Expected to open this sometime this spring, Apple announced at its annual shareholders meeting that its new North Carolina Data Center will house iTunes and its MobileMe services.

Services Trump Hardware?

While Apple is raking in the money on its iPad and iPhone, and will doubtless collect even more after next week's iPad 2 announcement, it's the software and services that keep Apple's ball rolling in the long term. Apple could sell devices somewhat cheaper and appeal to a wider audience if it didn't have to ship so much memory with all those gadgets.

So, Apple's big new US$ 1 billion data center, which the company has confirmed will open this spring, will be hosting iTunes and (rumored to becoming free) MobileMe services in the cloud, which -- potentially -- would allow Apple to sell a cheaper range of devices with some storage, relying on home networks and, in the future, 4G networks to handle all the data going to and fro.

Apple purchased, then closed, the streaming Lala music service last year -- so has the code and technology in house to bolt onto iTunes to enable such a service.

UPDATE: MobileMe has apparently now been taken down for maintenance and made unavailable on the ITunes App Store, paving the way for whatever transition Apple has in mind.

The Business Way

Many enterprises are already enjoying the benefits of storing and working on data in the cloud, so why not home entertainment? We already see Netflix, Amazon and Sony, among others, streaming video and music to users. For Apple, it will enable them to offer users an easier multi-device approach where all your content is available across all devices.

Of course, there could well be much complaining that not only do users no longer "own" their content, but can't even keep local copies, depending on how Apple decides to apply the service. MobileMe is already used to help keep all your contacts and calendar details up-to-date across your devices, so Apple could be expanding it to manage a list of your tunes, movies, apps and other content.

Are Personal Mobile Clouds the Future?

MobileMe's iDisk feature already helps with cloud storage, so it isn't a big leap to see all your Apple content held neatly in a cloud service. If Apple ties in its Ping social network too, then you have a single application that holds almost all of Apple's core features.

As for any potential new devices, because Apple charges around $100 for the extra 32GB of memory in the 64GB iPad, it is possible the company could knock off up to $200 for cloud-specific devices. Of course, this is currently conjecture, but Apple has a history of releasing reduced versions all the way down to the iPod Nano, so who knows what it could do with future iPod Touch and iPad designs.

Of course, Google, Amazon and others already have healthy cloud services for all kinds of content, so Apple's move isn't particularly new or revolutionary, but how the many parts tie together could produce a sublime and world-beating way users work with their personal cloud.