Is iCloud a Better MobileMe?

October 14th, 2011

Strange how Apple’s efforts to provide online services to you have fared over the years. Most of you probably don’t remember a bulletin board service called AppleLink in the 1980s, which was intended as a method for the company to communicate with resellers and service people. In 1988, they also developed a consumer-friendly version, AppleLink Personal Edition in partnership with Quantum Link, a company we know today as AOL. Well, Apple pulled out of the partnership the following year, and thus the service was rebranded as America Online.

In passing, I was one of the early AOL members, I worked for them as a paid forum moderator, and I still maintain an email address. But that’s a whole other story not particularly relevant to this commentary.

Well, some years later, Apple tried once again to get into the online service game, with something called eWorld, which was basically a more insular and basically reskinned version of AOL, which used the latter’s ecosystem. That, too, vanished after the service failed to garner a sufficiently large user base.

Segue to Apple’s second coming, with Steve Jobs in charge. In January, 2000, Apple launched iTools, meant as a modest bundle of free online services for Mac users that included that famous “” email address. But free didn’t stay free for terribly long. By July of 2002, iTools was rebranded as .Mac, a subscription service meant for users of Mac OS X. Having set up my email address right at the beginning, I was tempted to pay the $99 fee each and every year, through thick and thin.

Amid complaints about occasional network hiccups and flaky performance, Apple expanded the scope of .Mac to include users of Apple’s mobile products and, in fact, Windows. But you can’t put the word “Mac” in a more expansive service meant for people who may not even use Macs, so it was reborn in 2008 MobileMe. In passing, I find it curious that Apple, in rebranding its online services, seems to be pulling the same stunt as Microsoft when it comes to reintroducing failed products.

Well, if first impressions are important, MobileMe sure didn’t deliver on the reliability you expected from Apple. Server problems were legion, and, for a time, some members weren’t able to retrieve their email. Reports have it that Steve Jobs was very vocal in his displeasure over the situation.

But that’s not just Apple’s cross to bear. Wherever you look at cloud-based systems, you’ll find periodic outages. Google has had them, there are periodic failures at Amazon, and Research In Motion, which passes all email from a BlackBerry through their central servers, just experienced a severe outage this week.

Now it’s been widely reported that Apple’s MobileMe successor, iCloud, was given the personal attention of Steve Jobs in his last days. Clearly he didn’t wish for Apple to suffer another failure, but you have to wonder whether iCloud’s shaky beginning is just the start of a trend. Certainly I hope not.

It’s a sure thing that Wednesday was a messy time all around for Apple. Combine the introduction of iCloud, the Mac OS 10.7.2 bug fix update that supports iCloud, not to mention iOS 5, and you have the ingredients of major server nightmare.

Sure enough, reports of problems were legion. I know that my efforts to upgrade an iPad 2 to iOS 5 at first proved unsuccessful. Understand that, with iOS 5, the installer will first restore your compatible iPhone, iPad and iPod touch to factory condition, install the upgrade, then reload all your stuff. It’s a process that can take at least 15 minutes and likely more, depending on how much data you have and the speed of your broadband connection.

Well, in my case, I kept running into an “internal error” message every time the upgrade got to the restore stage. I went through this process four times, and soon discovered I wasn’t alone. A quick online search revealed reports that loads of Apple customers had the very same problem, or encountered some other curious error message. Now it’s likely the failure was, in part, due to the need to consult Apple’s clogged servers. Regardless, my eventual solution made even less sense. Instead of opting for an upgrade, I clicked Restore in iTunes on my late 2009 iMac. The dialogue I okayed offered a restore and upgrade in a single process, and I kept my fingers crossed.

Now I suppose five times was the charm in this case, as the iPad 2 went through the entire process without incident. But I’ll have to say about Apple’s mobile OS upgrade in another article.

