MobileMe: Not as bad as people say…

Since its launch on July 11, 2008, the “new” online service from Apple had a bumpy start and reviews have been negative overall… even Walt Mossberg says that “Apple’s MobileMe Is Far Too Flawed To Be Reliable”. The problems that have plagued the service have not helped… and Apple also changed the tone of their messaging from “Exchange for the rest of us” to “The simple way to keep everything in sync”. But overall, the re-branding of .Mac and new web interface to the online service that Apple Inc charges $99 per year in the US (pricing does vary around the world, and I don’t think it will be lower) has all the base components that make it already worth for me, and that could become great with a few little “tweaks”.

There have been quite a few reviews such as the one from Lifehacker that gives other great perspective on the online service from Apple. The comments below provide those I noticed and have been making me happy, annoyed me or are driving me crazy (outside of the reliability problems).

The Good, e.g. the stuff I like

In my blog entry about the MacBook Air, I mentioned how I use iDisk from, at the time, .Mac to keep the documents I use / need in sync between my desktop and laptop computer. And with Secure WebDAV access to the iDisk information, I am also able to access the content of my online storage space from Windows XP or Vista computers while at work for example. And with the new storage increase by switching to MobileMe from .Mac, I am good for quite a while before I run out of space. I know that there are other solutions available that might be cheaper, but as far as I can tell (I didn’t do extensive research on this), none integrate as well as MobileMe with the operating system from Cupertino.

In addition to iDisk, MobileMe offers preferences, bookmarks, contacts, calendar, keychains … syncing acorss multiple computers. This is really great and is working as well with MobileMe as it was working with .Mac, e.g. overall pretty good. And when you install iTunes 7.7 on Windows, you gain MobileMe syncing for contacts, calendars and bookmarks with some Windows apps. I am so happy that my Safari bookmarks are synced across Mac and Windows that I really don’t care if some people find it sneaky to add the MobileMe Preferences with the iTunes update.

The new web apps for Mail, Calendar, Contacts and iDisk are really nice. There is plenty of room for improvements, but overall, they are fully usable. The contact manager is almost a clone of Address Book on the mac, and the online Calendar feels very similar to the desktop app provided by Apple. Yes, there are things that can be improved with the email and iDisk apps (see below), but overall, it works. Having used Outlook for the Web 2007 recently, I would say that the Apple implementation has potential to offer the same level of user experience, but there is still some way to go before getting there.

The gallery feature works well for me, and now that I got the capability to upload photos directly from the iPhone, I will be able to publish photos to certain galleries while on the road… I am certain my parents will be very happy to see family pictures on the go. And the integration with iPhoto on the Mac makes it really nice. You can even sync iPhoto albums using the MobileMe galleries across multiple machines. I understand that the galleries are not working that well from a Windows computer, but this isn’t a problem for me at this stage.

The Bad, e.g. the missing things for a killer solution

There are a few things that annoy me. First, why is it that when I check “Keep me logged in for two weeks”, I need to log back in every time I restart my browser? Yes, it is not the best option from a security perspective, but if you give the option, make sure it works.

Another annoyance, at least for me, is the choice of color Apple made for the iDisk icon on the MacOS desktop: Pink! And even worst than than, when you change the icon to something else, it doesn’t seem to update the mini-icon in the Finder window. OK, it makes it really hard to miss, but I am not a huge fan of that color… if the MobileMe logo is blue, why not stick with that color?

On the subject of the iDisk, one of the biggest feature missing for me right now is access to my documents in the iDisk from the iPhone. Why couldn’t I have read access to my iDisk files while on the go from my mobile device… everything else is linked to the cloud offering from Apple. OK, there might be an additional application that will be released in the future, so just make it quick. The iPhone already has support to display various document file formats when they are attached to emails. Why not give access to your online files through an iDisk application, that connects to the back-end server through Secure WebDAV. To make things even more frustrating, you cannot go to the iDisk web application with Safari from the iPhone. Ultimately, you should be able to save email attachments to your iDisk from the iPhone email application, but that’s a future feature request once the basics are there.

To continue with the iDisk subject, why can’t I preview documents within the browser from a desktop computer? Every modern web browser can display txt, pdf, gif, jpg, avi, swf, … inline, why do I need to download the file first to my computer before I can quickly view the content. Makes it a lot harder to get the right image or PDF document for example.

The last thing I have in this list is regarding the online and iPhone calendar. OK, Apple changed its messaging and stopped using the concept of “Exchange for the rest of us”, but iCal on the Mac can invite people to calendar events, sending out emails in the background. Why can’t I do this with the iPhone calendar app or the MobileMe online calendar? And why can’t I accept or decline meeting proposals that I get per email from another iCal user on my iPhone / through the web interface?

Now to make MobileMe the killer offering, once you have the scheduling capability obviously, Apple should enable free-busy time information to be shared across all MobileMe members. Apple is already storing the calendaring information about all those who subscribe to the service on their servers… if you could expose this information on the iPhone / Online calendar / iCal (CalDAV anyone?), that would really offer an Exchange solution for the rest of us. Yes, having previously worked as a product manager for a group scheduling software company, I know that this is a lot more complex that you would think, but half of the problem is already solved: Apple has access to real-time information about availabilities thanks to push. OK, will need to wait for MacOS 10.6 to get that on the desktop, but even the 15 minutes delay is better than the average time it takes for an Exchange server to update the free-busy time information.

The Ugly, e.g the showstopper

The ONE thing that is preventing me from switching over to MobileMe for all my private emails is that there is no support for email aliases. I am not speaking about adding addresses to your existing account… I want to be able to send and recieve emails for my or my email address from on the desktop, the MobileMe online service and the iPhone. Gmail does it for free and it works great. This means that Apple needs to allow emails to be sent through their SMTP server with emails addresses that don’t end with or and they need to give the option to change the from email address to anything the user wants (already possible on the desktop app). How hard could this be?

Ant the ONE thing that makes the web interface unusable is the fact that the site (outside of the account section) is not secure! Yes, that’s right, no HTTPS to access your mail, contacts, calendar or documents. This is simply unacceptable and makes it a show-stopper to use the online service for me. The IMAP access to the mail is secured, the iDisk access through WebDAV is secured, so why isn’t the web site access secured?

Overall, there are very few things that are show-stoppers for me at this stage, and many things I would like to see. Some of the benefits already available make the service worth the yearly subscription to me, but because of a few small things, I am unable to use it to its full potential. I fully understand that you cannot develop everything in one version… so if you are interested Apple, this post has a list of priorities from my side. Once these are done, why not open-up to third-party developers and enable them to add apps to the ones you provide (using SproutCore), getting 30% of the additional subscription fee?

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