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Apple MobileMe Review, Part 4: The Web Experience

In this fourth and final part of my review of the initial shipping version of Apple's MobileMe service, I'll be examining the MobileMe Web experience, the part of the service that most closely resembles its .Mac predecessor. I'll also offer up some closing thoughts about MobileMe and summarize why I believe that Windows users should avoid this poorly executed mess, at least until Apple gets around to fixing it. If they ever do.

MobileMe on the Web

In very general terms, the MobileMe Web experience--which provides Web-based access to MobileMe's email, contacts, calendar, photo gallery, and iDisk online storage systems--is an expected and required part of any cloud service. As with Web-based email and PIM systems offered by Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, and others, users are free to access MobileMe entirely via the Web if they want, though unlike those other systems, of course, you have to pay $99 a year for MobileMe. (The value in MobileMe, such as it is, is that provides OTA access to your email and PIM info via the iPhone as well.)

The MobileMe Web experience is also of particular interest to those Windows users who are considering the service. That's because many MobileMe features are only available to Windows users via the Web interface: There is absolutely no Windows integration with MobileMe photo gallery, for example, and unless you use Outlook, you'll have to turn to the Web interface for your calendaring needs as well. In this sense, it's important to think of the Web experience as an extension of the Windows experience, because using the Web experience is an absolute requirement if you want to use MobileMe on Windows.

Too bad it's such an epic disaster, eh? In fact, it's so bad I don't even know where to start. So let's turn back the page, briefly, to a past with which few Windows users will be familiar. Previous to MobileMe, Apple offered a paid subscription service called .Mac ("dot Mac"), a service that was itself predated by an even more primitive service called iTools (which was free). Both .Mac and iTools shared exactly two similarities: They were designed to improve the Mac user experience, and they were both utter rubbish.

Skipping over iTools, Apple's .Mac service evolved slowly in the face of rapidly maturing cloud computing solutions such as Gmail, Google Calendar, and Flickr. It's primary draw was that users were able to have a email address, and before you scoff at that notion, remember for a second how wrapped up in the Apple mystique most Mac users were just a few years ago. Actually, many still are of course: My most virulently anti-Microsoft email still comes, invariably, from Kool-Aid chugging clowns with email addresses. Beyond the address, which accounted for about $98 of the $99 annual fee from what I can tell, Apple offered email via .Mac, in both Web and IMAP forms, and a variety of links to iLife, another way that Apple siphons an additional $99 per year from its most ardent fans.

The Web interfaces to .Mac were notably bad, especially the email, something I'm familiar with because I've been a .Mac subscriber since the day Apple first announced the service. So when Apple senior vice president of worldwide product marketing Phil Schiller showed off MobileMe for the first time in early June at the company's WWDC 2008 event (see my MobileMe Preview) and revealed what was very clearly a slightly updated version of the .Mac email Web interface as the MobileMe Web experience, I knew we were in trouble, even though Schiller described it as "a desktop-like experience on the Web." Indeed, every single MobileMe Web email feature he showed off that day--to polite or even exuberant applause from the very Mac-using lemmings in the audiences who should have also known this but apparently didn't--was, in fact, already available in .Mac Web email. He didn't show off a single new feature.

Still, as I noted in that preview, the MobileMe Web experience is, of course, quite attractive looking. This is Apple, after all. But as is always the case with Apple's 1.0 products, the functionality is only skin-deep. Look a bit further and you'll find that a stunning amount of expected functionality is simply missing.

Using MobileMe on the Web

Available at, the MobileMe Web experience consists of a logon screen that frequently forces you to type in your user name and logon credentials despite the fact that you've configured it to remember that information, six core capabilities (email, contacts, calendar, photo gallery, and iDisk), and an account management interface. Apple recommends that users access this site with Safari (go figure) or Mozilla Firefox, leaving the 85 percent of the world who use Internet Explorer hanging in the breeze. In fact, if you try to access the site with IE, you'll get a catty and unnecessary message suggesting that Microsoft's supposedly lackluster support for Web standards is the problem, instead of pointing the finger in the direction of Cupertino, where it belongs.

I access MobileMe with Firefox because I don't recommend that Windows users even install Safari, as it's essentially malware. Avoid Safari at all costs. (Is that catty enough for you? It's at least as accurate as Apple's claims about IE.)

General issues with the Web experience

Over the past several weeks, I've experienced numerous issues in the MobileMe Web experience, with a wide variety of weird error dialogs. Apple has admitted to quality of service issues, so presumably this sort of thing will slow down and even disappear over time. It can only get better.