I also ran into problems after migrating my MobileMe account to iCloud. Everything seemed to work, except for the email, which went down for hours at a time. Again, this is a clear symptom of overloaded servers, but, as I write this, email is back to normal.

I’m also skeptical as to whether iCloud and its sometimes confusing choices represents an improvement into the mediocre MobileMe. After all, Apple has already released over two dozen online documents about iCloud setup, features, and troubleshooting.

Also, I’m concerned about the fact that Apple has removed some of MobileMe’s sync features, which include Mail accounts, preferences, and even Dashboard widgets. Then again, these features tended to be flaky. In addition, although iCloud requires a Mac running 10.7.2, it’ll work fine with any relatively recent version of Windows after you install a special iCloud Control Panel. So in this case, Windows users are getting a better shake, whereas Mac users have to buy an OS upgrade or, if they have a Mac that can’t run Lion, or an application that won’t work with Lion, do without.

In the end, Apple’s iCloud gamble may indeed pay off. I hope it does, and I appreciate the fact that the basic services are free. But for now, color me skeptical.

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17 Responses to “Is iCloud a Better MobileMe?”

  1. dfs says:

    Gene, with one small exception I couldn’t agree with you more (my disagreement is about your observation about the endemic tendency of clouds to suffer periodic interruptions of service — I’ve been using DropBox for some time and have NEVER experienced even the smallest hiccup, evidently those guys could teach the rest of the industry a lot about cloud management). Other than that, I’m going to wait a good long while and read all the feedback I can get before opting into iCloud, and might wind up using some alternative service instead. Among my concerns: I want to be able to synch my contacts, calendars, and mail — period. The last thing I want to do is store my media in anybody’s cloud, and DropBox is handling my critical documents very nicely already.. So I sure hope there’s a way of opting out on that aspect. If there isn’t, then I’m afraid might very well be a deal-breaker. And my wife has a first-generation iPod Touch with which she’s entirely happy– it seems silly and wasteful for her to go out and buy a replacement just so she can read her e-mail. She is also very dependent on Quicken, and so is quite unenthusiastic about upgrading to Lion. Since the service I ultimately select will have to address both her needs and my own, at the moment iCloud doesn’t seem like a strong candidate (if Apple were to release a final, iCloud-friendly version of Snow Leopard or some sort of backwards-compatible enabling software for both Macs and early-model portable devices, that would solve our problem, there’s a strong odor of “planned obsolescence” about this whole deal). MobileMe was handling our synching very well, I’m going to miss it, and I think it’s a major mistake of Apple to terminate it. Their new system is simply creating problems where none existed before, and I bet there are a lot of MM subscribers who have reservations similar to ours.

    • doug petrosky says:

      I’m with you on the snow leopard, normally I don’t feel this way about OS updates because they are purely a benefit to the end user but this one is killing support for older games and a very select few productivity apps, which makes avoiding it make more sense. So, it would be nice for Apple to upgrade the snow leopard control panel for snow leopard the way they did for windows.

      But the first gen iPod touch is more than just getting long in the tooth, it is starting to loose teeth! If you were paying for mobile me for two people Apple just saved you enough money to replace that iPod Touch. In the end it is hard to be too upset over the loss of a paid for service that was replaced by a free service (not to mention the 6 months to a year that Apple gave you of the old service to help you transition).

      And as much as I like drop box, comparing it’s ability to never hiccup under load to what Apple just went through is a totally unfair comparison. There were a number of reports from ISP’s who were actually part of the problem because Apple essentially crashed the internet in some areas.

      iCloud is the only truly FREE service I know of on the net. No fees and totally add free. Just saying!

