Apple MobileMe Preview

While Apple's long-expected iPhone 3G (see my preview) garnered most of the attention earlier this week in the aftermath of the company's Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) 2008 keynote address on Monday, an ancillary product announcement is potentially as significant. That announcement concerns a new, or at least upgraded enough to be considered new, online service called MobileMe. Shipping next month for iPhone, Windows, and Mac users, MobileMe is important because it represents Apple's first serious cloud computing endeavor. And because it seeks to elegantly bridge the gap between iPhones and Windows-based PCs (or, for a smaller audience, between iPhones and Macs), MobileMe could prove to be a popular option for iPhone users looking for something more sophisticated than the iTunes-based syncing capabilities that Apple introduced last year.

Before moving any further, I'd like to address a common email I receive whenever a big Apple event occurs and I begin temporarily covering whatever Windows-relevant products they announce: This Web site is called "SuperSite for Windows," not "the SuperSite for Microsoft." I'm not interested in covering every single product that comes out of Redmond, and I am not a Microsoft fan-boy. What I'm interested is products and technologies that affect you, the Windows user. You've made a decision to use the world's best operating system as the center of your computing experience, and I endorse and support that decision. And as Windows users, we deserve the best products and technologies that work with Windows, regardless of whether they come from Microsoft, or, increasingly, from elsewhere.

Yes, Apple makes Mac OS X and its Mac computers, and these products compete with Windows. But most of Apple's other products--iPods, the iPhone, the Apple TV, and, yes, MobileMe--are and will always be used by more people running Windows than are running Mac OS X. So while I may cover these products, it's because they're important to Windows users, not because they're made by Apple. I'm not going to start reviewing every Mac computer that comes down the pike, for example, or discuss non-relevant Apple software products like Aperture.

MobileMe is important because you run Windows and because I feel that you should be using an iPhone, for reasons I've spelled out in intricate detail elsewhere. Windows is the most important desktop computing platform on earth, and it matters. The iPhone is the most important handheld computing platform on earth, and yes, it matters too.

What's less certain at this time is which of the emerging cloud computing platforms will take off going forward (or whether users will simply continue picking and choosing between what's available from a variety of vendors). Microsoft is making its case with Live Mesh and the various LIVE services. But until this week, only Microsoft had its foot in all three core computing platforms of the near-future--the desktop (Windows), mobile computing (Windows Mobile), and the cloud (Live Mesh). Now, with MobileMe, Apple is providing its own triple-play. But unlike the Microsoft, all of Apple's mobile and cloud computing solutions work with both Windows and the Mac. Interesting, no?

So let's take a look at what Apple is doing for iPhone-wielding Windows users with MobileMe and see whether this is the final missing piece of your cloud computing/mobile puzzle. If you're currently on the fence about the iPhone, or are using a different type of mobile/smart phone and haven't given much thought to how all these product types can work together more seamlessly, MobileMe may be a bit eye-opening.

MobileMe 1.0: .Mac

While Apple is marketing MobileMe as a new Internet service, it actually has its roots in an online service the company's been offering to Mac users for years. Its called .Mac ("dot Mac") and I'll touch on it only briefly because, well, it was pretty lame. I've been a .Mac subscriber since Apple announced the service, but not because it offers any particular value. Instead, I use .Mac to test Mac OS X features that require .Mac. And of course it provides a mac.com email address. My iTunes account happens to be tied to my .Mac (mac.com) email address as well, because iTunes debuted as a Mac-only service.

In any event, .Mac provides a Webmail account (with POP and IMAP support for desktop and iPhone email clients), an Address Book that synchronizes with the Mac's Address Book application, bookmark syncing between the Mac version of Safari and the Web, a personal Web site with sophisticated photo and movie posting (via iLife), and a few other features. A costly $99 a year (or a bit less if you shop around), .Mac provides 10 GB of online storage, which you can distribute between email, your Web site, and iDisk-based document sharing.

Needless to say, .Mac hasn't proven too successful. While many Apple fans initially jumped at the chance to get a coveted Mac.com email address, Apple didn't upgrade .Mac dramatically over the years, or otherwise make it valuable enough to justify the expense. It's been a lame duck for a while now, and when rumors that Apple was going to replace .Mac with a Google-based service last year didn't come to fruition, it seemed that .Mac would simply fade away. Now it's clear that's not going to happen.

