The easiest way to stump me is to ask me what MobileMe is and whether it’s worth the $99 (£59 in the UK) annual fee. I usually respond by doing a ‘teardown’ of MobileMe’s features, in the same way that a new iDevice gets disassembled by analysts to work out how much each component part costs.
I’d pay ten bucks a year for the Find My iPhone feature, easily. I’d pay twenty bucks or so for a service that keeps all of my various address books, calendars, keychains, and system settings constantly synced and backed up.
iDisk. Hmm. Well, it depends on how much someone uses cloud storage. If you want to use that aggressively, then you have to compare the cost of iDisk’s 20GB of storage with other services’ ‘premium’ levels of support. Dropbox gives you 50GB for $99 a year. So let’s say that iDisk is worth about 50 bucks.
Back To My Mac is a service that promises to make the distance between me and my Mac irrelevant; no matter where I am in the world, I can connect to and control my office iMac through a window on my MacBook and also mount all of my file servers securely. Fab: another 30 bucks a year.
So from my personal perspective, MobileMe is worth well over $99 a year. And I’m not factoring in any of the features that I never use, such as MobileMe Gallery (I prefer to use Flickr for photo sharing) and my Me.com email address (even if I didn’t already have an email address, I’d need a damned good reason not to sign up for a free Gmail account).
Other people might cut up the $99 MobileMe pie differently but the idea remains that the service consists of a motley collection of features. It’s almost impossible to market a service on those terms, particularly when so many features can be countered with the question “Yes, but why wouldn’t I just get a free account with [Gmail, Flickr, YouTube, Dropbox] instead?”
From a certain perspective, MobileMe seems like the perfect solution for the world as it was 10 years ago, before those other services existed. From another, though, MobileMe has always been one of Apple’s most forward-thinking ideas: the concept of your files and data existing simply, and the implicit expectation that all of your computers and devices should work together with a minimum of human intervention.
Revamp not reinvent
MobileMe doesn’t need to be reinvented for the 21st century, just spruced up a little. I have some suggestions.
Every Apple app should also be articulated on MobileMe. If I have an iWork document in my iDisk, I should be able to view and edit it in a web app. I should be able to edit photos and organise pictures into new albums. I want access to my iTunes library; how about hosting a ‘virtual iPod nano’ on my iDisk?
Obviously, each app will be represented in different forms on MobileMe. But the basic gist is that if I use an Apple app on my desktop, I should expect that Good Things Happen when I save that content onto an iDisk. Apple is a big booster of HTML5 and its ability to create robust, dynamic web apps. Cool. Show me a working (if limited) version of iPhoto, iTunes, and Pages on the web and clear space on your chest for a flurry of medals.
Back To My Mac should Just Work. This feature demonstrates that Apple sometimes allows a half-baked feature to leave the kitchen. When you try to make Back To My Mac work across the internet, it’s just as reliable as it is when you’re using it on your home network. You can count on it not working.
It’s heartbreaking. It’s a feature that could make life much easier. Moreover, it’s not a subtle thing that’s gradually grasped. The first time a user clicks a button and realises that they’re controlling another Mac remotely is like the scene in Mary Poppins when the Banks children realise that their new nanny is the dark mistress of unspeakable mystic powers and that a violent reckoning on their schoolyard foes is now at hand.
My $99 (£66) Pogoplug device (which turns any USB hard drive into network-attached storage) mounts on my desktop no matter where I go. Does Apple need these engineers?
iDisk should be integrated into the iPad and the iPhone. And not via an App Store download. The iPad is a cloud storage dream machine. With the Dropbox app installed, the iPad becomes a portal to desktop data that requires no maintenance or syncing. A half an hour after downloading the new app, I upgraded my Dropbox membership. That’s how transformative a really well-considered cloud storage service is on a tablet.
Missing (several) tricks
Why is Apple creating an opportunity for other companies? By owning the desktop OS, the mobile device, and the cloud service, Apple could at one stroke elevate MobileMe into the indispensable add-on for its mobile users. All it would take is an app that does for the iPad what the Finder does for the Mac: act as the central concierge for all files coming in and out, and connect every app to every appropriate file type.
Add social features. iDisk already supports public folders. But I want MobileMe to understand the relationships I have with many fellow users. I’m perfectly OK with allowing some of my calendars to be viewed by any MobileMe user I’ve designated as a Family member. I’d even be pleased if Find My iPhone became a Find Me feature (so long as I can quickly turn it on and off directly from the device as needed).
Change the name to simply M.com. This has been the orderly and natural progression of the service. When it went from Mac.com to Me.com, Apple proudly pointed to the 33 per cent increase in throughput in typing the subdomain. By changing it a second time, Apple can claim a 50 per cent additional speed-up, merely the latest example of delivering high-performance solutions with each new iteration.
If MobileMe were a service from Google, there’d be nothing particularly wrong with it. As an Apple service it feels at times as though I’m paying the Apple Premium and getting nothing in return.