  2. Warren says:

    The primary problem here is being first. I never upgrade on day one for several reasons: 1) immature software, 2) excessive traffic, and 3) unknown incompatibilities. Most of these issues will be sorted out. In addition, there is the matter of security which needs to be thoroughly evaluated. That is one reason I use Evernote for research materials and Dropbox for sensitive documents. Apple was wise to keep MobileMe in place until next June. Anyone who immediately upgrades and then complains should have their head examined (not including testers and commentators). The rest of us have important business that needs to get done and should not be using “untested” software. I think iCloud is a terrific idea and will turn out to be a very significant competitive advantage for Apple. The ability to have your data everywhere on any platform is the future. Just not this year. My recommendation: wait until next Spring. By then, we will have a much better idea of the pluses and minuses and whether we need to explore alternatives….

  3. William Timberman says:

    Patience, Gene. Attitude is everything. I had all the problems you describe, but I’m still happy as a clam, and I didn’t have to sacrifice any neurons to my equanimity. Then again, I also loved MobileMe. The thing about Apple’s service integrations is that they tend to be as elegant as Apple’s hardware engineering. Not for cheapskates or tinkerers, no, and not for people who find PayPal buttons too complicated, or non-replaceable batteries too limiting, but I can give all sorts of examples of how they’ve made my life easier.

    Cloud services are in their infancy, but they work pretty well for all that. When I was a kid, you had to set up a long distance telephone call in advance, and a call over 3 minutes long could bankrupt you. Early electronic check processing could empty your bank account, yet how many ATMs have stiffed anyone lately? Netflix and Amazon were nightmares in the beginning, but now they’re as reliable as air.

    Apple dreams dreams that sometimes get away from them. Curmudgeons write columns. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here…..

  4. Andrew says:

    iOS 5, OS X 10.7.2 and MM to iCloud migration all done Wednesday morning. Two Macs, an iPhone 4 and an iPad 1 now all updated and linked. It took about three hours, had some trouble upgrading the iPhone (restarting the Mac as suggested in an Apple support article solved it).

    I don’t know enough about the new services yet to know if the benefits will turn out significant or not (MM was just fine for me), but so far so good.

  5. bill42 says:

    I would like to answer the question that the subject title asks. No, iCloud is clearly not better than MobileMe, and for reasons that the author did not even mention. There must me a large number of people like me who were very happy to pay $100/year for MobileMe. Most likely people with families and/or home businesses. I happen to have both, and so Gallery and iDisk were very important to me. Sure, there is dropbox, and there are also 3rd party photo web gallery companies, but the beauty of MobileMe was that like any good Apple experience, it was all under one roof and all managed by apple. iDisk may have been slow, but it sure is a super easy way to upload a bunch of files and give people nice HTML links in an email that automatically start downloading those files.
    Same with gallery- in seconds I could post my kid’s birthday party pics and minutes later my extended family could view the photos from all over the world. With out some ugly designed 3rd party site with ads all over it trying to sell printouts. I don’t want ads, or 3rd party sites. Or 3rd party solutions for storing files on a server. I want MobileMe back, and I dare say I would pay $200/year instead of $100 if they would just let me keep it instead of iCloud which is pretty useless to me.

    • doug petrosky says:

      I don’t think the answer is as simple as just saying no.

      The loss of web hosting, and iDisk are huge negatives for many people.

      But the one major advantage iCloud has over Mobile me is…..Where truth resides!

      On mobile me the truth as it related to syncing was your computer. But if changes were made on one of your computers and not sync’d in time when another updated something similar, mobileMe just got confused, because nobody was “truth”!

      Now the cloud is truth. You change something and it is instantly on the cloud and the cloud is what is always correct. Multiple changes are made….and any conflict is resolved at the cloud and pushed back to all devices. This should make it easier to have general purpose calendars, and address books. Well, at least here’s hoping!

