I can’t help think, inevitable) scenario, Apple will provide its customers with ample cloud-based storage as they need it. Users may well enjoy dozens of gigabytes of storage, but never know it. Nor would they ever need to know it. They’ll know only what matters: that they can stream their iTunes library to their devices quickly and in high quality, that their photos are available anywhere they have a connection to the Internet, that the Keynote presentation they started this morning on their MacBook can be finished this afternoon on their iPad without the painful export/import silliness they suffer today.

Connecting the Apple ID with MobileMe is, at least for consumers, the first step toward an exciting new future, one for which Apple has been building the foundations since .Mac was launched in 2002. The pieces are almost all in place, and with Apple’s massive new data center online and Lion available next summer, I think we’re about to experience the most transformative personal computing revolution since the Macintosh itself.

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