Also, as a general note, I should point out that the MobileMe Web experience is horribly unsophisticated. It doesn't remember basic customizations at all. So, for example, if you change the calendar view to Month, navigate away and come back, it will reset to its default Day view. If you move the sliding bar between the Messages pane and the Reading pane in mail, it will move back to its default position when you return. These sorts of things are irritating, and while they don't necessarily inhibit the functionality of the product, they do make it less enjoyable.

Oddly, despite the Web 2.0 nature of MobileMe, right-clicking within the Web interface invariably triggers a standard Web browser right-click menu. You can't do anything with email messages, photos, contacts, or other objects in the MobileMe Web experience by right-clicking. Contrast this with, say, Windows Live Hotmail, where right-clicking reveals a context sensitive menu relating to the object in question. And it does so in Web-standards-unfriendly IE 7 no less.

I would again point out, too, that MobileMe often refuses to leave you signed in, even when you configure it to do so. It's just another annoyance that eats at you as you try to use this thing.

MobileMe mail

MobileMe mail on the Web looks a lot like Apple's OS X-based Mail application, an old-fashioned two-column view. (Modern email solutions like Outlook 2007 and Windows Live Hotmail offer a more efficient three-column view now.) On the left is the Folders pane, which contains the various email folders associated with your MobileMe email account. On the right, stacked one on top of the other, are the Messages and Reading panes. Think Outlook Express from about a decade ago and you get the idea.

As a Web 2.0-style Web application, MobileMe mail does sport some local application-like niceties. You can multiple-select email messages using familiar keyboard shortcuts for example, and drag and drop messages between folders. There's even a neat Quick Reply feature that lets you reply to a message in a pop-up window without loading it into the Reading pane.

Of the MobileMe Web experiences, mail is the most mature, which makes sense given its years-long .Mac heritage. This is most clearly evidenced by the MobileMe mail Preferences pane, which is a multi-tab affair with numerous options; the Preferences panes for the other MobileMe features are notably stark by comparison. One nice feature is the ability to create email aliases, which you can then use to subscribe to mailing lists and sign-up for Web sites you're not sure of. Aliases each get their own color in the inbox too, so if you start getting suspicious email, you'll know where it came from.

MobileMe mail does support what I consider to be the most important two features for any transitionary-type email account: The ability to aggregate mail from multiple accounts (albeit only via POP) and mail forwarding, where you forward MobileMe email to a different account.

MobileMe contacts

As with the mail experience, MobileMe contacts visually resembles an OS X application, in this case Address Book. It offers a three pane view, with contact groups (like folders) on the left, an alphabetical contacts list in the middle, and contact details on the right.

MobileMe contacts can utilize a photo for each contact, which I think is a nice touch, especially on the iPhone, where the contact photo appears on the screen when you receive a call from that person. You can drag and drop contacts into contact groups, which makes for obvious management.

Contact editing betrays the service's Web heritage: When in editing mode, the display offers a huge and ugly Web form that looks out of place with the rest of the interface.

Another weak point is contact importing and exporting: MobileMe contacts supports exactly one format, vCard, which means you can only import and export individual contacts one at a time. There is no way to export your entire contacts list, or import an entire contacts list from another source via the Web interface. Preferences are bare-bones, with just a few sorting and phone format options.

MobileMe calendar

Visually based on Apple's excellent iCal application, MobileMe calendar offers up what I think is the nicest looking Web calendar, though it's short on features compared to, say, Google Calendar. That said, MobileMe calendar does support multiple calendars, each with their own color. This should appeal to the important soccer mom demographic, eager to balance their family's schedules using different calendars.

What's missing--and this is a big one--is the ability to subscribe to Web calendars and publish your MobileMe calendars so others can subscribe to them. What's odd about this is that iCal has had this functionality for years. Further odd, there's actually a "Subscriptions" section in the calendars list on the left of the UI. Right now, the only available subscribed calendar is "Birthdays," which examines the birthdays of your contacts and puts them into an automatic calendar. This is handy, and even desirable. But come on: If you're moving to MobileMe from another calendar service, you're going to want to get your old data in there, if only temporarily. Plus, there's a huge collection of Web calendars available online now, along with a cottage industry of sites dedicated to such things. I want my Red Sox schedule in there.

Long story, short: MobileMe calendar hits the basics, but it falls far short of what one expects in a modern calendaring solution. That this came from Apple, which pretty much pioneered this space with iCal, is shocking.

MobileMe photo gallery

The Web interface for the MobileMe photo gallery is important because it's the only way in which Windows users can interact with this service. (And Apple only offers very basic iPhone integration, which is so limited that you can't even create new albums from the device. So you're going to have to use the Web site eventually.)

What you get here, basically, is a flat view of albums (folders) in your photo gallery, each of which can contain many photos. There is no support for folder hierarchies. Instead, MobileMe photo gallery offers up something akin to the "events" view in Apple's OS X-based iPhoto '08 application. (Note that iPhoto comes with iLife, not Mac OS X.) Like that events view in iPhoto, MobileMe photo gallery provides a pleasant if somewhat pointless effect where the photos in an album spin by as you mouse over the album.