  6. jens holm says:

    the arrival of icloud means the end of mobileme’s photo gallery, and the excellent webhosting environment and certain syncing functions.

    as a user who signed up on itools and has stayed a paying customer with dotmac and mobileme i am really disappointed in this development.

    apple offer no usable method of saving the work their users have put into web pages, blogs, galleries. it will simply vanish next summer. (sure, you can host iweb pages elsewhere but with reduced functionality and all commentary removed. sure, there is picasa, smugmug and flickr but no one else offers photo sharing site tools that are anywhere near as easy and elegant as mobileme’s galleries.

    people so appreciated these services that they paid apple 100$ year after year to keep them. to have these unilaterally axed leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of some of apple’s mot loyal customers.

    the story says that apple missed the boat on the www, when they had hypercard in their hands. similarly, apple missed the boat when it came to eworld/itools/.mac/mobileme. despite having all the right ingredients, they never realized the power and potential in making a social network between their users, a la facebook/google+. even ping further emphasizes how they “don’t get it”.

    by itself, icloud is a fine service. i hope it succeeds, whatever its goals are. but the pointless loss of the mobileme services -especially considering the potential that they had- doesn’t inspire confidence.

  7. brachetta says:

    I was very satisfied with mac’s simplicity and never could get past the involuted sounding mobileme. i know…it’s just a name. I also did not like having to click here and there to get my mail similar to yahoo. This year, I decided to let my subscription expire, and for some mysterious reason, all the addresses in my computer address book disappeared. Just names and email addresses remained. I anticipated iCloud in the hopes that maybe I could have a .mac experience again. I have not changed over to Lion and will wait until i see what it looks like on somebody else’s computer. iTunes is always demanding my credit card number even though it has nothing to do with the service I am after. It rejected an old number in the past so I gave up trying , and I do not see the need to give them my new number until I actually purchase something. For some ‘mysterious reason my old credit card number was always good enough to pay the yearly subscriptions. iTunes’ customers’ credit card numbers is the largest data base of credit card numbers there is, just waiting to be plucked. The apocrypha that one hears. I like Apple, principally because there is nothing else out there that I am aware of that is as straightforward and minimalist, but sometimes they come across as crassly commercial, especially after impressing with their well crafted image. I hope that now that the big guy is gone Apple won’t go Rococo.

    • brachetta says:

      @brachetta, P.S. When the venerable Mr. Asa Candler died, the powers that were in the Coca Cola tower could not even wait until he was cold in his grave before they pushed a new, improved Coke onto the market. After being uniformly booed in the marketplace, they retreated and brought back the original product as the ‘Real Thing’, which never really restored its customer base. All this economic loss over a product that is 99% sugar water + a bit of flavoring. Twiddlers, tweakers, fiddlers, and muddlers take note.

  8. bill42 says:

    @doug petrosky,
    Doug, you mention one positive design improvement of the iCloud foundation. I will agree with you that this is a positive step towards a true cloud-based personal database. However, in reality I only had a handful of sync problems over the last 10 years or so. Therefore to me this is not a very big issue, compared to losing my cloud storage, cloud photo gallery, and my easy-to-build personal website I have designed in iWeb. Only a day after using iCloud, and already I had to go back to MobileMe 2 times- once to upload a new set of photos and another to send a PDF portfolio of my work to a company with a job opening. Now I will have to use snappish and dropbox, or similar 3rd party companies. WHen those companies have problems and they go down, I have to learn how to resolve issues with non-apple companies and figure out their forums. With MobileMe getting advice or support was always so easy- you went to the mobileMe support site, or you could speak to a like person via chat in less than a minute, 24 hours a day!
    iCloud can only become valuable to me if they add all these features back in.

  9. Kristin says:

    OH So Right
    I agree Mobile me works great for me and I don’t want iCloud.
    Setting it up while keeping MM was nuts, I deleted it.

  10. Mike says:

    Answering your article’s headline. No

  11. I’ll miss the iWeb hosting.

    • dfs says:

      @Partners in Grime, Good point. Even many of us who have access to servers at our places of work, universities, etc. would feel uncomfortable about posting private stuff on them. For us, iWeb was a great solution. But there is a bright side. Maybe, at long last, the next version Pages will finally come with the simple and straightforward Save as HTML option it has always needed.

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