Apple MobileMe Review, Part 2: The PC Experience

On the PC, your MobileMe experience will be determined by the applications and services you currently use, and whether you intend to move to Apple's service entirely, leaving your old solutions behind. That is, most potential MobileMe users will come to the service with some electronic baggage. They most likely already have an email account somewhere, such as Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, or whatever. That account most certainly has some collection of contacts associated with it. A much smaller percentage of these users also has an electronic calendar of some kind, probably Google Calendar or something similar. They access these services via Web interfaces or native Windows applications.

We can further break down these potential MobileMe customers into two other groups. First are those who will migrate their existing personal information management data from wherever it was to MobileMe. And then there are those who will continue to use their old services to some degree but prefer to synchronize information between those services and MobileMe.

There is, of course, a third potential archetypical MobileMe user: The person who is willing to simply start over from scratch. These people, in many ways, will have the best experience because moving (or copying) data from existing email, contacts, and calendar services is time consuming and, most problematically, fraught with problems because Apple only supports a tiny subset of the most popular PIM services out there. Since this third group is such a tiny minority and will likely have few issues, we can safely ignore them for the purposes of this review. Instead, I think it makes more sense to focus on those who wish to move to MobileMe full-time or sync existing services with MobileMe.

Depending on what you're currently using, you're in for a rough ride.

After all, you are what you are. Maybe you organize your email, contacts, and calendar through Google, as I do. Or maybe you're a Microsoft guy, preferring that company's Windows Live Hotmail service. Of course, there are hundreds of millions of Yahoo! customers out there as well, and let's face it, many of those guys are logically starting to research alternatives right now. Many, many users simply access whatever email service they use, typically via POP3, but preferably via superior IMAP technologies. All of these users, and more, are potential MobileMe customers.

MobileMe sync on the PC: What works, what doesn't?

So what does MobileMe offer you, the PC user? If you sign up for the service--or, more preferably, the 60-day free trial, given the problems I've uncovered--you'll be told that you need to download iTunes 7.7 (or newer) to get the MobileMe bits on your PC. You then access this interface via the MobileMe Control Panel applet. (In Windows Vista, simple type mobileme in Start Menu Search to access the MobileMe Preferences control panel.) This, literally, is the only client-side MobileMe code with which you need to interact, assuming you're just using the service via the PC. (If you want to utilize MobileMe via the iPhone, that device has its own interface as well. We'll get to that.)

After typing in your account information, the MobileMe Preferences control panel will provide some basic information about your account on the Account tab (go figure). But the real action is on the Sync tab. Here, you determine which contacts, calendars, and Web bookmarks applications or services you will sync with MobileMe. How you approach this syncing will depend on how you intend to use MobileMe. If you're switching over to Apple's system entirely, you can simply sync once to get your data from wherever it is now to MobileMe. If you'll be maintaining your existing service(s) and MobileMe side-by-side for the short or long term, you can set up a sync schedule that determines how frequently data moves back and forth. You can choose from Automatically (on-the-fly, sort of, though PC-to-cloud sync is currently on a 15-minute turnaround time), every hour, every day, every week, or manually.

Here's a tip: Because sync is two-way (you literally cannot configure it otherwise, like a real sync service), you can also use the MobileMe control panel to later leave MobileMe. That's right, when things go bad, you can sync back to your original applications and services (or even to new applications and services) and simply forget that MobileMe ever existed. I suspect this will be a common scenario unless Apple soon gets its act together.

You can sync between MobileMe the following applications and services.

Contacts

MobileMe supports Google Contacts (part of Gmail), Microsoft Outlook, Yahoo! Address Book (part of Yahoo! Mail), and Windows Contacts. The Google, Yahoo! and Windows Contacts systems appear to work as expected. But as is the case with iTunes-based sync between an iPhone/iPod touch and Microsoft Outlook, MobileMe sync with Outlook is limited only to the default, local "Contacts" folder (the one that's located in Outlook's Personal Folders). That is, you can't sync with other, non-default Contacts folder, such as the contacts list you will see if you connect to your Hotmail or Live.com account via the Outlook Connector.

To fix this, you must configure Outlook to use your most desired data source as the default. Normally, that's the hidden outlook.pst file, Default Folders, which contains local versions of your email folders, contacts, calendar, tasks, and other data. However, you can change this to a different account. To do so in Outlook 2007, open Outlook, navigate to Tools, Account Settings, and then click the Data Files tab. From here, choose the data source you prefer (such as [email protected] or whatever). Ta da: Now your contacts and calendars from Windows Live will sync with MobileMe. (Note: This will not work with Windows Live/Hotmail accessed via the Outlook Connector.)

Beyond changing how Outlook works, you could of course also try the export and import route, exporting your contacts using your current service and then importing them with the Web-based interface for MobileMe contacts. Sadly, this is a monotonous affair, as MobileMe Contacts only supports importing vCards, and then only via its Web interface, which means you have to import individual contacts one at a time.

Calendar

As with straight iPhone sync via iTunes, MobileMe supports sync with only one calendar application, Microsoft Outlook. And that's silly when you consider that so many free, standards-based calendar applications and services exist, like Windows Calendar (part of Windows Vista), Google Calendar, and Yahoo! Calendar. If you have a copy of Outlook handy, but use a different calendaring service, you're in luck: Copying or syncing your existing calendars to Outlook is relatively easy (with a few limitations and caveats). If you don't have Outlook, things aren't so rosy. You'll either need to start over with MobileMe, as there's no way to import (or even subscribe to) Internet calendars in this service at all. It's astonishingly weak.

