In the age of Google, Dropbox, Chrome OS, online backup, and remote access solutions, it’s pretty evident that cloud computing is already mainstream. What types of cloud computing and how much of our data is going to wind up in the cloud are issues that are still being worked out. And nowhere do those questions need to be asked more than with Apple’s MobileMe service.
On the surface, MobileMe seems like a fairly decent online service that would hardly inspire passion and conflict. It offers Mail, Contacts, and Calendar syncing across computers and mobile devices. It provides online disk storage for files that need to be accessed from anywhere. You can share photos and even a web site with it. And if you have an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, MobileMe can help you locate it if it gets lost or stolen. Sounds great, right? As always, though, the devil is in the details, and in the details of competing services. And that’s where people’s opinions start to differ on how good of a value MobileMe really is.
One of the biggest knocks on MobileMe is the price. $99 a year at retail price seems a little high when you can get email and calendar services that are just as capable from Google for free. If you sign up for Google Apps (free for individuals and small groups), you get all that plus the ability to create basic web sites, create collaboration groups, and use the google messaging tools with your groups. And you can even use your own domain name as well.
In terms of cloud disk storage, Dropbox is probably the most obvious popular competitor. It comes in three varieties: a 2GB free plan, a 50GB for $99 per year plan, and a 100GB for $199 per year plan. Granted, for the same price as the 50GB Dropbox, MobileMe gives you all the other features talked about above, but Dropbox’s disk storage is more reliable and better performing than MobileMe’s iDisk tends to be. In addition, the free 2GB Dropbox works very well for things like storing a 1Password keychain for syncing between a Mac and an iPhone and/or iPad, for example.
However, one thing that cannot be disputed is the ease of set up for MobileMe versus using Google for everything. I tend to use my dad as an example a lot, but it’s appropriate because he’s a typical person whose specialties lie outside the computer industry, and who just wants to get things working quickly and easily. Dad uses MobileMe to keep his Macs and his iPad and iPod touch in sync, but I can’t imagine him going to the trouble to research how to get it all set up with Google Apps. It’s not that Google Apps is horrifically complicated to set up and to sync calendars across all your devices, it’s just that it requires some amount of research and effort above and beyond what setting up and using MobileMe on a Mac or iOS device requires.
And that’s one thing that geeks tend to underestimate — the desire of normal humans to just have something work, and to be able to use it without investing a lot of time trying to understand it. For all its weaknesses in execution in other areas, MobileMe is still uncomplicated for a Mac or Apple mobile device user to get going with relatively quickly. And it’s all in one place.
For me, the real failure of MobileMe lies in the fact that it has remained relatively unchanged for several years. The name changed from .Mac to MobileMe, and there have been minor improvements here and there, but it’s substantially still the same service it has been for quite some time. Meanwhile, the rest of the world has moved on to services that are cheaper and more in tune with mobile devices.
Apple has the best mobile devices in the world (in my opinion). Yet these mobile devices require constant tethering to computers via USB cable to perform initial set up, file, data, and app sync, and to back them up in case of failure so they can be restored if required. It’s starting to feel like a rather dated approach, and it’s hard to imagine that Apple isn’t biding time until it’s practical to provide a wireless means of performing all of these chores. If they could provide the ability to do all of these things without any personal computer involvement, it would make the iOS devices even more attractive and convenient than they already are.
I was in an Apple store awhile back, and I watched an exchange between an iPhone owner and an employee behind the Genius Bar discussing a problem with the guy’s iPhone. The iPhone needed replacing, but he had not synced with his computer in months. The result is that he likely lost months worth of personal and app data that was never backed up. The ability to somehow backup to the cloud automatically over WiFi, similar to how Macs do with Time Machine and the Time Capsule now, would be a major win for Apple and their customers.
So back to the Final Conflict — I straddle the fence and agree both with those who say that MobileMe is outdated and overpriced, and those who say that it’s more convenient and centralized. It is. It’s all of those things.