iTunes 11’s Mysterious Cloud Icon

One of the things I’ve seen a lot of conversation about with regards to iTunes 11 is the cloud icon that appears to the right of the Library button on the left side of the main window. This button takes the place of the sidebar, allowing you to switch between Movies, Music, etc.

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Just to the right of the button almost anyone who is signed into iTunes will see a small cloud icon appear. Clicking on it does nothing, there is no tooltip and it sometimes animates in various ways. This has led to confusion about its purpose. When I saw it I felt I knew right away what it was, but thought I’d do a little testing to make sure my hypothesis was correct.

If you’re wondering what the cloud icon is, it’s actually very simple: It means that some part of your library is in Apple’s cloud.

This could be via iTunes in the Cloud, which is active automatically from the moment you purchase any song or bit of media from Apple. It could also be via iTunes Match, which matches your songs with Apple’s stored songs OR uploads your songs in order to mirror them for your other devices. Either way, this means that there are songs (or other media) in ‘the cloud’. That’s why there’s a cloud icon there, period.

And no, it’s not the same as the old iTunes Match icon. This icon merges the status indicator of iTunes Match and iTunes in the Cloud into one.

To test this I did a couple of things. First, I deleted the iTunes library from my computer entirely and installed iTunes 11. This resulted in a fresh library, but iTunes still immediately found my music in Apple’s cloud because my computer — and therefore iTunes — was still signed into my Apple ID. So I signed out completely using the iTunes Store interface and deleted it again.

This time, when I started iTunes, I was rewarded with a Music button which had NO cloud next to it. Not surprising as there was nothing in the library. I then downloaded a single MP3 (careful to remain logged out) and added it to the library. The cloud icon remained absent:

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Then, I toggled the store interface and signed in and toggled back. Immediately, an animated cloud showed that iTunes was scanning for cloud content associated with my Apple ID.

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Once it was done, I had the cloud icon back, along with my local MP3 and all of the iTunes in the Cloud content available. I am an iTunes Match subscriber as well, so these songs are presumably present as well.

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So, the cloud icon is simply an indicator that at least one of the items in your library is available in Apple’s cloud infrastructure somewhere. Whether by purchase or by ‘match’, it’s not just on your physical hard disk.

Confusing? Maybe, but there it is.

There are still some other interesting things about the way that iTunes displays downloaded iCloud content. The way that the cloud next to a downloaded song disappears, though it’s still cloud-available content is interesting. It has a download icon, then you click it, then nothing. iTunes 10 would still show you a cloud, letting you know it was available out there.

The fact that a cloud song is treated as ‘normal’ says a lot about the changing paradigms of iCloud in relation to iTunes. The cloud is standard, not worthy of a special designator on a per-item level once it has been cached locally. Having a song on your hard drive vs the cloud is no longer worthy of a special designator. Interesting.

Update: I’ve been playing with it a bit more, after reader Ahmad Afiq pointed out that it could also be an iCloud status icon. And I think he might be right.

To test this theory, I logged out of my iTunes account, which has access to both iTunes Match and iTunes in the Cloud content. I then deleted the library and signed in with my wife’s iTunes account, which has zero purchase history. It’s just used to sync her iCloud data between her devices, keeping it separate from mine. This means that she has NO iTunes cloud content at all.

Even without adding anything to the library, the icon was still there. All I had done was sign in to an iCloud (Apple ID) account.

Then, to test his hypothesis further, I turned off my internet connection. Boom, a cloud with a lightning bolt displayed, showing that it had no connection to iCloud.

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So, it seems that I missed this use of the icon, largely because I’m an iTunes Match subscriber and have purchased songs from the store. I attributed the appearance of it to me having ‘something in the cloud’, when it seems that it also meant that I was ‘connected to the cloud’.

Note: Though I think that the ‘status’ use of the iCloud icon is indeed a part of its purpose, it is still most definitely an indicator of ‘something in the cloud’. As many emailed me and pointed out, disabling the ‘Show iTunes in the Cloud Purchases’ option in preferences makes that cloud icon go poof. This indicates that it is both a status indicator and a notification that you’ve got cloud content in your library. So, all of the above.


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