One of my favourite Apple tools is HomePage – a wonderfully easy and stylish photo-sharing feature in Apple’s .Mac suite of web services. HomePage started life as Claris Home Page – one of the first user-friendly WYSIWYG HTML editors, which launched in 1996. Creating your own web pages required no knowledge of HTML. In 2000 it became HomePage in Apple’s online iTools suite.iTools and Apple’s later versions are examples of so-called “cloud computing,” using the internet to allow users to access technology enabled services and applications.

HomePage in iTools was free until July 2002, when Apple changed iTools to .Mac and started charging £69 a year. The fallout for Apple was immense. The company was even denounced by one Macworld reader at the time as acting like a drug dealer: “Dealers give out free drugs then charge once you need it. Sounds very like .Mac email addresses to me.”

The free iTools had 2.2 million members. Despite offering a concessionary discount to iTools users for their first year as .Mac subscribers, the conversion rate after a couple of weeks was under 5 per cent, with just 100,000 users remaining. Two years later the number of .Mac subscribers had risen to half a million. Six long years later it is only now back to two million.

By this time Apple had added a bunch of new templates to HomePage, but such theme additions soon trickled to none. Despite it being such a great service HomePage and .Mac appeared to be low down on Apple’s list of priorities.

Apple’s HomePage themes were largely examples of America’s kitschy bad taste: seasonal templates “Spring” and “Fall” looked like grandma’s table placemats you might find in a charity shop; “School Bus” didn’t translate anywhere outside of the US; “Birthday” was all candles and ribbons; and “Gen Y” was simply indescribable.

But a handful were pretty good: “Modern” ironically looked like old-style slide transparencies but was neat and understated; “Pushpin” was graphite cool; and you could always opt for “Frameless”. Themes aside, the attraction of HomePage was its rapid, painless creation and delivery of professional-looking picture galleries. That suited me and the hundreds of thousands of .Mac users, and we created millions of pages to share with friends and families.

In 2007, Apple added Web Gallery – which more closely resembled Yahoo’s Flickr photo-sharing service, and capacity was increased to 10GB. Fast forward a year to July 2008, and .Mac was gone – replaced with MobileMe and 20GB of online storage. The launch of MobileMe was something like a horror show, with tens of thousands of users cut off from their email and basic services, data lost and business communications destroyed. Apple appears to have released a very buggy beta.

In a support document outlining the changes from .Mac to MobileMe, Apple states that, “As part of the transition, some features were discontinued: web access to bookmarks, iCards, .Mac slides, and support for OS X 10.3 Panther sync.” There’s no mention that HomePage has been dumped. Another Apple Support document states: ”At the launch of MobileMe …you will still be able to edit and delete your HomePage until October 10, 2008.”

Mysteriously, this page was edited by Apple almost immediately. While it’s clear that HomePage has been neglected by Apple for a couple of years now and MobileMe Gallery – the renamed Web Gallery – is seen as its successor, there’s something rather underhand and secretive about its removal that bugs the hell out of me.

MobileMe Gallery looks nice, but it doesn’t offer simple functions such as a view-counter button. Part of the joy of creating web pages is seeing how many people have viewed them; .Mac even had a little chart showing which of your pages was the most viewed. And, as naff as many of the themes were, HomePage allowed a lot more customisation than MobileMe Gallery does.

Arrogant standards bearer
Worse still, MobileMe Gallery is incompatible with the most popular web browsers, notably Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE). Apple nonchalantly suggests that everyone instead upgrade to its own Safari or Mozilla’s Firefox. While that might be OK for MobileMe users it most certainly isn’t for all our friends and family who want to view our photos. Want to see my photos? Change your crappy browser, buddy!

Yes, IE is another Microsoft product that stamps all over web standards and is buggy and horrible and evil, etc, but it’s used by 78 per cent of the browsing public; Safari and Firefox by less than 20 per cent.

Apple might be technically correct in demanding non-IE use, but by doing so it renders its photo-sharing capability useless to most people. And many – especially those behind corporate firewalls and strict IT rules – can’t simply change browsers for my or Apple’s benefit. This also affects MobileMe users’ ability to read and send emails from their office or, say, an internet café while on holiday.

Apple is slowly mopping up its MobileMess, but for many of its users it has wiped out one of its key features (photo sharing) and knackered many people’s email.

Throughout this PR disaster Apple has remained secretive and obstructive. It finally apologised about the problems and offered 30-days free service, but what’s the point of 30 extra free days of incompatibility with the real world? Kissing things better doesn’t really work, you know…

So Apple faces another mass exodus of people from its web services. It has somehow managed to simultaneously have its head stuck in the clouds (or rather its own Cloud) as well as Ostrich-like firmly in the ground. Me? I’ll be mobile somewhere else, thanks.