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Apple plays cloud catch-up

May delay iOS 5 to ensure it can compete

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Apple may be untouchable in tablets and hard to beat for mobile user experience, but it will prove more vulnerable as the focus of innovation moves to the cloud.

Cupertino's offering here is a mess, with a collection of non-harmonised services such as MobileMe. It will need to do a lot of work to fend off Google, as well as the companies that have lagged behind in mobile apps and devices but which are now looking to the cloud for a second chance at glory (HP with its webOS is a particular worry).

And that's not to mention Amazon, which has stolen a march even on Google with its recent moves to make itself the premier content and apps supplier on Android. Now the online retail giant is creating an end-to-end cloud media platform designed to ensure that iTunes does not achieve the position in the web-based world that it has in the download era.

Late release for iOS5?

Apple is reported to be rising to the challenge by completely reworking iOS for the cloud/browser environment, as well as bringing it closer to the Mac platform (the upcoming new OSX release, Lion, borrows heavily from iOS). This could come at the cost of delaying the next release of the mobile operating system until the autumn. iOS 5 may well still be announced at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) on 6 to 10 June in San Francisco, but it might not be released for a further few months.

The strategy would be logical. Recent iOS updates have been incremental, and the platform, for all its strengths, is under greater pressure than it has been before, from Android in terms of broad appeal, and from WP7 in terms of innovative experiences. Further challenges could come from the rise of a new breed of mobile OS, a stripped-down browser/OS geared primarily to web services and the cloud, as epitomised by HP's webOS or Google's Chrome OS.

According to "solid sources" cited by the TechCrunch blog, Apple could launch several cloud-based services to work with the new OS, including a "music locker" and a location service for tracking family and friends. The vendor has already hinted at extending its MobileMe service to become a music storage and streaming platform.

Amazon's cloud music

But it will be in the unfamiliar position of having been outmanoeuvred by another firm, in this case Amazon. While Google and Apple fight it out, the retailer is coming up behind them, avoiding the platform politics (for now) and focusing on taking the lead in mobile services. It has announced Amazon Cloud Drive and Player, a music storage and streaming offering that has pipped both the smartphone leaders to the post.

Both Google and Apple are expected to announce cloud music offerings this year, but Amazon has got there first, allowing users to store and access their tracks from any Android handset or tablet, as well as PCs and Macs. The Cloud Drive provides up to 5GB of free online storage and comes with an accompanying Cloud Player. Users can receive a further 20GB if they buy an album from the MP3 store, or they can purchase a storage plan which starts at $20 a year.

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