By Ben Bowers
on 6.6.11

The speculation started long before today, but now the folks in Cupertino have officially released iCloud, a new service designed to help consumers effortlessly store and access digital assets in Apple’s freshly-minted data centers. iCloud is free to all, and will launch in full with iOS 5 this fall — presumably to coincide with a shiny new iPhone announcement. Everyone will get 5GB of space, which they can use to store and sync mail, calendars, settings, Keynote files and Pages documents across iOS devices as well as Macs and PCs. iTunes music, apps, iBooks and photos can also get in on the cloud bandwagon, but receive some special treatment in that they don’t count towards your 5GB limit.

Music in particular is handled through two new services dubbed “iTunes in the Cloud” and “iTunes Match”. iTunes in the cloud helps automatically store your purchased iTunes music and keeps track of purchase history to allow users to download paid music to any newish Apple device. iTunes Match also has you covered if your music collection is comprised mainly of ahem “ripped” tracks, but it isn’t free. Instead, for $25 a year the software will quickly scan your music library, and automagically populate your iTunes in the Cloud account with 256Kbps AAC, DRM-free versions of the files (for up to 25,000 tracks). If you’ve got rarer music that isn’t available in the iTunes store, the service will just upload individual copies of those songs.

Photos are handled in a unique way as well through a new feature called Photo Stream. Using iCloud, users can have their latest 1,000 photos synced across all devices, including their Apple TV. These photos will store in the cloud for up to 30 days, after which they can be automatically set to download directly to your home base iPhoto library on your Mac or PC.

Mobile carriers would like you to note that none of these features will allow you to stream content off of Apple’s servers though. Instead, changes and updates are first uploaded to Apple, and then pushed out via downloading to all of your devices — so it’s more about accessibility than streaming on demand. That functionality even culminates in allowing users to fully restore their iOS device off of an iCloud backup in the event something goes wrong.

If you’re worried about your mobile data bill ballooning, don’t panic yet, as Apple says most of the major data intensive syncs such as software updates and iTunes transfers will only happen over Wifi unless you opt in to use 3G. Also, while much of the iCloud service won’t launch until iOS 5 releases this fall, those of you on iOS 4.3 can check out the beta of the iTunes features starting today. Oh and try to say tiny prayer for Mobile Me, which officially got axed today.

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