Steve Jobs sought to steal a march on Apple’s rivals, including Google and Microsoft, with one of the most ambitious moves yet to bring the benefits of “cloud” computing to consumers.
Such internet-based services would be a central element in a “post-PC” world in which the machines that have dominated computing for a quarter of a century would be pushed to the sidelines, the Apple chief executive claimed on Monday.
“We’re going to demote the PC and the Mac to just be a device,” Mr Jobs said, as he stepped up his recent rhetoric aimed at pushing consumers beyond the PC era that he helped bring about.
Apple said its free “the iCloud” service, due to be launched in the autumn, would allow users to spread their music, photos, documents and programs among all their Apple devices automatically and wirelessly, instead of requiring them to be synched one at a time to a PC.
Before the announcement, at Apple’s annual developer conference in San Francisco, the company was seen as having fallen behind Google and Facebook, whose services are delivered from centralised data centres – an approach known as cloud computing. The new service, which lets consumers share more types of material between Apple devices, won applause from analysts and developers.
They said the close integration of internet-based services with the company’s devices will make them easier to use than services from other companies and help to cement demand for Apple’s gadgets.
“Apple is increasing the likelihood that consumers buy multiple Apple devices,” said Gene Munster, Piper Jaffray analyst.
Rather than forcing users to rely on multiple programs for storing files remotely, such as Google Docs, “they are bringing it all in place”, said Ryan Smallegan, a business app developer. “It is pretty powerful.”
The centrepiece of the new service is set to be a free way to propagate music and applications purchased on Apple’s iTunes digital store to a number of different devices. For an extra $25 a year, other songs can also be matched with Apple’s 18m-track catalogue and spread among devices, with the record labels recouping a percentage of that revenue even in the case of pirated recordings.
That aspect of the service trumps recent offerings from Amazon and Google, which could not come to similar terms with the big four record labels and publishers and so require users to upload all of their stored material before playing it on other devices.
Mr Jobs admitted to earlier Apple mistakes in cloud computing. MobileMe, a $99-a-year e-mail, calendar and back-up service, was “not our finest hour”, he said, and would be discontinued. The new iCloud would include the MobileMe apps rewritten from the ground up. Mr Jobs, who has been on medical leave from Apple, was making his first appearance at a public event since he launched the second-generation iPad tablet more than three months ago.
“We’re going to move the digital hub, the centre of your digital life, into the cloud,” Mr Jobs said.
The record labels and music publishers will get a 70 per cent share of revenue from the iTunes matching service, with Apple keeping the rest, industry executives said.
Other executives showed off the company’s next version of the iOS mobile operating system, iOS 5, and a less dramatic upgrade to the Mac operating system due in July and known as OS X Lion.
More than 200m iOS-based devices have now been sold, including 25m iPads, Apple said, giving it more than 40 per cent of the combined smartphone and tablet market.
Some of those customers don’t have desktop computers, and Apple said that for the first time, iPhones and iPads will be able to be set up without relying on a PC, with software upgrades delivered wirelessly, starting when iOS 5 ships this autumn.
The iOS changes include an improved system for alerting users less obtrusively about incoming text messages and upgrades or new content in their applications. Instead of interrupting a game or other activity in progress, the notification will appear at the top of the screen and a swipe gesture down will show all notifications.
Twitter is also more deeply integrated into the camera program and other functions. A new News-stand feature will group together electronic newspaper and magazine content that is downloaded automatically and display new front pages.
Camera improvements include editing functions for the iPhone. Mail enhancements include flagging and the ability to search all the content in messages and use multiple text formats.
The new Mac operating system integrates multi-touch gestures more deeply, for example allowing three-finger swipes on the touchpad to move back and forward through browser history and to move from an application back to a desktop showing icons for all programs in use.
Another new feature allows easy file-sharing among users on the same WiFi network.
Apple sought to boost its Mac app store, which it claimed has already become the top PC-based system for distributing software, by making the Lion upgrade available only there. Apple priced the program at $30, instead of the $129 typical for a major new version.
The more serious overhaul of the mobile operating system shows that the company is putting its focus there, and some developers said they expect the platforms to one day merge.