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Apple MobileMe Review, Part 3: The iPhone Experience

While I think the typical PC user would be crazy to adopt an email and PIM solution as buggy and incomplete as MobileMe, those with iPhones (or iPod touch devices) face a more complicated decision. Apple designed MobileMe specifically for iPhone users, and while it's possible to use an iPhone effectively without MobileMe, you'll need to do a lot more of what I call the iPod Calisthenics routine--bring it home, plug it in, sync it up, charge the battery, repeat--than you will with MobileMe. That's because the primary advantage of MobileMe is that it works over-the-air (OTA) using what Apple calls push technology.

The advantages of this system--also available to iPhone and iPod touch users via compatibility with corporate Microsoft Exchange servers--are enormous. In fact, if you think back to the pre-MobileMe world (or the pre-iPhone Software 2.0 world, I guess), you'll recall that the only way to exchange information between the iPhone and the PC was to tether the device to your computer with a USB cable and manually sync that information, bi-directionally. It works, and it works fine, but it's yet another thing you need to remember to do all the time. And if the PC you sync with is back in the office and you're on a week-long road trip, well, that's seven days without syncing. That's fine for entertainment content like music and movies. But it's more problematic for schedules and contacts.

Enter MobileMe, or "Exchange for the rest of us." As noted previously in this review, Apple's (sort of) new email and PIM service offers the ability to sync email, contacts, calendars, and (for some reason) Web bookmarks in real time, over-the-air. This is an exciting capability, one that would be all the more useful if it were tied to a backend service that actually worked well on the PC. I explained why that's not true in the previous part of this review. But for now, let's just focus on the iPhone experience (which also applies to iPod touch devices, of course). Because this is a different animal all-together.

Setting up MobileMe on the iPhone

If you're a long time iPod user--and let's face it, hundreds of millions of us are--you're probably familiar with how things work: You bring home your new device, download the latest version of Apple's decent but performance challenged iTunes digital media management application, plug them together, and then sync music, movies, and other content back and forth. It works well for what it does. On the iPhone as with previous iPods, Apple also supports syncing other information between iTunes and the device: Contacts, calendars, mail accounts, Web browser bookmarks, and the like.

Users interested in signing up for MobileMe get a different experience. When you plug in an iPhone and navigate to the device's Info tab in iTunes, the first thing you'll see at the top is a MobileMe section. It reads, "MobileMe syncs your email, contacts, calendar, and bookmarks over the air to your iPhone." There's a Learn More button that launches a Web browser and visits Apple's MobileMe Setup page.

Huh. That's different.

Navigate to the iPhone/iPod touch Setup page and you'll see that Apple recommends doing the following:

1. Sync your iPhone with your current sources for contacts, calendars, and Web bookmarks, using the traditional iTunes interface. As noted previously, this will either work fine or not at all depending on which contacts, calendar, and Web browser applications you use.

2. Open the MobileMe Preferences control panel and set up sync between MobileMe and your desktop applications or online services of choice. Again, the same limitations from step 1 apply, so your experience here will be wonderful or terrible, depending on what you use.

3. After successfully syncing with MobileMe on the PC (a process that may never actually complete), you need to enable MobileMe on your iPhone. From your iPhone.

This last bit is interesting: MobileMe isn't just enabled on the iPhone. You actually determine which parts of MobileMe (all, none, or any parts you want) utilize push technology for updates. The alternative, "fetch," is used for iPhone applications that don't support push, or when push is disabled on the device. So what's the difference between push and fetch? According to Apple, when push is enable, any changes are automatically pushed to your iPhone whenever they happen, (nearly) immediately and automatically. With fetch, the iPhone operates as it did before, on a set schedule (every 15, 30, or 60 minutes) or manually. Put another way, with push, it is the "cloud" that triggers updates whereas with fetch, it is the iPhone that polls, or checks, for changes.

There are two main configuration items to change or at least check on the iPhone. The first is Fetch New Data, which is so important it's the second item in the top-level Settings UI. Here, you determine whether push is enabled (it is by default) and what the fetch schedule is (manually, by default).

The second setting to visit can be found in Mail, Contacts, and Calendars, which is also available from the top-level Settings UI. Here, you set up your MobileMe account via the normal Add Account UI. The wizard is short and obvious, and because of Apple's understanding of its own systems, you don't have to worry about obscure technical settings like mail server names and port numbers.

Once your MobileMe account is verified and added to the device, you'll see the MobileMe sync screen, which feature four on/off switches, one each for Mail, Contacts, Calendars, and Bookmarks. This is actually a surprisingly handy feature, as it allows you to independently enable or disable any of the four syncable MobileMe services. So, for example, you might enable MobileMe use for Mail and Contacts, but not for Calendars or Bookmarks. (I happen to find browser bookmark sync to be useless, so I just turn that off. But the decision is yours.)

Click Save and you're good to go. MobileMe can co-exist with other email account types (like Gmail or whatever). But if you choose MobileMe calendar sync, you won't be able to sync other contacts or calendar sources with the device. Instead, you'll see in iTunes that those services are synced over the air and can no longer be configured from the PC.

