Mobile Meh

In summer of 2008 Apple announced that it would integrate various web services with the iPhone under the brand name “Mobile Me.” Existing “dot Mac” (.Mac) customers were migrated in what was billed as “Exchange for the rest of us,” but it didn’t go well. Synchronization that that worked well under dot Mac became spotty, and things my clients relied upon were broken. Recognizing this, Apple gave all subscribers a few free months of service, and hoped that problems could be resolved. Not all were, though, and key parts of Mobile Me do not work for many subscribers, even today.

When it works, Mobile Me is terrific. When it doesn’t, it can induce swearing or bring tears.
Mobile Me logo courtesy of Apple

History of iTools, Dot Mac and Mobile Me

To understand the history of Mobile Me one has to go back to MacWorld 2000, when a free suite of tools including “Mac dot com” email accounts was launched for OS 9 as a way to showcase brand loyalty and reward Apple customers. Steve Jobs initially promised free email accounts and more, but this came to an end within two years, as more features were added and the service became a paid one, which emphasized online sharing. Under the new name of “Dot Mac,” the subscription service made it easier to create and share a variety of web pages, from online “iCards” from one’s own photos to web-page creation and hosting tools. Integration between iLife programs such as iPhoto and iMovie became tighter, and the primary market remained upscale home users who wanted a simple way to share multimedia content.

Synchronization and Sharing as Small Business Tools

More important to businesses, though, was the introduction of iSync, which allowed coordination of key data such as Safari Bookmarks, iCal and OS X Address Book data across multiple computers. This was a huge boon to many families and small businesses, in that it allowed just a few people to share and coordinate calendars across the Internet. Workgroups could now do three and a half useful things.

  • Synchronize with PDA’s and share calendars across space
  • Share key files amongst distant locations with iDisk
  • Consolidate business contact information in Address Book
  • Share and coordinate Safari bookmarks to aid in projects

This was a great boon to a variety of my clients. A consultancy with three locations hundreds of miles apart could very easily share files, stay abreast of schedule changes and follow client contacts between all three, while storing key project files on their iDisk for collaboration. A family with two working parents and two teenagers could share calendars to stay abreast of each other while teaching the children basic scheduling skills. The contractor who worked on Macs at three different locations could have current data at all times, and co-workers could at the different locations could easily find them. For a few years, it was a terrific tool, but that changed with the iPhone and Mobile Me.

What Mobile Me is SUPPOSED to Do

The theory behind Mobile Me is brilliant, as was the goal of integrating the device with the iPhone. Using concepts of “software as a service” and decentralized notions of server-driven “cloud computing,” Mobile Me was supposed to serve not only as a repository for data sent by individual devices, but also as a sort of air traffic controller. Any change on any device could be sent up to the Mobile Me “cloud” and then would be distributed like rain to other devices. Mimicking the behavior of Microsoft’s temperamental server software, only with an individual focus, Mobile Me was supposed to be “Exchange for the rest of us.” For those who have ever been charged with babysitting an Exchange server, this proved all too true.

Common Problems Since 2008

Since its debut in summer of 2008, Mobile Me has been plagued with problems, the most enduring of which are synchronization issues. The architectural change to “push” technology broke some things, which Apple immediately responded to by giving free months of service to all subscribers. After a few months of this, and continuing problems, Apple dropped all telephone support for Mobile Me and synchronization issues, essentially abandoning those customers for whom the service did not work. Given that some of these were my clients who had begun to rely on a service which HAD worked, this was an annoyance.

It is my estimate that approximately 10% of current Mobile Me accounts cannot synch properly, ever, and another 5% or so will synchronize sometimes but not others. The problem seems to be tied to the account itself rather than any given machine, and an affected account does not ever seem to get better. This has cost me dozens of hours in frustration and (with frustrated clients) is enough of an issue that I no longer recommend Mobile Me to anyone, warning them against possible future dangers the way I’ve previously warned against other tools such as the mail-destroying email suite from Microsoft. Fortunately, there are alternatives.
 A surer way to synchronize contacts for online and mobile use.

Workarounds and Alternatives on Mac OS 10.5

Since the late 1990’s there have been a variety of online services which combined email, address books, calendars and task or memo lists. A popular “portal” strategy at the time, players in the space began with Yahoo but also included companies that have passed such as Excite and Go.Com. Of the first wave, only Yahoo remains, and Google is the dominant player at the moment, with its powerful suite of Google Apps including GMail and Google Calendar. Beginning with Mac OS 10.5, various combinations of these play well with iCal and Address Book.

OS X Synchronization with Yahoo Address Book

Although Yahoo’s online tools work very well, it is possible to synchronize the Mac OS Address Book with Yahoo addresses, beginning with Mac OS 10.5. Simply open Address Book and within the general preferences choose to synchronize it with Yahoo address book. It will ask you for your Yahoo account and password information, and has worked remarkably well for over a year. A less robust application within Yahoo’s current calendar beta also allows one to coordinate a single Yahoo calendar. Sharing of web links, files and calendars within a group may be done using Yahoo groups but only through a web browser.

iCal and Address Book Synchronization with Google

Google Apps provides the most robust integration with Address Book and iCal at present, with Mac OS 10.5.6 adding the option to synchronize directly with OS X’s Address Book. iCal has long supported a variety of WebDAV calendars, including Google Calendars, and instructions for configuring those (along with their addresses) may be found in the “Calendar Address” section at the bottom of “Calendar Details” viewable from individual Google Calendar settings. With options to modify specific calendars “subscribe” to others and even “publish” some to the world, this makes a very useful group tool, indeed. File sharing and other collaboration can be done using Google Docs and Google Groups as well, and Google Apps is working to add more sophisticated mobile and shared-contact features.

Synchronize Directly to iPod, iTouch or iPhone with iTunes

One of the simplest alternatives to Mobile Me for the individual user, though, has long been embedded in iTunes. The last several generations of the iPod music player (including the iPhone and iTouch) have included a built-in ability to synchronize contacts and calendars to the device, making these music players a handy PDA. Most devices must be paired with a single user on a single machine, but with the iPhone and iTouch’s ability to enter events directly into the device, this is for most folks a perfectly adequate replacement for the false promises of Mobile Me.

Spanning Sync Makes Google the “Cloud”

Yet another option is a piece of commercial software called Spanning Sync, which is explicitly designed to do what iSync used to do. By using Google servers as its central touchpoint, Spanning Sync aims to coordinate multiple computers and mobile devices at a one-time cost of $65 or for $25 for the first year, with a $15/year subscription thereafter.

Updates Since Original Posting

Updates to Mac OS have made CalDAV synchronization between Google Calendar and iCal much simpler, as detailed by Google. There is also improved CalDAV support for iPhones and iPod Touch devices.

For Further Information

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