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The MobileMe Wrecking Ball

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 mac.com or me.com 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.