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Apple MobileMe Review, Part 1: Introduction

Apple bills its second-generation .Mac service--rechristened as MobileMe to attract the Windows-using masses--as "Exchange for the rest of us." And that makes sense, when you consider that the main aim of the service is to provide push-based email, contacts, and calendar management, a la Microsoft Exchange, that works between PCs, Macs, and iPhone mobile devices. However, unlike the mature Exchange product, the initial version of MobileMe is half-baked, with glaring functional holes that make it less than desirable than it could be. And that's especially true on the Windows side--the focus of this review, of course--because Windows users get dramatically less for the $99 a year that Apple is charging than do Mac users.

What is MobileMe?

MobileMe is a hard service to describe quickly because it tries to do so much. As noted previously, the primary point of the service, ostensibly, is a cloud-based email and PIM (personal information management) synchronization facility, whereby any email, contacts, and calendaring data you may have is automatically and immediately updated across the various PCs and mobile devices (iPhones and iPod touches) you use to access the service. MobileMe also provides a Web-based front-end to email, contacts, calendar, photos, and online storage. You can also access your MobileMe email via any standard email application but not, alas, your contacts. You must have a Mac running Mac OS X to access contacts, calendar, or the photos via a native application. And if you do have a Mac, you gain access to various Mac-only MobileMe services, some of which are pretty compelling. On both the Mac and Windows-based PCs, you can access MobileMe's online storage, called iDisk, natively via the file system shell.

Confused? It gets worse. MobileMe's various services are so incomplete as to be almost unusable, especially on the PC side. You can access MobileMe email via virtually any Windows-based email application, but you can only synchronize contacts or scheduling information with a handful of PC-based applications and Web services. The Calendar service can't import or subscribe to external applications, so if you're thinking about migrating from, say, Outlook or Google Calendar, you'll need to manually recreate your entire calendar. (On the Mac, you can import into iCal and have that sync to MobileMe.) You can only import contacts one at a time using the Web interface, which is the only interface made available to Windows users. There's no way to seamlessly integrate with any photo applications on Windows, as you can on the Mac, making photo uploading a ponderous and time-consuming affair. The list of problems goes on and on and on.

Not the same on every platform

Looked at a different way, MobileMe offers four tiers of service, and I presume that most potential customers would want to subscribe to MobileMe because they intend to access two of them directly (PC, iPhone) and one implicitly (Web, because they're forced to). These tiers of service, in order of capability from full to limited, is:

1. Mac. Mac users get the full meal deal. MobileMe email integrates directly with OS X's Mail application. MobileMe contacts integrates directly with OS X's Address Book application. MobileMe calendar integrates directly with OS X's iCal. MobileMe photo gallery integrates directly with iLife's iPhoto application, which comes free with every Mac. And MobileMe iDisk integrates directly into the OS X Finder. There are further hooks into MobileMe on the Mac, however: Dashboard widget preferences, Dock items, many application and system preferences, and Mail notes all sync with MobileMe on the Mac. You can use iMovie or Aperture 2 to upload movies to MobileMe photo gallery. You can use iWeb to create Web sites on MobileMe, even with custom domain names. And you can use the Back To My Mac service, part of MobileMe, to remotely access your Macs via the Web. Mac users get it all.

2. iPhone and iPod touch. Those with iPhones, iPhone 3Gs, or iPod touches that have been updated to the latest system software get a reasonable mobile experience. Email, contacts, and calendar items are synced automatically, over the air, and you even set up these services on the iPhone/iPod touch directly on the device, not via a PC- and Mac-based iTunes install. You can also send photos from your iPhone directly to the MobileMe photo gallery, over the air.

3. PC. Windows users get the sharp end of the stick. MobileMe email is IMAP-based and can be accessed via virtually any email application as you'd expect. Contacts sync is reasonable, supporting the native Windows Contacts application as well as Outlook and two of the more popular Web-based services. Calendar sync supports Outlook only, which is unfortunate. There's no photo gallery integration at all, so you have to use the lousy Web interface, which, until two weeks after MobileMe launched, didn't even support--get this--photo uploading. You can enable iDisk support via a hard-to-find downloadable utility, or use the lousy Web interface.

4. Web. Apple's Web-based interface to MobileMe is alarmingly incomplete. As I warned early on, having had years of experience with MobileMe's .Mac predecessor, this should come as no surprise. Apple has yet to create a decent Web application, and MobileMe is no exception. The apps are all attractive looking, but slow. Contacts can only import one kind of contact (vCards) and then only one at a time. Calendar doesn't support any calendar import at all (!), and amazingly it doesn't even support subscribing to Internet calendars, a very common feature for, well, Internet calendars. (It doesn't support publishing MobileMe calendars either.) It can't even remember your preferred calendar view style, so don't get too attached to month view. MobileMe photo gallery? Weeks after the launch, you can finally upload photos via the Web interface, which is nice, because there's no other way to get photos into MobileMe on a PC.

As a Windows user, you can't exist in only one of these tiers as not all major MobileMe features are available natively in Windows or via Windows applications. You will need to use the Web applications for certain functions, like photo management, for example. And I assume that most MobileMe users are also iPhone users: The experience on the iPhone is decent, and certainly more interesting than on the PC.

That said, I can't imagine why any Windows user would ever sign up for this car crash. It's a complete disaster on the PC. But I do have a responsibility to review it anyway, so here we go. I won't be reviewing the Mac version of MobileMe per se, for what I assume are obvious reasons, but I will be referencing unique Mac features from time-to-time so we're clear on what 90 percent of MobileMe users are missing out on. In coming parts of this review, I will be reviewing the MobileMe experience on Windows, the iPhone, and the Web, in that order. Let's jump right in ...

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