Introducing MobileMe

MobileMe was introduced by Apple senior vice president of worldwide product marketing Phil Schiller, an affable man who appears to have as little in common with Apple CEO Steve Jobs as is humanly possible. Schiller also introduced Apple's excellent tagline for MobileMe, describing it as Microsoft "Exchange for the rest of us." In case it's not clear what's meant by that comment, understand that Exchange is Microsoft's enterprise-oriented messaging server, which provides, among other things, push email, contacts, and scheduling to Windows Mobile smart phones and a host of other compatible devices (including, beginning with the iPhone 2.0 software update, the iPhone and Pod touch).

"Not all of us work in large enterprise," he explained. "Not all of us have Exchange servers. But boy would we like to have those capabilities. Well, now you can. With MobileMe, we can all get push email, contacts, and calendars, right to our [iPhones]."

Pause for a moment and consider how incredible this is. The word 'push' here alludes to the fact that any changes to your email, address book, and calendar will be "pushed," automatically and instantly, to your iPhone. Likewise, if you make any changes to these items on the device itself, those changes will sync instantly make to the server and, thus, to whatever PC- or Mac-based clients you use. (You could also just use Apple's new Web-based MobileMe email, address book, and calendaring solutions. More on this in a bit.)

Compare this with how things work today. On the PC, you can sync the iPhone with Outlook-based email, contacts, and calendar information only. (And this functionality is horribly broken, as I detailed in my original iPhone review, though that's a completely different issue.) And yes, the synchronization is two-way: If you make changes on the device or the PC, those changes are reflected in the other. However, to make this synchronization happen, you have to physically tether the iPhone to the PC with a USB cable and run iTunes. Until that happens, information on the PC and/or iPhone could be out of date.

With MobileMe, email, address book, and calendar is sync happens immediately and automatically, and it happens over the air. You never have to physically the tether the iPhone to a particular PC to make it happen. (You may, of course, have to connect the two for other reasons, such as to sync a downloaded movie to the device or whatever.) Your most important data will be up-to-date wherever you are, whenever you need it.

"MobileMe stores your information up in the cloud so you can get to it from anywhere, from any of your devices," Schiller explained, explicitly acknowledging that MobileMe is the company's first true cloud computing play. "You can use a Mac, you can use a PC, you can use one of our great new devices, like an iPhone." (MobileMe will also work with iPod touch devices that are updated to the 2.0 software update, in case that's not obvious.) "It will push the information, up and down, and keep everything up-to-date, all the time."

Schiller used a simple example: You get a new email at your MobileMe account (which will utilize the me.com domain). It immediately gets pushed to all your supported devices (Macs, PCs, iPhones/iPod touches). If you're out and about and you change the information for a contact on your phone, that change gets pushed up to the MobileMe "cloud" and then pushed down to your other devices as well. Ditto for calendar: Make a change to a meeting on your PC, and it's pushed up to MobileMe and then back down to your other devices.

[Interesting side note here: For those of you who use both Macs and PCs, MobileMe may be doubly valuable because it will provide a seamless way to keep your email, contacts, and calendar data synchronized between both platforms, a process that was previously arduous and, frankly, best accomplished by bypassing the native applications on each system and using Web-based solutions instead. In this sense, MobileMe is a great tool in Apple's ever-expanding Switcher toolbox, because it lowers the barrier to entry for the Mac platform.]

Push email, address book, and calendar are what we might call the core MobileMe experiences. This functionality works with a much wider range of native Windows applications than does stock iPhone syncing, which supports only Outlook for email and calendaring, and Outlook or Windows Contacts for address book. With MobileMe, you can sync email using Outlook, Outlook Express (XP), or Windows Mail (Vista). You can sync contacts using Outlook, Outlook Express (XP), or Windows Contacts (Vista). Calendar sync, sadly, is still limited to just Outlook. (How about throwing us Vista users a Windows Calendar bone, Apple?) On the Mac, Apple supports the stock Mail, Address Book, and iCal applications that are included with OS X, of course.