But don't be fooled: MobileMe photo gallery is nowhere near as polished, sophisticated, or feature-packed as is iPhoto. It offers only basic features like album creation and renaming, photo uploading, and photo rotation. You can't retouch photos in any way, create photo calendars or books, or perform any other activities. Individual albums shown on the public version of your photo gallery site, or they're not. That's as fine-grained as things get.

Photo uploading is particularly weak, though to be fair, it's no worse than the Web interface for Google's PicasaWeb (which, incidentally, is free). You can multi-select photos to upload via a standard Windows File Open dialog, but you cannot upload folders (to auto-create albums). (Thi is true of PicasaWeb too.) That photo uploading was completely broken for the first two weeks of the service's life is now water under the bridge, so to speak, but I mention it because during this period MobileMe photo gallery also managed to lose hundreds of photos I uploaded repeatedly over several days. It's working now, but to say that I no longer trust the service as a result is an understatement.

What I'd really like to see is some sort of native Windows integration for photo gallery, either via the shell (as with the Flickr Uploadr tool) or via applications like Windows Live Photo Gallery and Windows Photo Gallery. Viewing photos on the Web is fine. Managing them on the Web is monotonous, especially if you have a large enough collection.

MobileMe iDisk

If you're familiar with Windows Live SkyDrive, prepare to be disappointed. Yes, MobileMe iDisk (formerly just "iDisk") offers Web storage just like SkyDrive, and there's even a way to access it via the Windows shell, though Apple does nothing to encrypt that interface, making it less than desirable in certain circles. What iDisk lacks, however, is the ability to share individual files with others. You're free to copy files into a Public folder, which anyone can access, but there's no way to create a custom URL for an individual file, as you can with SkyDrive, to share just that file with just one person.

What's odd about this is that iDisk has actually been around for a long, long time. Apple has used it as a backup point for .Mac subscribers, and back when XP was young and in its prime, Apple even created an XP application for accessing iDisk through the Explorer shell. Today, for Windows users, MobileMe iDisk is pretty basic. The Web interface lets you upload files (up to 1 GB in size) via the same system used for photos, and download photos one by one. You can't upload multiple files together unless they're in the same folder on your hard drive (unlike with SkyDrive which is again more sophisticated in this regard) and you can't drag and drop files off of iDisk or download multiple files at the same time.

Plus, the interface frequently locks up. Moving files around in iDisk, I've often had to quit the browser to get back in and complete a file copy. Attempting to move out and back into iDisk doesn't work.

Account management

MobileMe's account management interface is only notable because it's surprisingly attractive and useful. Here, you can find out about the details of your account, and configure options related to billing, passwords, storage, and the like. It's nicely done.

Final thoughts on the Web experience

The MobileMe Web experience is emblematic of Apple as a whole: It is at turns brilliant and horrible, a mishmash of useful functionality and half-realized potential. Because Windows users must rely on this interface for so much--i.e. it's not optional for many tasks, especially photo gallery--it's shortcomings are all the more glaring. Apple has a lot of work to do before this interface is generally useful and desirable. Right now, it feels like an early beta release.


I appreciate what Apple is trying to accomplish with MobileMe, and I recognize what a great service this would be if it actually worked, offered functional parity between Mac and Windows, and wasn't so expensive. But that's the problem: In its initial shipping state, MobileMe is a train wreck, with glaring problems across the board. (Only the iPhone interface seems most fully fleshed out.) Windows users would be crazy to pay Apple $100 a year for a service that is buggy, incomplete, and could potentially lose data. They would be crazy to pay Apple $100 a year for a product that offers them only about 65 percent of the functionality that Mac users get for the same price. And they would be crazy to pay $100 a year for something that they can get for free elsewhere.

What MobileMe offers is a complete package of email, PIM, photo management, and online storage that, if done correctly, could be quite compelling at perhaps half the current price. The email address is short and easy to remember in this age of expansive domain names. Having all this information in one central system that is pushed out to all of your PCs and iPhones is an attractive notion. You know, if it worked.

As it is, MobileMe is a disaster. And that's too bad, because Apple's iPhone is so good, and the iPhone is the only good reason to even consider adopting MobileMe. In the weeks ahead, I'll be examining ways in which Windows users can sync their existing email and PIM data to the iPhone in ways I hope will one day be as seamless as MobileMe promises to be. Truth be told, the systems from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and others all have their own issues syncing with Apple's trend-setting device as well. But I'd rather put up with those issues for free than pay Apple for something that simply does not work. And I recommend that you do the same, at least for now. Avoid MobileMe at all costs.

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