We’ve gained hands on access to the iCloud Beta website and can report that it’s shaping up nicely. A splash screen has the five icons for Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Find My iPhone and iWork. You can also access your Apple ID here, adding a profile photo (for future social networking?) and manually configuring contacts and calendar servers.
Mail needs an @me.com address to work – when it’s operational you’ll be able to turn it on direct from your iOS device. Contacts presents you with a virtual address book, very similar to the one on the iPad. The only changes are an additional iCloud icon in the top left corner, bookmarks to flip between individual contacts and groups, and a Settings button. This pops up a menu where you can create new contacts, import vCards (greyed out at the moment) and change some preferences.
Calendar is more impressive. Again, it’s similar to the iPad app, with Day, Week, Month and List views, a date slider along the button, and a Calendar button. Instead of the iPad’s pop-window, this opens up a new column on the left side where you can flip between Home and Work calendars, refer to Reminders and add entries.
The first new addition is a small Share icon next to each calendar or reminder. This lets you either invite people in your Contacts to view and edit the calendar, or makes it fully public, read-only. Also new is an Notification icon, presumably where you’ll see alerts giving access to other people’s calendars. The Settings button lets you access preferences, including an option to save your calendar locally for faster performance. A Refresh link forces a synch between the website and your iOS devices.
Back on the iCloud home screen, Find My iPhone simply links through to the existing geolocator on the me.com site. Finally, iWork links to three virtually identical screens for Keynote, Pages and Numbers, where you are encouraged to ‘turn on iCloud’ from each app: of course, none of these options are live yet.
With a month or two until iCloud launches properly, this Beta shows that Apple is well on the way to giving Google a run for its money in the cloud – especially if these basic apps keep their current streamlined and blissfully ad-free interfaces.