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Reality Absorption Field: Apple's cloud comeback

Look closely at the moves of the three main consumer operating system vendors. Each has become infatuated toward expanding into a new area from its strength among the landscape of hardware, software and service. For Microsoft, which has long been strong in software and has gained strength in services, its clearly tablets (as a broader hardware beachhead), or at least in defending its PC franchise from them. For Google, which was born on services, its software via its operating systems and -- to a lesser extent -- hardware where its Nexus brands and Motorola acquisition are areas of growing relative importance. And for Apple, which has made its name tightly integrating hardware and software, services have become critically important.

Apple's track record with services has mostly been one of struggle. It tried to launch cloud offerings even before they were called that. Rising from the pre-Jobs ashes of eWorld, Apple introduced iTools, then .Mac, then MobileMe and then finally back to the "i" convention with iCloud.

iCloud started mostly as a simple shuttling service for documents. iTunes then jumped into the cloud with the the undramatically named "iTunes in the Cloud" (paralleling "Documents in the Cloud") and iTunes Match. Apple also saw success in the cloud with iMessage. Things seemed to be going well until the arrival of Apple Maps, the makeshift attempt to build independence from Google Maps justified by many features that Google Maps would soon add and for which Apple apologized.

The Maps fiasco, though, hasn't shaken the company's resolve. Later this year, it's pressing ahead with two new cloud services -- iTunes Radio and iCloud Keychain. The former, a competitor to services such as Pandora, Slacker and iHeartRadio, is a natural move for a company that has owned such a franchise in music for which consumers are now turning to streaming services. It will complement and feed the pay-as-you-go model of iTunes.

Extrapolating OS X's Keychain feature across Apple devices, iCloud Keychain will not only remember your password for you but even suggest hard-to-remember ones. It addresses a real problem in the days where many Web sites seem to have different rules for password generation and an email address change may lock you out of a site forever, but it's also one that has been attacked in the marketplace by offerings such as 1Password and LastPass.

The availability of passwords -- particularly ones that have been automatically generated and are thus impossible to remember without the service being available -- will place a new burden of reliability on the company's services. It would represent a big leap of faith for consumers requiring great trust in Apple that faces tough timing given the recent controversy over NSA inquiries as well as painting a bullseye on iCloud among black-hat hackers. The company assures that all iCloud Keychain information will be encrypted and that the passwords will not be tied to a person's Apple ID. This way, even someone who gets access to a stolen iOS device won't be able to unlock an iCloud Keychain master password.

Still, Apple seems in a position to integrate with hardware and build in a fingerprint reader or some other biometrics to further differentiate and secure this particular cloud service. After all, unlike many consumer cloud services such as Pandora, Netflix, Dropbox and OnLive, it's Apple's focus on its own customers as opposed to Internet users at large that set it apart.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.