These core MobileMe experiences can also be accessed via what appear to be very attractive Web-based applications. Schiller described them as "Web 2.0 applications using the latest AJAX technologies," in keeping with the buzzword-friendly introduction. What you need to know is that the Web-based versions of MobileMe Mail, Address Book, and Calendar are pretty stunning looking, while being very clearly modeled on the Mac OS X desktop applications of the same names. "It's a desktop-like experience on the Web," Schiller said.

The Web-based MobileMe Mail, Address Book, and Calendar applications will be available at the simple and easy to type (and remember) me.com Web address and will work with virtually any browser on any PC or Mac, according to Schiller. And while the demo he gave revealed an attractive-looking experience, I'd be cautious about getting too excited about this part of the service just yet. The MobileMe Mail application (Figure) is very clearly a barely-tweaked version of today's .Mac Mail Web application (Figure), and while there are worse Web mail services out there, .Mac isn't anything to write home about. I'll need to wait and see what these things are like in real world use before recommending that anyone skip out on Gmail or Hotmail for this thing.

During a demo, Schiller showed off MobileMe Mail features like multi-message-select, drag and drop, and Quick Reply, which lets you reply to a message without first opening it, and implied that they were somehow new and amazing. But these features have been available in .Mac mail for a while now. Nothing he showed in the Mail demo--to applause by the iCabal audience, by the way--was actually new to MobileMe.

MobileMe Address Book is a lot more attractive than .Mac Address Book, utilize a three pane look that's virtually identical to the OS X-based Address Book application. This lets you view and edit contact details without navigating to a new page. Search is now instant (i.e. you don't have to hit Enter to trigger it). And when you click on an address, you see a pop-up Google Map. That's new.

The one high point here, potentially, is MobileMe Calendar, which looks almost identical to iCal. This is a far more attractive calendaring solution than anything I've ever seen on the PC or on the Web, and if Apple is able to duplicate this functionality in a Web app, that's pretty exciting.

More MobileMe: Photo Galleries and iDisk

Looking beyond the core MobileMe experiences, Apple is providing a number of other features via this service, though it's unclear at this point how many of them will require a Mac (or least work significantly better with a Mac). Case in point is the MobileMe Photo Gallery solution, available as a Web application alongside Mobile Me Mail, Address Book, and Calendar. "We've taken the [photo] gallery technology we had in Mac.com and it's built into a Web-based gallery that any MobileMe user can access and use and management right in the browser."

As with push email, address book, and calendar, photos also work over-the-air with the iPhone, Schiller explained. Using a new Send to MobileMe option in the iPhone's Photos application, you can now instantly send a photo you just took with the iPhone's built-in camera up to the service and share it with others. Previously, this would have required a Mac, and a physical link between the Mac and the iPhone. What's unclear here, of course, is whether PC users will be able to directly access the Gallery via anything other than the Web interface and, if so, whether the custom Web sites that are available on the Mac with iLife's iWeb tool will somehow be made available to PC users as well.

Apple has long supported a WebDAV-based storage system called iDisk via its .Mac service. In MobileMe, iDisk has been enhanced with a Web interface, allowing you to access whatever files are stored there using a standard Web browser. (On Windows, you can also access iDisk via the Explorer shell as a network share, which can be equally handy.) This is a great way to share files with others, including those files that are too large to send via email.

Only on a Mac: those Features Windows users (probably) won't get

It's notable perhaps that Schiller didn't highlight this in his portion of the WWDC keynote, but Apple is making a number of MobileMe features available only to Mac users, and then only to those Mac users who have the latest versions of Mac OS X and various iLife applications. Here's what PC users will be missing out on, as near as I can tell at this point:

Gallery (photos) - As noted above, Apple is included a Gallery Web application for sharing and storing photos. It's unclear, however, whether you will be able to access this service via anything but the Web on Windows. On the Mac, you can upload "entire photo albums" to Gallery "with just a couple of clicks," assuming you have iLife '08's iPhoto '08 or Aperture 2. Furthermore, when you or someone else adds or edits photos in Gallery, they will be "automatically pushed down to your iPhoto or Aperture library on your Mac." There doesn't appear to be any similar functionality on the Windows side.