Using MobileMe on the iPhone

Once MobileMe is properly configured on the iPhone, you can access the various MobileMe services in mostly obvious places. This is where Apple's homogeneous approach really pays off, as the device's various applications work seamlessly with MobileMe.

Email: Mail

MobileMe email is accessed via the iPhone's native Mail application, which sports simplified mailbox, message, and editing screens. Thanks to IMAP-style email access, what you see on the iPhone is identical to what you see in your email application or on the MobileMe Web site, and you can perform all the expected actions, such as creating a new message, viewing a message, reply to a message, forwarding a message, and so on. The iPhone works wonderfully for email triage: I use it to move unneeded messages into an archive folder, saving longer and more complicated replies for the PC. The only thing you can't do is add new mailbox folders or remove existing folders, which admittedly won't be commonly needed.

Contacts: Phone and Contacts

Contacts are accessed via the native Contacts application (iPhone or iPod touch) or via the Favorites and Contacts list in Phone (iPhone only). Individual contacts even pickup photos, which can be added via the device itself, in the MobileMe Contacts Web application, or in Microsoft Outlook. Contacts are also nicely configurable: I was able to add a custom "Euro phone" field on the phone so my friend Jeff and I could easily communicate via phone during a recent trip to Ireland.

Calendars: Calendar

As you might expect, your MobileMe calendars are accessed via the native Calendar application, which is a wonderful mobile version of Apple's Mac OS X iCal application. Calendar supports multiple MobileMe calendars (something that doesn't work with Outlook sync, for example) and a nice list view that is particularly useful given the size and dimensions of the iPhone screen. But even the month view is made more useful than you might think would be possible, thanks to the addition of a mini list view.

Photo gallery: Photos

The MobileMe photo gallery is only partially supported on the iPhone. If you navigate to the Photos application on the device, for example, you won't see an entry for your online photo gallery (as you do, say, on the AppleTV by the way). Instead, what you get are the standard list of on-device photo albums.

However, there is a bit of MobileMe photo gallery integration in there. If you are viewing an image and click the More button, you'll get a pop-up menu with four options (plus Cancel): Use As Wallpaper, Email Photo, Assign to Contact, and Send to MobileMe. That last option triggers a MobileMe Albums view that (slowly) brings up a list of MobileMe albums available in your account. (Secret: In order for a MobileMe photo gallery album to appear in this list, you must configure it to allow uploading from email or iPhone. This is done via the MobileMe Web interface: Open the album and click "Adjust the settings for this album" to see this option.)

When you select an album, the iPhone will actually create a new email in Mail and email the photo to MobileMe. It will then be added to the appropriate MobileMe photo gallery album and be accessible via the Web. (But not, curiously, via the iPhone.)

Put simply, iPhone support for MobileMe photo gallery is pretty basic at this point, and I suspect it has to do with bandwidth/battery life issues. Still, I expect Apple to improve this so that you can directly view your Web-based photo galleries and sync them directly to the device.


iDisk is the one major PC-oriented MobileMe feature that's missing from the iPhone entirely. This is understandable, sort of, given the iPhone's lack of on-device file system support: You can't do things like save email attachments directly to the device, so the notion that the iPhone wouldn't support Web storage at this point is somewhat understandable.

Problems with MobileMe and the iPhone

While the MobileMe/iPhone story is largely positive, there is one very obvious problem: Push can kill the battery at an alarming rate. There are other factors involved with the poor battery life experienced by those using the iPhone 3G and the original iPhone with the 2.0 software update, of course. But the introduction of push support has clearly had its effect as well. I'm overseas as I write this, so I've turned off data roaming, which effectively kills push and other non-phone connectivity functionality on my iPhone. But like everyone else who's made the change, I've seen some serious battery life issues. Let's just say that keeping the iPhone charged every night is now a requirement.

I think some of this could be overcome via software updates, but even more could be done with more judicious use of these services. I'll be keeping an eye on this going forward, but if it's any consolation, OTA Exchange on the iPhone appears to kill the battery even more quickly.

There is another issue, though Apple is known to be working on this and I don't honestly find it to be overly problematic. While push support on the iPhone is indeed near-immediate and automatic, MobileMe on the PC and Mac does not in fact use push at this time. (Apple actually had to remove some references to the word "push" in its MobileMe marketing materials for this reason.) Instead, MobileMe information that's changed on a PC or Mac is actually synced up to the MobileMe "cloud" on a fetch-like schedule that could take as long as 15 minutes. So if you make a change to a contact or a calendar item on the PC, it might be 15 minutes before the change it pushed, OTA, to your iPhone.

A lot of people are up in arms over this one, but I don't see it. MobileMe is a consumer service, not a mission critical enterprise solution: If you need your calendar updated immediately, make the change from your iPhone or use a more business-oriented service instead. Geesh.

Final thoughts

MobileMe support on the iPhone is excellent, as you'd expect. In fact, the only thing holding it back is the fact that no one will use this service solely on the iPhone: You need to access email, especially, via your PC, and you can only perform many actions (like email mailbox management, most photo gallery-related tasks, and all iDisk usage) via PC applications or your Web browser. Right now, what's holding MobileMe back, mostly, is its lousy PC experience. On the iPhone, Apple's already got most of the pieces in place. This is the only aspect of MobileMe I can honestly recommend.

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