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TUAW Review: MobileMe

MobileMe, the successor to Apple's lackluster .Mac service, is poised to bring subscribers into the realm of "cloud computing," one of those nauseating phrases that's been around for a while, but nobody has a better term for.

MobileMe provides email, calendaring, contact management, photo sharing, and online file storage to Windows, Mac, iPhone, and iPod touch users for $99. A family pack subscription is also available for $149, which adds four 5GB accounts to a standard-sized 20GB account (making 40GB of storage total).

Users can also add 20GB or 40GB of storage to their account for $49 and $99, respectively.

MobileMe got off to a really rough start last week, but we still don't know exactly where the hangup was during the transition. I know I'm interested to know what happened, but for now, let's just all be glad that it's working, and have us a look-see at what's new.

After the jump, join me for an in-depth look at MobileMe's features, and how they compare to .Mac and other free services available elsewhere on the web.


When you sign up for MobileMe, you get an email address @me.com. (For existing .Mac users, your email address is available @me.com or @mac.com: Both will still work.) You will use this address to log in to view all of MobileMe's services on your computer, mobile device, or on the web.


The login screen is a paragon of simplicity. Designed -- almost literally -- to be the barrier between you and MobileMe's application suite, the login screen appears much more attractive and much more robust than its .Mac predecessor. Another thing to note is the lack of the standard Apple website tab-bar at the top of the page. I think it sets MobileMe apart as a premium service quite nicely.

For Mac users, MobileMe integrates with the Finder, Mail, Address Book, iCal, iPhoto, and Safari. Using each of these applications to send messages, save appointments, create contacts, or share photos with MobileMe means that all your data is available on all of your devices connected to the internet. So, for example, if you create an appointment in iCal, it will show up automatically on your iPhone's calendar, and also on your PC's calendar in Outlook.

Apple offers a guided tour of MobileMe on their website. For new users, it's worth viewing to understand how "push" technology works, and how MobileMe interacts with all your computers and mobile devices.

Let's take a look at how each of these applications works with MobileMe, and how they compare to .Mac, and to other applications available (sometimes freely) elsewhere on the web.

Mail

MobileMe is touted as "Exchange for the rest of us," referring to Microsoft's 800-pound gorilla of a corporate communication system. MobileMe makes synchronizing your mail between computers and devices very simple.

You can check your MobileMe mail (that is, your email arriving at yourusername@me.com) with almost any email application for either Windows or Mac. Apple has instructions about how to configure third-party email applications with MobileMe, if you need help.

Since MobileMe mail -- like .Mac -- works with both Mac OS X Mail and the Mail appliation on your iPhone or iPod touch, I'll focus on the re-designed Webmail interface.

The MobileMe webmail interface should be very familiar to you if you use Mac OS X Mail. You can open messages in a new window by double-clicking, or just view them in the preview pane (below the list of messages) by clicking once. You can drag and drop messages from the message list into the trash or other folders along the left, just like Mail.

Also new Not new, but featured in Apple's guided tour, is the Quick Reply feature: you can click the arrow icon to reply to messages without having to even open the message. Spiffy!


Many are familiar with Gmail, which some consider to be the gold standard for webmail usability. MobileMe webmail is more intuitive for a beginning user, retaining the desktop metaphors of folders and messages. Gmail introduced new concepts like conversations and labeling, which power users can't live without, I understand. For those who rely on the efficiency of key combinations, filters, and are already familiar with the Gmail way of doing things, MobileMe will seem like a downgrade. However, if all you've used is Mac OS X Mail, then MobileMe will be a very natural fit.

One last thing about MobileMe mail: For those who don't use the webmail client, you will still want to know how to add and change mail aliases. All MobileMe users are allowed five email address aliases (giving you a total of six email addresses). All the aliases funnel straight into your inbox, but -- like .Mac -- you can choose what color the messages appear. You can set up your mail aliases by clicking the gear icon in the MobileMe toolbar, selecting "Preferences" and then clicking the Aliases icon.

Of course, like all MobileMe apps, any work you do in the Mail web application will be automatically "pushed" to your other computers, iPhone, and iPod touch devices connected to MobileMe with your username and password.

