- The Tech Night Owl — Cutting-Edge Tech Commentary - https://www.technightowl.com -

Is iCloud a Better MobileMe?

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 aol.com 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 “mac.com” 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.