Gallery (movies) - On the Mac, Apple also allows users to "upload high-quality movies to Gallery in a variety of sizes perfect for viewing on the web, iPod, iPhone, or Apple TV." Windows users? Not so much.

Web site creation and publishing - On the Mac, "MobileMe is built to work seamlessly with iWeb ['08]. You simply create your site, click Publish, and it's online. There are no settings or configurations to remember: MobileMe does it all behind the scenes. MobileMe will also host your personal domain name so you can publish your site directly to www.youraddress.com." Can Windows-based MobileMe subscribers host their personal domain names too? It's unclear.

Bookmark syncing - On the Mac, MobileMe supports OTA bookmark syncing between Mac-based Safari bookmarks and the iPhone. On Windows, you can sync bookmarks, but only by tethering your iPhone to the PC with a USB cable manually.

Dashboard widget preferences sync - On Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard only, Mac users can also sync Dashboard widget preferences via the MobileMe cloud.

Dock items sync - On Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard only, Mac users can also sync Doc items via MobileMe.

Application and system preferences sync - On Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard only, Mac users can also sync "many application and system preferences" via MobileMe.

Mail Notes sync - The Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard version of Apple's Mail application includes note-taking functionality. These Mac users can also sync Mail Notes via MobileMe.

Back To My Mac - Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard introduced a feature called Back To My Mac, which required a .Mac account. Now it requires MobileMe: Back To My Mac lets you remotely connect from one Mac to another over the Internet and retrieve and edit files.

If you are a current .Mac subscriber--and I'm guessing there must be at least 7 or 8 of you out there--MobileMe replaces .Mac. You can continue to use your mac.com email address if you'd like, but you will also be given an identical me.com address, and mail sent to either will go to both. That is, if your .Mac address is [email protected], you will also be getting a [email protected] address. Likewise, if you use your .Mac account for iTunes, as I do, you can use the me.com address instead if you'd like.

Pricing

Like .Mac before it, MobileMe will cost $99 a year, which is about double what its worth, especially on the PC. It comes with 20 GB of online storage (compared to 10 for .Mac) and you can upgrade that with an additional 20 GB ($49) or 40 GB ($99) of storage if you need more. From a pure storage standpoint, that's extortion , but of course what you're really paying for is the functionality, specifically the over-the-air automatic synchronization of email, address book, and calendar data (and, to a less extent, photos). On the Mac, you get quite a bit more assuming you have the latest version of Mac OS X (Leopard) and iLife ('08).

MobileMe will debut in early July alongside the iPhone 2.0 software update.

So is it worth it?

While the over-the-air functionality of MobileMe is both exciting and excellent, it's unclear whether the $99 asking price--per year--is justified, especially for Windows users. My guess is that Google and others will begin adding OTA functionality to their own Web services now that the iPhone has been opened up to developers. And the cost and effort of converting from whatever email/contacts and calendaring solution you're currently using to MobileMe could prove daunting. I don't see anything in Apple's documentation to suggest they're going to streamline this process, a bit of functionality that would be both useful and obvious.

For now, I'm going to have to reserve any judgment on MobileMe. Apple's current Web-based .Mac services, like Mail, are pretty weak and it's clear that MobileMe is based on that work. Furthermore, Windows users are treated like second class citizens in MobileMe: We get the core stuff, yes, but many MobileMe features are Mac-only or are at least vastly superior on the Mac.

Put more simply, I'm not sure yet.

Final thoughts

Schiller described MobileMe as "the perfect companion for anyone who has an iPhone or an iPod touch, and that may be true, though it's too early to tell. Had MobileMe been priced more affordably, I'd be less unsure about the service. My gut feeling is that MobileMe will not be worth it for Windows users, though Mac users should see little reason not to throw even more money at their favorite company. We're in a holding pattern on the Windows side, however: Unlike the iPhone 3G, which is almost certainly a win-win for most users (AT&T notwithstanding), MobileMe is a bit too unsettling and rough around the edges to get excited about just yet. Wait and see.

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