Contacts

Like Mail, if you use Mac OS X Address Book, you will be already familiar with the way Contacts work in MobileMe.

MobileMe Contacts work best if you have a well-organized contact list. If you have a lot of items with missing information (no name, for example), they tend to show up out of order in the list of addresses.

You can manage addresses in groups, just like in Mac OS X Address book. The only trouble is that if you make extensive use of Smart Groups (like me), they don't appear in the list of groups in the Contacts web application. Poopie.

However, you can filter for a search term, just like Address Book. Once nice thing is that if you type enough of a person's name, and they're the only person in the address list, that card is automatically expanded into the detail pane. It's a small thing, but it eliminates one extra click, and that -- added up -- could be significant.

Also nice in the detail pane is Google Maps integration. If you click on a street address, a small Google Map will appear.


One thing that could be a bit irritating, depending on your personal preferences, is what happens when you click on an email address. Instead of following your browser's default behavior for email addresses, MobileMe opens a new browser window with a mail message in it, ready for composition. So, for example, even if Outlook is your default mail client, clicking an email address in a MobileMe web application will open MobileMe Mail through your web browser.

Calendar

MobileMe Calendar is iCal's web-based doppelgänger, which does a great job of being a basic calendar app in and of itself.

Creating and changing appointments on the calendar is very simple, and typically involves dragging the appointment where you want it to be.

And good news for iCal To Do list users: your To Dos are included in the MobileMe synchronization process, so you'll see them on the web, too.

Calendar, for me, is the most disappointing of the apps, simply because it lacks the functionality of the impressive Google Calendar, and of the iCal desktop application. Specifically, the web app doesn't allow you to share your calendar with others (either in the form of a web page, or as an ICS file). Nor does it allow you to subscribe to other peoples' calendars (though you can do that through iCal and Outlook, and the changes are reflected on the web).

Also, the web-based calendar doesn't allow you to send invitations to events as email attachments, either. For professionals that rely on calendars for meeting scheduling and resource management, this could be a big drawback, and they should probably stick to their desktop software-based calendar.

For iPhone and iPod touch users, the update to MobileMe dovetails nicely with the updates to the mobile Calendar application. Now, with the 2.0 software, iPhone and iPod users can view and edit multiple calendars that inherit the colors of their desktop- or web-based counterparts.

Gallery

Gallery is an impressive photo-sharing web application with a very fluid, intuitive interface that should appeal to beginners who want to share photos with friends and family.

I was able to create a blank album using Gallery, but was unable to upload photos to the album via the web interface. I tried both Safari and Firefox, both to no avail. Instead, I opened iPhoto, and published a gallery from there, which worked just fine.

Once your images are uploaded, Gallery is very easy (and even fun) to use. Rotating photos is simple, and feedback is instant using animation on the web page to show that your photo has indeed been rotated. Also, moving and re-ordering photos is very simple using drag-and-drop. You can rename photos straight in the thumbnail view, too.

You can share albums with a URL that is displayed in the MobileMe toolbar. When you visit that URL, the photos are displayed in a very nice QuickLook-like interface: predominantly black, and featuring the same large controls as a slideshow would in the Finder.

Galleries can also be viewed with an iPhone or iPod touch via Safari. Your Apple TV can join the club too, showing MobileMe galleries on your widescreen television.

Additionally, you can send photos to your MobileMe galleries straight from your iPhone or iPod touch. Just open the image using the mobile Photos application, select a photo, and tap the "send to" icon in the lower-left corner of the screen. Tap "Send to MobileMe" and you'll be presented with a list of albums to add the image to. Select one, and you're done.

For all its simplicity, Gallery is no Flickr. Flickr is obviously geared more towards building a community around photo sharing, with commenting, rating, and all that entails. MobileMe Gallery is more personal, allowing users to share images, but not necessarily worry about managing feedback. And as spiffy as FlickrUploadr is, publishing your photos to MobileMe using iPhoto or Aperture is far easier -- faster, too. So if you're looking for comments and notoriety for your photos, Flickr is still probably the best choice for you. But for the very first picture of your newborn daughter taken with your iPhone, the family back home would do well to keep refreshing that Gallery page.

iDisk

Good ol' iDisk. Where would we be without you? There was a time when I dreaded uploading things to my iDisk. The endless spinning rainbow beach-ball of death was not something I looked forward to when delivering client files. From the original iTools to MobileMe, however, it's gone from "horrific" to "meh, not bad."

