The MobileMe Wrecking Ball

July 23rd, 2008

One of the alleged hallmarks of the Apple consumer experience is a product or service that just works. That was the promise of the original Mac back in 1984, and it’s one that instills their marketing spin day in and day out. Would that the reality conformed to the claim.

Take the service that was formerly known as .Mac. One of the most telling irritants was not the user interface — which wasn’t all that bad — but the fact that one or more services would be down for extended periods. Just a few weeks before the troubled MobileMe launch, I ran into increasing difficulties sending and receiving .Mac email from my desktop client, Apple’s own Mail app.

Other than the doubled bandwidth and storage, and those online interface tweaks, I’m not at all certain that MobileMe represents a real improvement over its predecessor. Sure, it got a new marketing push, and is now regarded as both a Mac & PC service, but what really changed? Oh right, push capability for the iPhone, but that’s half a push, since the feature doesn’t work on regular computers; at least for now.

The most significant feature is the email, and if you can’t depend on it day in and day out, the service has failed at its core function. Sure Apple has apologized for the difficult transition, which took days rather than hours. MobileMe members will soon get a 30-day membership extension. But can you really say things have improved?

In recent days, an alleged one percent of members are still without email. That number is highly disputed by some, but there’s no independent confirmation of the actual figures. A quote from an Apple support person attributed the problem to a server failure, but that doesn’t ring true. While I’m sure a single loaded Xserve could handle one percent of MobileMe’s email, I can’t believe there’s no backup or redundancy in the system. If one server fails, another ought to be ready to be deployed online within minutes.

So what’s really wrong here?

Alas, Apple only speaks grudgingly about service problems, so don’t expect to get any responses with any additional detail. That’s just not Apple’s way. But I’m also certain they want to fix the ongoing migration issues, and that this, too, shall pass. At the same time, the remark that MobileMe is “Exchange for the rest of us” may have more truth in it than you might expect.

Certainly, there’s little doubt that Microsoft’s products can be difficult to configure and downright temperamental, although they eventually will work pretty well most of the time. So maybe that claim is little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy, although I’m sure that wasn’t Apple’s original intention.

At the same time, even a consumer shouldn’t have to endure email outages for days on end. A basic ISP can do better than that, and with improved Webmail features and spam filtering from many of these companies, Apple is rapidly losing its arguments in favor of its own Web services, other than the or email addresses. The ability to make it possible for your family, friends or customers to receive large files from you? Well, other services are quite capable of providing similar capabilities.

Moreover, you can even set yourself up with a custom (or vanity) domain and a basic hosting package with such firms as GoDaddy, Namecheap, 1&1 Internet, and HostGator that will provide more storage and more bandwidth for less money than Apple charges. With any of these service plans, you can configure your own mailboxes and allocate a custom amount of storage to each.

You’ll also want to check out Google Apps some time. Yes, there’s a paid version, which is $50 per user. But the free version will suffice for most.

Calendars? Online syncing? Well, I suppose there are arguments in their favor, although both have their limits. You can’t, for example, sync your Firefox bookmarks among your various computers with MobileMe. You need a dedicated Firefox plugin.

This doesn’t mean MobileMe is a lost cause. I’m sure Apple is fully aware of the bad press they’ve received over their ongoing service outages and that they’re working hard to set things right. And, no, I don’t think they’re necessarily related to the early activation problems that afflicted the iPhone 3G rollout. That’s history.

More to the point, Apple would do well to deliver a MobileMe SDK to allow third-party software to take advantage of its features. That would benefit not just Firefox users, but folks who don’t use Address Book, iCal and the rest of Apple’s native software repository or the Microsoft Windows equivalents.

Indeed, the ideal MobileMe setup would be platform and application agnostic. It would be up to third parties to deliver compatibility, of course, and maybe that’s in the cards. It wouldn’t make a lot of sense for Apple to restrict access, particularly now that they’ve made the big push to get Windows users onboard.

Or is MobileMe just another grand experiment, to afford Apple some breathing room until they finalize a real strategy? I hope that’s true, and for now I will retain my membership, at least for another year. After that, I’m just not sure.

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4 Responses to “The MobileMe Wrecking Ball”

  1. BP says:

    I hate to see these problems, but it was a major undertaking on Apple’s part. I hope they can iron out the difficulties.

    I have really only used the Gallery part of Mobile Me. It’s impressive. It actually works like iPhoto in numerous ways, including even the adjustable sized images in the light table (arranger) view.

    I am getting a lot of rave comments on the site from my friends looking at some of my photos there. I love the cover flow presentation mode! You can see the next photo in line, and sometimes it’s a follow-up to the main photo in the middle, which makes for a very nice transition. I have not had a single hitch on this, except that some PC whiners don’t understand that IE is incredibly non-standard and will not work.

    On the editing side of Gallery, I am learning things such as that you can’t delete after copying, you have to re-upload to move a photo to another album. I can understand why you would link the image on a cloud site, but you should be able to delete the link without deleting the original. Other than that, fantastic experience using the web application, sometimes you forget that you are in Gallery and not in iPhoto, it’s that good.

    All in all, it’s a lot like working with Google docs. It’s neither as reliable or as feature rich as the full application, so you probably don’t want to put your dissertation on it yet, but it will work most of the time. When it does do what you need it can be incredibly useful. As always, keep a backup for when it might not work. After all, Word(tm) and Excel are not, by any stretch of the imagination, very stable programs either, even after all these years. I keep a backup when working with them as well.

  2. Jim says:

    My e-mail works fine. However, MobileMe ate the contacts on my iPhone and refuses to put them back. It looks like I’ll be forced to re-install OS X on my Mac Pro and do a complete restore on my iPhone just to get my contacts back. As this has already cost me more than 10 years worth on MobileMe service, I very likely will not be renewing even though I’ve been a customer of .Mac since the beginning. That there is no easy way to turn the push service off belies the “It Just Works” Apple motto. In fact, MobileMe looks amazingly like a Redmond application; lame.

  3. Link33 says:

    I’ve never relied on .mac/mobile me for e-mail. A long time ago I bought my own domain. I just switched to .mac last October because of it’s hosting ability for my personal domain name. Combine that with Google Apps for e-mail on my personal domain and I am set. I love the syncing ability between my office and home computer as well as my iPod Touch.
    I don’t get the push idea very much… or rather why the desktop can’t push but the mobile device can. Yeah I can’t push mail to my iPod but I can check it frequently… like every 5 minutes. But I’ve never been able to get mail instantaneously.

    In general I think Apple is doing a great job with the feature set of Mobile Me but I do think they need to give it some more support internally. It’s just like Apple to kill off a feature or worse let it languish while it’s attention is elsewhere. I don’t use the homepage much but I would more frequently if it were updated and modernized. But as soon as iWeb came along they dropped homepages like a bad habit.

    Apple’s first rule: Make Money!
    Apple’s second rule: Innovate!
    It’s easy to forget the first rule because the second is done so well but in all it’s history, Apple has made every decision on how to make money. Always at our expense.

  4. M Cooke says:

    Jim really should do a sync reset clean out the old data load an address book back up and re sync this works as I have done this with several computers which got messed up address books or calendars.
    Should your restore on the iphone with iTunes that should restore the stuff back?
    on mobile me get the computer to overwrite dater on the mobile me this works everytime.


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