iCloud's upcoming features include much more than just document editing

Credit: Anita Hart via Flickr

Apple didn't focus much time or attention on iCloud during its Worldwide Developers Conference keynote on Monday. It also doesn't seem to be a major focus at the conference, despite the fact that what Apple did show of iCloud's future indicates big plans. Apple seems to be building out the iCloud feature set in some major ways, and is tying user iCloud accounts (also called an Apple ID) deeper into the Apple user experience.

iWork for iCloud

The biggest news is that Apple is creating a cloud version of its iWork productivity suite. This isn't entirely surprising when you consider that Google, Microsoft and others already offer web-based productivity apps. And let's not forget that Apple also once offered the now-defunct iWork.com service which allowed users to share documents in a cloud environment and that supported comments and feedback on shared documents.

iWork.com also allowed users to download documents in a choice of formats - iWork, Microsoft Office, and PDF - and managed conversion on the fly when users decided to download a file. Some of that functionality, including the choice of file formats, was ultimately bundled into iCloud. Back when Apple launched iWork.com alongside iWork '09, it seemed like the service was a stepping stone to true online collaboration and a web-based version of the apps.

What is a bit surprising is that Apple chose to make iWork for iCloud a cross-platform solution supporting not just its own Safari browser, but also Microsoft's IE and Google's Chrome. The message seems pretty clear that Apple wants to compete directly with Office 365 and Google Docs. Whether it can seriously compete with either service remains to be seen.

On the one hand, the brief demo during the WWDC keynote shows Apple has managed to bring a sophisticated user interface and experience to the web and that experience appears to be identical regardless of operating system or browser. The company has also leveraged its support for Office file formats. The biggest question, which we won't have a solid answer until Apple opens its planned iWork for iCloud public beta, is whether it will be as feature complete as the desktop version of iWork. It's worth noting that even the iOS versions of the iWork apps don't have full feature-parity with their desktop counterparts and are somewhat out-classed by other Office-type apps available for the iPad and iPhone.

If Apple can deliver that level of user experience, cross-platform support, and decent collaboration capabilities, the company could see some real success. For those users that like Apple's end-to-end ecosystem, iWork for iCloud might be a real winner. For everyone else it may simply be a viable option, but a truly compelling experience might be enough to sway users away from other tools.

What the pricing will be and whether there will be an enterprise licensing option are open questions at this point. As is the possibility of integration with other enterprise tools and systems, though I wouldn't expect much enterprise support with the initial release.

Notification Sync

Although not strictly identified as an iCloud feature, Notification Sync, which will almost certainly be based on a user's iCloud account, is a feature that many iOS users will like. With Notification Sync, users won't get bombarded with the same set of notifications on every iOS device they use. Once a notification is dismissed on one device, it is effectively dismissed from all devices. Anyone with multiple devices will appreciate this feature, along with its companion feature in OS X Mavericks, to receive and display notifications sent to a user's iOS device.

iCloud Keychain

Another interesting feature that Apple will be adding to iCloud is iCloud Keychain, which the company is pitching as a secure storage solution that syncs across all your devices. The main feature of iCloud Keychain is its use as a secure password manager. That's one of the uses of the Keychain function in OS X, but Apple is also highlighting iCloud Keychain as a way to store other sensitive information, including credit card numbers (albeit without the security code).

The truth is that Apple could make iCloud Keychain much better. In OS X, Keychains are used to store more than passwords. They can also store security certificates, access credentials for systems services and applications, and secure notes. The Keychain system can also manage certificates and Kerberos tickets. User's typically have a single Keychain on a system and there are system-level keychains that store and manage data that isn't user specific like Wi-Fi network passwords.

That Apple is adding this feature shouldn't surprise longtime Mac users. One of the features of Mobile Me that wasn't included in the transition to iCloud was the ability to sync Keychains across multiple Macs.

Activation Lock

Probably the most important application of a user's iCloud account that Apple announced this week is Activation Lock, the feature that prevents a lost or stolen iPhone from being reactivated without the owner's iCloud account information. This is a great new feature and one that shows that Apple is aware of the rising number of smartphone thefts around the country and is willing to develop a deterrent.

All told, the new iCloud developments seem to focus on creating a deeper level of integration not just between the service and Apple's various products, but also between iCloud and a user's online identity. Although using somewhat different tactics, Apple is developing an integrated identity solution in much the same way as Google, Microsoft, and Facebook. 

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