Most users' iDisk capacity has increased with the transition to MobileMe to 10GB. (The other 10GB in your account is, by default, used for mail, but you can change how much disk space is allocated for Mail in the Account settings area.)

MobileMe iDisk is moderately better in terms of performance, though it still took 2 minutes, 23 seconds to copy up 10MB of files over my residential broadband connection. Dropbox, for comparison, took an even two minutes with the same files, and an FTP upload to the web takes about a minute and a half. Even so, iDisk's performance is still much better than when the service debuted.

I was unable to test the upload speed through the web interface for the same reason I couldn't add gallery images. The MobileMe uploading utility was just refusing to work for me.

Like Dropbox, I'd personally enjoy a contextual menu item that allows you to copy the public URL (if it's available) for a document uploaded to your iDisk.

Using the web-based interface to view the contents of your iDisk is much like using the Finder in column view. For novice users this may be as much a pain as a feature: because of its similarity to the way the Finder looks, they may think that dragging and dropping into the browser window will work to upload files: not so. Instead, using the Upload button is the only way to go.

iDisk public folders are also still available, and still accessible through the Go menu in the Finder.

Other features

Homepage: For users with websites living at homepage.mac.com/yourmembername, your website's address is still just fine where it is. Apple's documentation says you can access your site from homepage.me.com/yourmembername as well, but I couldn't get the latter address to work for me. I suppose I can chalk that up to the continuing upgrade process, and cautiously speculate that it will be fixed soon.

iCards: iCards are sadly gone. I guess sending a thoughtful email message just wasn't enough. Fear not, though, because I can suggest a replacement.

iWeb integration: You can still use iWeb with MobileMe. In fact, having iWeb allows you to host your custom domain name at MobileMe. You can find out more information about how to do this by visiting the MobileMe support page, and clicking "Sites & iWeb."

Friendly URLs: This may be just a thing with me, but having a URL like "http://www.me.com/mail/" and not "http://www.me.com/wo/WebObjects/Webmail2.woa/wa/DirectAction/emptyPage?&action=view&mids=20" is very nice. That isn't to say that the longer, more obfuscated URLs don't exist (clearly they do), but it's easy to get to your Mail page, for example, if you're logging in without a bookmark to help you.

MobileMe and Fluid: Using MobileMe with Fluid was a little strange on my iMac. When I tried to create a new app for MobileMe, using the address www.me.com, the Fluid app would just launch an instance of my default browser (in my case, Firefox). I'm not sure if MobileMe will work with Fluid properly, based on my limited testing. Update: Commenter Josh Holloway sets me straight.

Windows and MobileMe: Windows and MobileMe play surprisingly nicely together. MobileMe comes pre-packaged with iTunes 7.7 for Windows, and lives as a Control Panel item. You can then choose to sync contacts, email, and bookmarks. For bookmarks, you can choose which browser to sync with, and MobileMe works with Safari (of course), Firefox, and Internet Explorer 7. IE7, though, doesn't work a hundred percent with the web apps, so Apple recommends you use Safari or Firefox instead. For more information about how to connect your Windows computer to MobileMe, you can visit Apple's MobileMe support page.


Wrapping it up

MobileMe is a vast improvement to its predecessor, but there's still plenty of room to grow. Apple's challenge will be to bring more functionality for its desktop apps to the browser, while at the same time looking to build on the successes of web app pioneers Google and Flickr.

Is it worth the $99 for MobileMe? Here's the bottom line: If you absolutely need push functionality and instant synchronization, then you can't do better (or have it easier). But if you're happy checking your email yourself, don't really care about synchronization, and you already use services like Flickr and Dropbox, then MobileMe really won't be worth it for you. You'll find that you already have all the functionality you need, and can save a hundred bucks a year in the process.



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Reviews MobileMe

MobileMe, the successor to Apple's lackluster .Mac service, is poised to bring subscribers into the realm of "cloud computing," one of...