Microsoft Outlook can be purchased for about $100 on Amazon.com these days, which is a decent price if you're going to be using the application regularly. (You can, in fact, use it with MobileMe email, contacts, and calendar, so it's not a horrible choice even if you've totally bought into Apple's service.) If you're just looking to sync to MobileMe once via Outlook and then be done with it, you could also check into Microsoft's free 60-day version of Office 2007. It's available in many countries and in many versions, so make sure you pick one that includes Outlook, such as Office 2007 Professional, Standard, or Small Business.

As with contacts, Windows Live users can configure Outlook to use Windows Live Hotmail as the application's default data source (see the previous section). Doing so will make the Windows Live Calendar the default calendar in Outlook, but you will still not be able to sync that with MobileMe. (This has to do with a limitation in Apple's sync software.) I've yet to find a way to make this work, but I'm working on it.

Why Apple doesn't simply support any standards-based calendar service is beyond me. I mean, think about it: They're actually driving users into Microsoft's arms here. There are better (and cheaper) calendaring solutions out there than Outlook. This is something Apple needs to fix, but the company's inability to improve on its lackluster Outlook sync via iTunes suggests we shouldn't expect too much here either.

Bookmarks

In a bit of unintentional hilarity, MobileMe can sync the bookmarks from two Web browsers, Internet Explorer and Safari. Why is this funny? Well, the MobileMe Web applications are only supported on two Web browsers too, just not the same Web browsers: Here, you'll need Mozilla Firefox or Safari. So while you can use Firefox to access Apple's Web applications, Apple won't sync Firefox bookmarks. Meanwhile, while you can sync IE bookmarks with MobileMe, Apple doesn't support using the MobileMe Web applications with IE. Put more simply, Apple only fully supports one Web browser, their own. Maybe that's not so funny after all.


MobileSchizophrenic: MobileMe syncs only IE and Safari bookmarks. But the Web apps only work with Firefox and Safari.

Other MobileMe services on the PC

While the PIM services mentioned in the previous section offer their share of difficulty to the typical PC user, MobileMe offers a lot more, even to Windows users. There is email, of course, but also an online photo gallery and Web-based storage. Since these other services don't involve syncing per se, it makes sense to discuss them separately.

Email

Unlike with contacts and calendar, you don't sync between MobileMe email and your existing email service(s), which makes sense. Instead, MobileMe email (with a me.com email address) is configured a standard IMAP account in your email application of choice. So it will work equally well in Windows Mail (part of Windows Vista), Windows Live Mail (which is free), or Microsoft Outlook. And of course you can always access the Web interface on the go, though I don't recommend that for normal usage, as it's pretty bare boned.



MobileMe email in Microsoft Outlook (above) and Windows Live Mail (below).

Contacts management is obviously of key importance to any email solution, so you'll need to figure out a way to sync your MobileMe contacts with your email application of choice. MobileMe directly supports both Outlook and Windows Contacts, as mentioned previously. But if you use Windows Live Mail or some other email application, you're going to be stuck importing and exporting contacts manually until something more elegant comes along.

Photo Gallery

Unfortunately, Apple doesn't offer any integration points between its MobileMe Photo Gallery and popular PC-based photo management applications like Google Picasa, Windows Photo Gallery (part of Windows Vista), and Windows Live Photo Gallery (which is free). So you're stuck using the Web interface, which I'll look at later. Note that Mac users are able to upload both photos and movies to MobileMe using tools such as iPhoto and iMovie, which comes free with all new Macs, and Aperture 2.

iDisk

Apple's iDisk has been available to .Mac users for a long time, but the WebDAV-based online storage solution makes a more meaningful jump to the PC with MobileMe. Unfortunately, native support for iDisk is hard to come by: Though Apple delivered an iDisk installer for Windows XP, where you could mount your iDisk storage as a drive letter in Explorer, no such tool exists for Windows Vista. And Apple isn't exactly bending over backwards to make this utility available even for XP users now that MobileMe is here. Instead, the company expects you to access this service via the Web interface.

Gag. Yeah, it works. But boy is it slow. Fortunately, you can enable iDisk via Explorer if you know how. In Windows Vista, open Explorer and click the Map network drive toolbar button. In the Map Network Drive window that appears, select a drive letter and then enter http://idisk.me.com/YourMemberName in the Folder field, replacing YourMemberName with the first part of your MobileMe account name (i.e. the part before the @ sign). Click Finish and you'll be presented with a standard Windows Connect To dialog, where you must enter your MobileMe user name and password. Voila, you're in.


It's not well documented, but you can access your iDisk Web storage from within Explorer.

Of course, even this Explorer-based file access can be pretty slow. But it's considerably more elegant than the Web interface. Why Apple doesn't offer a way to enable obvious bit of functionality via the MobileMe Preferences control panel is unclear.

Final thoughts

The MobileMe PC experience is woefully inadequate, both compared to what's available on the Mac and what's possible given the scope of capabilities Apple is currently offering. I can't think of a single reason for a PC user to subscribe to MobileMe unless they are also an iPhone user. But even in that case, the limited range of sync options, the lack of integration with popular PC applications, and the need to rely on the Web interface for particular capabilities makes MobileMe less than desirable. That it is buggy and performs poorly doesn't bode well for potential customers either. I can't recommend MobileMe to Windows users at this time, even if they are iPhone users. But those who do not own iPhones should avoid MobileMe under all circumstances as there are better and free solutions out there. I recommend Gmail for email and contacts management, Google Calendar for calendaring, Google PicasaWeb or Flickr for photo management, and Amazon S3/Jungle Disk or Microsoft's Windows Live SkyDrive for online storage. Looking to sync Firefox or IE bookmarks? Grab Google's browser toolbar. Windows users have better options out there than MobileMe. And they're usually free.

Hide comments

Comments

  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Publish