When Apple introduced a free set of Internet services several years ago, dubbed iTools, I jumped at the chance to have a genuine mac.com email address. When it morphed into a $99 commercial service, dubbed .Mac, I’m sure many of the early adopters opted out, and I was quite frankly the fence.
But I still have my membership and will probably renew it for another year, but still I wonder why I should bother, because it doesn’t give me a whole lot of value for the money.
Sure, using .Mac’s sync services works nicely, so my contacts, email accounts and Safari bookmarks are kept uniform between my desktop and note-book Macs. Some of the other applications I use also take advantage of Sync Services to provide a similar level of consistency.
To me, however, the most important element remains that email address. It’s not that I couldn’t live without it, but it serves the useful purpose of providing an external backup address, in case our Web servers go down and take along our email capabilities with it. At least there’s a method to my madness.
On Monday, however, I began to regret that decision. For several hours, .Mac email was partly or completely offline. Sometimes I could retrieve the messages via the Webmail interface; other times even that didn’t work, and the error messages made no sense. At no time did I see any announcements about a service outage, though I readily concede some of you might have.
If this was a one-time occurrence, no problem. Things happen. For example, one of the datacenters at The Planet, a large hosting provider that handles one of our Web servers, had a fire several days ago in one of its huge power systems, knocking thousands of customers offline. No, we weren’t affected, since the server we use is in another one of The Planet’s facilities, but things happen, and you can see where outages may occur.
However, .Mac doesn’t depend on a single server farm in a single location, so you’d think there would be sufficient redundancy to handle the load if one of the datacenters has a problem of one sort or another. Surely, Apple cares if you can’t get the service you paid for over a period of hours on end, but there’s no official Service Level Agreement (SLA) that guarantees you a specific level of uptime, as there would be with a conventional Web host.
In contrast, if you subscribe to one of the paid versions of Google Apps, the SLA is the industry-standard 99.9%, although most of these agreements have sufficient wiggle room to get the service provider off the hook except in the most extreme cases.
However, if Apple wants to expand and improve upon .Mac, reliability has to be job number one. It doesn’t matter what sort of glitzy features they provide if you can’t depend on the service being online when you really need it.
At the same time, Steve Jobs admits that .Mac hasn’t been given the proper level of attention in recent years, which signals, to me at least, that he wants to change things rather drastically.
What sort of changes would that entail? Well, beyond the assurance of industrial-strength reliability, certainly your email and general file storage ought to be increased. I mean, Gmail is free, yet you get over 6GB of storage. If you opt for the paid version of Google Apps, at $50 per year for each user, the storage increases to 25GB, and that’s strictly for your mailbox. Even with the gratis version of Google Apps, there is a calendar, instant messaging client, and a set of productivity apps that are reasonably compatible with Microsoft Office.
So should there be a return to free for Apple? Well, I suppose you’d have to put up with inline ads to pay the bills, just as you do with Gmail’s Web interface (the ads are optional in the paid versions of Google Apps). However, I wonder if Mac users would accept that level of compromise.
But even if Apple wanted to continue to charge you annual fees, $99 is way too much for what’s being offered. Right now, even $49 might be a stretch, but I think the estimated one to two million members would increase manyfold as a result. There really ought to be some enterprise-level features as well, such as push email, along with collaboration features to make .Mac a low-cost alternative to Microsoft Exchange.
Yes, I realize that Exchange support is coming in the next iteration of the iPhone firmware, and that lots of businesses demand it as the condition for buying iPhones in large quantities. Apple made a good business decision there, and certainly Microsoft is doing well too, courtesy of whatever license fees they earn, and the fact that they’ll sell lots of costly Exchange Server licenses too.
It’s also a sure thing that there are many small businesses who don’t want to invest in their own email servers, or pay large fees for hosted Exchange servers elsewhere. Certainly this is ripe territory for Apple to mine if they decide to go after this market.
At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with having the simple Web site builders, online greeting cards, and all the rest of the .Mac goodies for consumers. Indeed, ntegration with iLife and other Mac apps is a good thing, and this double-focus will only help .Mac come into its own.
But, as I said early on, regardless of what Apple does, I just want the thing to work.
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