How to Build Your Own iCloud Today

Unfortunately, for the Apple-consuming public, iCloud won’t be hitting us until the fall. That means we’re going to have to wait several months because all the cloud-based syncing magic becomes a reality for us. However, either for those going crazy in anticipation, or those who oddly despise Apple, there’s a range of online services that offer similar functionality.

In today’s article, we’re going to take a look at some of the apps you can grab right now to help build up an iCloud-esque ecosystem for yourself.

Mail, Contacts and Calendar: Google Apps

Even in the time of MobileMe, the most popular alternative to these three core web apps was Google Apps. Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Contacts are all viable alternatives that offer very similar features; you can access these free services through online web apps and hook them up to your native apps via Microsoft Exchange so you get similar push functionality.

Google Apps doesn’t really require much explaining, but they are a set of free web-based applications that offer communication and collaboration tools through interfaces like e-mail and document authoring. You can add them to your iOS or other mobile device using Exchange ActiveSync, and keep your mail, contacts, and calendars in sync. New mail will be pushed to your device, new contacts will be saved to the cloud. It’s awesome, and it just works … and it works today.

Google Mail, part of the free Google Apps suite.

Documents in the Cloud: Google Docs

One option for working on documents in the cloud is Google Docs. Basically, Google Docs is a suite of web-based office and productivity tools of mediocre quality that allow for cross-platform collaboration. Everything is based in the cloud, so editing and authoring done on a document on your PC can be accessed and edited on another, or on your mobile, or on your tablet.

Plus, Google Docs can be easily “shared” in the sense of opening your document up to additional clients forming the opportunity for collaboration. For light authoring on a budget, Google Docs can be a perfect solution.

Google Docs, another web app in the Google Apps suite.

Documents in the Cloud: Dropbox

Google Docs is okay, but its web apps aren’t amazing in terms of features. They can also be a bit laggy and unresponsive at some times. An elegant alternative is using a native app, specifically those that Apple are highlighting in their iCloud feature, iWork. The iWork apps for iOS will all sync and push via iCloud, so the most recent version is on all your devices, but that can be achieved right now with Dropbox.

Whilst Dropbox itself isn’t a word processor, nor a spreadsheet or presentation app, it can be easily integrated into Pages, Numbers and Keynote (the iWork apps). DropDAV uses the WebDAV sharing feature built right into the iWork apps, alongside sharing via email and iTunes, to upload your files to Dropbox, where they can be accessed elsewhere. When you want to get them on another device, simply pull them down from the importing feature inside the iWork app.

DropDAV costs $5/month, but you can try it out for 14 days for free, and then get another month for free with a coupon. Sure, it’s not automatic and it’s not exactly free, but it can be a nice interim solution until the official offering comes out. Also, you can use the free DropDAV Limited to get basic WebDAV integration with Dropbox for free.


Photo Stream: EyeFi

Unfortunately, this isn’t a software solution, but, nevertheless, EyeFi does an excellent job at performing a similar function. An EyeFi memory card is just like an SD card, but it has WiFi built in so photos can be wirelessly transferred from camera to device. Simply place your EyeFi card in the SD card slot of your camera and configure a few options in either the EyeFi iOS and Android apps, or choose to setup online sharing to social networks and MobileMe (yes, MobileMe stays here since it will remain existent until next summer for existing customers).

Then, whenever you snap a shot on your camera, it will be wirelessly uploaded to one of your configured accounts or sent to the app on your Android or iOS device.

Of course, this doesn’t solve the problem when taking shots on your iPhone but the wealth of file sharing options (such as Dropbox) might serve an affordable solution.

EyeFi photos being shared from a DSLR to an iPad. Image courtesy of "MattsMacintosh".

Photo Stream: Picasa Web Albums

Picasa is more of an alternative to Apple’s whole view on photos. Similar to the features available in iPhoto, Picasa helps you organise your photos into albums with facial and location tagging like Apple’s Places and Faces features.

Picasa can also work in conjunction with the aforementioned EyeFi cards to get direct uploads from your camera onto the web, where you can view and download through the Picasa web app or a replacement native app that syncs with Google’s photos service.

Picasa, yet another Google web app. Anyone seeing the trend yet?

iTunes in the Cloud: Ready today … partly

One of the most hyped anouncements from WWDC was Apple’s iTunes in the cloud. There was much speculation about what the service would offer, especially as both Amazon and Google launched competing online music storage services in the weeks beforehand. Apple has taken a different approach with syncing music than their competitors.

First, iTunes with iCloud will let you re-download any purchased songs from any of your devices for free, and when you make a new purchase, it will automatically be pushed to your other devices. Then, for $25/year, you can pay to upload all of the music you have ripped from CDs to stream it to all your devices as well. Rather than uploading each of your songs individually, Apple will match your songs with songs in their iTunes library, letting you upgrade your songs to 256Kbps AAC format and get your files in sync in seconds rather than weeks.

iTunes in the Cloud is one of the first parts of iCloud we can go ahead and use. If you’ve ever purchased songs (or iOS apps) from iTunes, you can log in today and re-download your songs and apps from the cloud for free. Then, later this year, the iTunes Match service will be come available, so you can sync all of your songs automatically. Until then, you could give Google Music or Amazon Cloud Drive a try. Both of these will let you upload your music to the cloud, and then play them back from anywhere via your browser.

iCloud: Keeping your music in sync

Apps, Books, and More: A Whole World of Apps

Additionally, we should mention that iCloud will keep the data from your iOS apps synced, including your current reading position and more in iBooks. However, for most of us, this is old news. No matter what device you enjoy using to read on (your PC or Mac, iOS or Android phone or tablet, Windows Phone 7, and more), the Amazon Kindle apps can keep your reading position, bookmarks, and more in sync. Being able to read from any device is a huge advantage, and is the main reason many of us choose Kindle books over any of the other eBook stores.

Then, many other apps already keep your data in sync, either via Dropbox or their own sync service. Simplenote is a great example of this. The Simplenote web app, iOS apps, and the various 3rd party desktop apps that work with it are a great way to keep plain text notes and markdown formatted documents synced between devices. It works offline, just like most of Apple’s apps, but then syncs seamlessly in the background, similar to the way iCloud is supposed to work. Best of all, you can share notes and to-do lists with others, for simple collaboration from any device.

Keeping app data in sync isn't such a new idea

Final Thoughts

Anyone recognising the trend here? Google offers a range of alternative solutions that have always been popular among the iOS users who didn’t feel like shelling out $99/year to get themselves MobileMe.

Unfortunately, the more intricate OS features like backup don’t have viable alternatives, so for them, you’ll have to wait. However, hopefully these apps have given you something to work with for the minute.