iCloud: Shiny New Apps Finally Out of Beta

Apple’s hardware and software releases have become global news events, something even non-techies know about. Practically everyone that is any bit informed about the phone industry at all knows Apple unveiled the iPhone 5 this week, enough so that its already sold out in preorders. Yet it’s a slightly unknown fact that Apple makes some very nice web apps for iCloud, ones that bring many of its well known native apps to any browser.

This past week, right along with unveiling new hardware and iOS software, Apple also upgraded its iCloud web apps. They’ve now finally dropped their beta tag, and gained the new Notes and Reminders apps that have become standard parts of iOS and OS X. Let’s take a look.

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iCloud’s Beautifully Designed Web Apps

We’ve all gotten so used to Google’s spartan web apps, it’s almost surprising to see heavily designed web apps. Then, when web apps are nicely designed, it’s surprising for them to get very little publicity. And yet, with iCloud, Apple has pulled off making some of the more intricately designed web apps while the apps themselves are rather unknown. You can debate whether or not Apple’s skeuomorphic design is the right direction to take, but it’s still impressive how they’ve made web apps that so closely match the native iOS apps so many use daily.

Apple has a long history with web services, but none of them have been popular outside of a relatively small core of Apple supporters. In the past, Apple’s .Mac, and later MobileMe, cost $99 a year for services offered free by Google and others, and few saw them as compelling enough to pay for. Last year, Apple changed that when they released iCloud by making it free to all iOS and OS X users. While many people use iCloud through Apple’s native apps, however, they also have gone to quite the effort to make iCloud web apps that are just as good.

iCloud.com with its new Notes and Reminders apps

iCloud.com since its inception has included web versions of Apple’s Mail, Calendar, and Contacts apps, as well as a web interface for Find my iPhone, a service to find any of your Apple devices if they’ve been lost or misplaced. It’s also included an iWork interface that originally just showed files from the iOS version of iWork, but now that the Mac version of iWork includes iCloud syncing, it shows files from either version you use. Unfortunately, the iWork app in iCloud.com is still not very useful for more than downloading backup copies of your iWork files, though it might be the easiest way to, say, grab a Microsoft Office version of a Pages file you made on your iPhone from your PC.

iWork in iCloud still isn’t more than a way to download files

Matching iOS Native Apps, on the Web

The other apps, though, are very nice web apps, ones that are very close copies of their iPad native apps. The Mail app has always been a nice webmail app, and it’s recently been updated with the VIP Mailbox feature that’s been added in OS X Mountain Lion and iOS 6′s Mail app. You can click on any contact and set them as a VIP, so you’ll automatically see their emails in a special VIP list so you’ll never miss any emails from those most important to you. Best of all, if you use Mail in OS X or iOS, your VIP settings will automatically sync to your other devices so you can set it once and never think about it again.

VIP in iCloud Mail

While iCloud Mail isn’t as powerful in some ways as Gmail, it’s still easily one of the nicest webmail interfaces on the net. It’s easy to use, with drag-and-drop attachment uploading and an interface that looks so much like the Mail app you might already use on your Mac or iPad. It then has Rules and Vacation Replies that are easy to configure, and while they might not be as powerful as the same features in Gmail, they’re definitely more accessible. To me, the only downside is that you can’t use your own domain with iCloud Mail; if you could, I’d be tempted to switch away from Google Apps for email.

iCloud Mail is rather nice if your email needs aren’t too advanced

The same goes for Calendar and Contacts; they’re very much like their sibling iPad apps, and make great choices for online calendar and contact management. In fact, if you’re already used to using their iOS or Mac counterparts, and simply would like an easy way to use them when you’re away from your own devices, they might be the perfect solution. They’re not as interoperable as, say, Google’s offerings, and you can’t subscribe to random iCal calendars in iCloud Calendar. But, they do make everything they do offer easier to use, as, say, sharing a calendar or creating an event is dead-simple in iCloud.

Share calendars easily in iCloud Calendar

The New Notes and Reminders

With Apple’s newest OS upgrades, they’ve included two new apps that have now made their way to the web: Reminders and Notes. Interestingly, iCloud’s calendar used to include a basic to-do list, and that’s now been dropped in lieu of the new Reminders app. All of the to-dos you might have saved in the calendar will now show up in Reminders. Reminders looks just like its iPad counterpart, and works quite nice for a basic web-based to-do list. You can enter unscheduled tasks by typing them in directly from the list, and can add priority, due dates, and notes to them. You can even organize them into new lists, search through all of your tasks, and have them repeat on a schedule that works for you. It’s actually a very good way to keep up with the stuff you need to do if you don’t need team collaboration or more advanced features.

The all new Reminders, online

Notes, too, is actually an app made from an old feature in Mail, but just like Reminders, it happens to be more useful for most of us in its own app. Notes brings along all of the skeuomorphic interface elements Apple has become famous (or infamous) for lately, including a handwriting font that you unfortunately can’t change in the web version. Notes is easily the least feature-full app in the set, but it does let you easily make lists by adding a dash in front of entries, and can show any images you’ve added to notes on your Mac. It’s not a bad basic notes app, but I’d bet most people would find Simplenote nicer for similar features.

Apple’s skeuomorphic Notes app, on the web

A Preview of Upcoming Design Changes?

One of the most striking things about the iCloud web apps is how closely they match their native app counterparts. They look almost exactly like their sibling apps in iOS, and in the first version of iCloud, the in-app notifications and popups looked so much like iOS notifications that I went to touch my laptop screen without thinking. This time around, though, notifications have taken a slightly different turn that looks a bit more like desktop popups but still have their own uniqueness. It sure would be interesting to see if this design style ends up showing up in OS X or iOS in the future!

An interesting change for in-app notifications in iCloud.com

Conclusion

For now, that’s about all there is to iCloud’s web apps. It’s a nice set of web apps, especially if you already live and work in Apple’s ecosystem, and if you have an iOS device or Mac, you should definitely try them out. The only real disappointment is that there’s still no iCloud version of iWork, nor any way to browse files stored by other apps in iCloud. Another nice addition would be an iCloud version of iTunes that let you view your iTunes purchases in your browser, perhaps as a streaming radio of sorts.

It’s hard to say if we’ll ever see any of these added to iCloud, but one thing is certain: with the new app additions, Apple’s showing their commitment to keeping iCloud’s web apps as nice as they can. It’ll be interesting to see how they continue to grow iCloud’s web app collection and keep it relevant with their growing user base.


Summary

Apple's web service for email, contacts, calendar, and app data sync also has some high quality web apps, including web versions of their new Reminders and Notes apps.

  • iCloud  | 
  • Free with iOS 5/OS X Lion or newer  | 
  • Apple
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