In depth - Mobile who? Apple is replacing its ailing .Mac suite of pricey online services with a rebranded service dubbed mobile.me. It delivers improved a web interface and enhanced over-the-air data syncing between a Mac, a PC, the iPhone and the iPod touch. Unfortunately, its pricing may be overly optimistic and may scare away many potential customers.
Confirming previous reports about Apple’s purchase of mobile.me domain and an imminent .Mac upgrade, Apple’s vice president of marketing Phil Schiller took the stage at WWDC keynote to announce the mobile.me service, which replaces Apple’s existing $99 a year .Mac suite of online services. Described as "Exchange for the rest of us", mobile.me is essentially a "cloud" service featuring push email, calendar and contacts, with a nice-looking web gallery and iDisk online storage for file exchange. Services can be accessed through the web interface. All of them share 20 GB of online storage on Apple’s servers.
What puts mobile.me apart from other online services is a syncing feature that keeps your data on any number of PCs, Macs, iPhones and iPod touch devices up to date. Mobile.me syncs user data from specifically enhanced applications: Mail, Contact and Calendar on iPhone/iPod touch; Mail, Address Book and iCal on a Mac; Microsoft Outlook, Outlook, Windows Contacts, Safari and Internet Explorer on PCs. Besides Apple-provided support for these applications, developers can enhance their Mac, PC and iPhone/iPod touch applications with Mobile.me support. For instance, a third-party application could store application preferences and user-created content on the mobile.me server and sync this content between other desktop computers, Macs and PCs, and iPhone/iPod touch devices. Apple envisions mobile.me as a way to enable data syncing between all their gadgets and, admittedly, it looks like a perfect match for that purpose.
Features: Over-the-air syncing, calendar, contacts, email, bookmarks, photos, online file storage
The synchronization delivers features similar to Microsoft’s ActiveSync to those who don’t have the luxury of using ActiveSync normally found in corporate environments. Mobile.me provides push email, contacts, calendars similar to syncing features that have made Blackberry a success. Data is kept up to date across all supported devices over the air and synchronization occurs in each device automatically - in the background. Any changes made in any device are automatically deployed and displayed on all mobile and desktop devices registered with mobile.me services.
Push email works similar to push email on a Blackberry: When the message is delivered to your IMAP-enabled mobile.me email account on the .me domain, it is automatically pushed to your desktop computers and iPhone. A new contact created on the iPhone shows instantaneously in the mobile.me web interface. A new calendar entry created in Mobile.me web interface appears within seconds on the iPhone and in Outlook on a PC. The service also syncs bookmarks between registered devices.
An online web gallery created in mobile.me can be viewed in any web browser, but it can be also accessed using the Photos application on iPhone/iPod touch or on a big screen using Apple TV. Photos are uploaded to the mobile.me gallery from a computer or directly from the iPhone’s Photos application, using the "Send to mobile.me" option. Others can view photos, download them and add their own. Mobile.me also syncs photos so anything added to the online gallery is synced back to Photos application on the iPhone.
The online storage application called iDisk provides the way to upload files for sharing, especially those too large for email attachment. Users simply drag the file to iDisk, since it shows up as a remote disk on the Windows desktop. Within OS X, it is integrated in the Finder and can be set to automatically replicate online content on your Mac. Invited users can download files stored on iDisk using a Mac or PC and any web browser.
As it was the case with .Mac, mobile.me users have credentials for web applications that imitate a desktop-like experience inside a web browser, similar to Google or Yahoo online applications. Here is a list of the features:
- Resize panes in Mail, select multiple messages and quickly reply inline to a message without opening it.
- Address Book sports contact lists, live searching of contacts and Google map integration to show contact’s address on Google Maps.
- Calendar provides day, week and month views, with color-coded events and drag & drop support, like Google Calendar.
- Gallery supports drag & drop of photos and real-time thumbnail rescaling as featured in iPhoto and a sleek interface.
- iDisk online storage allows you to upload files and share them with others from within the web interface.
Still too pricey
Unfortunately, the pricing remains the same $99 a year as .Mac (mobile.me will be available July 11.) Users will be able to sign up for a 60-day free trial. But after the trial period expires, they need to purchase $99 a year subscription (20 GB of storage) or $149 Family Pack that includes one master account with 20 GB of storage and four Family Member accounts with 5 GB of storage each. The default 20 GB of account storage can be upgraded with an additional 20 GB (+ $49 annually) or 40 GB (+ $99 annually).
Is it worth it?
Frankly, the answer depends on what you plan to do with mobile.me. If you have nothing better to do with mobile.me besides bragging, you may just use it for 60 days until the trial period expires. But if you are one of those types who keep the iPhone loaded with lots of important contacts, calendars and email and there is a true value in the fact that your data is synced all the time, $99 may not sound so bad. However, in absolute numbers, we believe $99 is quite hefty no matter how you look at it. For instance, you could share photos and create web galleries using Flickr or keep your contacts in sync using Plaxo - free of charge.
Keep in mind that Mobile.me subscription will also add $99 a year cost to the price you paid for your iPhone and monthly carrier service plan you applied for, adding to the already high cost of iPhone ownership. Without doubt, there is going to be certain percentage of iPhone owners who will pay premium for the luxury of hassle-free automatic synchronization of important data. Without doubt, mobile.me’s most impressive capability is synchronization which easily tops online syncing features from Microsoft, Google and Yahoo. Also, the web interface to access Mobile.me services offers beautiful desktop-like experience that no other online service can currently match.