Apple Accidentally Launches iCloud Early (in Email), Next iPhone Looms

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“Welcome to iCloud! Here’s your iCloud account ID and that’s all you’ll need to get your iOS device, Mac, or PC up and running. Just follow these instructions and you’re in business!”

I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of an email someone—first name “Sam,” last name redacted—received on Friday, you could say prematurely. That’s part of the image that accompanied the email up top, though no, it wasn’t sent by Apple Insider. That’s just the rumor blog trying to keep its name in lights with a crude watermark. Trick of the trade, I guess.

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Splashed below the shiny metal square framing Apple’s embossed cloud:

Once iCloud is set up, it stores your content and wirelessly pushes it to all your devices. For example, buy a song with iTunes on your computer, and it will appear on your iPod touch and iPad. When you snap a photo on your iPhone it will automatically be sent to your iPad. You can start creating a Pages document on your iPhone, and put the finishing touches on it from your iPad. There’s no need to dock or sync to your computer. With iCloud, it just works.

We’ll see about the “it just works” part. MobileMe—technically iCloud zero-point-one—certainly didn’t when it launched in 2008, at least not reliably, to say nothing of .Mac’s catalog of problems.

As you’ve no doubt heard, probably because we can’t stop talking about it: Apple’s next iPhone is due to put in its first (okay, perhaps second) appearance at a special press invite tomorrow, Tuesday, location Cupertino, California (the Apple mothership). iCloud, Apple’s online storage service, may or may not be part of the presentation. It landed in developers’ hands last June, but all we know about its public rollout is that Apple says it’s “coming this fall.”

Of course the alleged Apple iCloud email, assuming it’s from an innocent “AppleInsider reader” and not a pranking developer, adds a dash of credibility to predictions Apple’s planning to launch iCloud along with iOS 5 in the next week or two. And as product importance goes, iCloud’s dwarfs the iPhone 5’s, or whatever Apple’s decided to call its shave-and-a-haircut mobile-phone-next.

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Why so important? Because the future of what you do—and what you do it with—is ineluctably online. Call it distributed computing the-next-generation, call it the latest iteration of the old client-server model, or if you’re in marketing, rebrand it “the cloud,” but whatever you do, don’t call it a fad. You want your e-life to follow you wherever you go? To have it backed up and secured without worrying about special utilities or local hard drives? To have all that at your fingertips on virtually any Internet-connected device? Yes you do, ergo “the cloud.”

And Apple’s already behind the curve: With rivals like Amazon and Google ramping up online storage services, and Google in particular sporting widely used, maturing online apps like Gmail, Google Docs and Google Plus, iCloud’s actually bringing up the iCaboose. Even assuming iCloud’s launch goes smoothly, Apple still lacks a social networking service to go toe-to-toe with Facebook or Google Plus. Whether plugging directly into Twitter (it’s integrated with iOS 5) will be enough, or the right move in lieu of launching a social network of its own, is anyone’s guess at this point.

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Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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