Why it probably isn't worth using .Mac/MobileMe

I’ve been obsessing a little about .Mac/MobileMe for a week or so now and while my original thought was that it is too expensive given what is available already (for example, Google Apps, Plaxo and Spanning Sync), I am starting to see a lot of potential for someone like me … ok, for me. As a starting point this is my current set up:

  • I use Gmail (normal and the Google Apps version) for my personal and work email – almost 7GB storage space for each of my 3 or 4 active accounts for free
  • Google Docs is great for document sharing – free
  • Plaxo keeps my contacts and calendars synchronised and backed up and keeps me up to date with my contacts’ changing details (it is also my preferred lifestream service because it both aggregates my content and presents a public contact point with my various details) – $49.95 for a year if I remember correctly (I am a premium subscriber because I have more than 1 000 contacts and want some of the premium services like De-Duper)
  • I also bought a license to use Spanning Sync to synchronise my iCal calendars with Google Calendar – $25 for a year at a time (you can also pay $65 for a perpetual license)
  • I am a Flickr Pro member and upload all my photos to Flickr to be shared with everyone – $24.95 a year for 2GB of bandwidth and access to all my photos I ever uploaded in full resolution
  • Vimeo gives me 250MB of storage space a week for my personal videos; Viddler limits each video size to 500MB with no limit on the number of videos
  • Amazon S3 is awesome for online file storage and it is insanely cheap but I am still looking into using it more extensively for online file storage and backup – I am paying a few cents a month at the moment for the data I uploaded.

So what I have in this bundle is a really good email system (the online interface has far better search and filtering capability than Mail.app in my limited experience) that I access via IMAP. Plaxo does a great job keeping me up to date and keeping my contacts synchronised and I am a big fan of Flickr. Nothing seems to come close to Flickr. I have been using Spanning Sync on and off and Charlie offered to help me iron out the issues I have been experiencing. I reinstalled it recently and still seemed to spend more time fixing synching conflicts (probably because I have Address Book synching with Gmail, Plaxo and Address Book/iCal synching and then Spanning Sync trying to sync between Address Book and iCal and my Google Account) so I set Spanning Sync to manual for the time being. With all the stuff I have installed and available to achieve what I am trying to achieve, I am spending almost $100 a year.

What I would like to be able to do, ideally, is:

  • have a fully synchronised and backed up address book and set of calendars;
  • be able to share my calendars with my wife and other people, being able to choose whether to share event information or simply free/busy information and
  • share my media content and files online as an alternative to constantly emailing documents around (I do a lot of this using Basecamp which I am not including in this little analysis).

So far this set up works reasonably well. Plaxo Pulse is supposed to be able to synchronise with a host of other services including Google and Yahoo! (in theory obviating something like Spanning Sync) but I find that it really only mirrors my local stuff well on Plaxo itself. I haven’t had a really satisfying result synchronising Plaxo stuff with my Google Account. I have multiple calendars in iCal and I want to retain that structure in my online versions. Plaxo preserves my structures on Plaxo itself but sharing is limited to all or nothing last time I tried to figure it out. Google Calendar is a far better option for online scheduling but I haven’t had amazing experiences with Spanning Sync (for whatever reason – to be fair to the Spanning Sync people, I haven’t spent much time troubleshooting with them). My address books have been easier to keep in sync though. As for my content, Flickr is great for photo sharing and I have plenty of space to spare.

When it comes to document sharing, iDisk will enable simple file uploads and sharing. The one benefit of the iDisk option is the ability to backup generally forgotten items like your mail preferences, keychain settings and so forth. When it comes to strightforward documents, there is limited storage available on iDisk but not enough to be terribly meaningful if your goal is to backup more than the items in your Documents folder. If you want to store large amounts of data (say your iTunes library or iPhoto library) then you are better off using something like Amazon S3 for online storage (although the cost of the upload itself if prohibitive in South Africa given our bandwidth costs). Storing a decent iTunes library of, say, 50GB will set you back about $7.50 a month for US-based storage. Google Docs is great for collaborating on documents wiki style but not ideal for simply storing and sharing documents without alternation. There is also Google Sites but there is a limit of 100MB worth of storage space there. I said I wouldn’t delve into Basecamp but that is the best general project collaboration service I have come across. I have 10GB of secure and segmented collaboration and storage space for $49 a month. My clients love it and it is well worth the cost.

Google upgrade options.pngNow.Mac/MobileMe offer baked in Address Book and iCal synchronisation, IMAP-based email, web galleries for photos and video (although iMovie simplifies the upload process for YouTube users, I prefer Vimeo for personal videos and Viddler for work related content – just the same here is an example of a video on .Mac and the same video on Vimeo) and disk storage space for online storage and sharing. There are a few other bits and pieces to .Mac but these are the major features. At the moment .Mac is transitioning to MobileMe and the 10GB of shared storage space is increasing to 20GB for an annual $99 fee. This space can be upgraded to 40GB or 60Gb for an additional $49 or $69 respectively. In contrast I can upgrade my Google Account for quite a bit less per year. I am just not sure how available Google Checkout is to us here in South Africa. I am pretty sure we can at least part with our money using Google Checkout for payments.

Storage on your Google Account works pretty much the same as storage on .Mac/MobileMe. The storage space you have by default on Google is limited when it comes to Picasa in particular (it works out to roughly 1GB) and upgrading storage using this option drastically expands your overall storage for a lot less than MobileMe offers.

mobileme cloud.jpg

Benefits of using .Mac include integration with .Mac built right into your Mac apps with synchronisation happening through iSync automatically (if you want that). This kind of system-wide integration can make a noticeable difference when you compare the synchronisation with services that try to convert fields and formats to non-Mac services (doesn’t happen too often but it can be a bit frustrating when it does). MobileMe will add push contacts, push calendar and push email which basically sends your new mail, contacts and scheduling information to each of the devices you have connected to your MobileMe service, whether those devices be an iPhone, iPod Touch, Mac or PC running Outlook. This service probably won’t be of much use to someone running Linux or something other than Mail.app/iCal/Address Book or Outlook.

I did come up with a way to use .Mac (and presumably MobileMe) to effectively synchronise iCal with Google Calendar. You can publish your iCal calendars to .Mac and, in the process, produce an .ics calendar feed. You can import this calendar feed into Google Calendar if you want to have the calendar available there for some or other reason. MobileMe will feature an iCal-like calendar interface online which might make this sort of process irrelevant for MobileMe users. This trick would be more useful if you could then elect whether to share event details or free/busy information on Google Calendar but the only re-sharing option seems to be the imported feed detail.

If you ignore the cost of MobileMe, the service is great. It enables you to synchronise a lot of your important data but given the storage space limits you would probably need another storage solution for all your files if you tend to generate more than the average home or have sizable libraries that need to be backed up. When you factor in the $99 price tag MobileMe is overpriced despite the limitations of the alternatives and the lack of the kind of integration .Mac/MobileMe provides. At a quarter of the price MobileMe would be a no-brainer. At half the price it is feasible but at the current price it is just price gouging and Mom and Pop Homeowner are getting shafted for the sake of ease of use. One thing .Mac has and which I suspect MobileMe will have in abundance is better ease of use. You add your credentials to your system preferences, tell iSync when to do its thing and get on with everything else. If only all the other solutions worked so seamlessly. Once that ceases to be the main issue for you, .Mac/MobileMe ceases to be the best solution.

Synching issues aside, Google’s various offerings seem to be the best option. Google’s mail is brilliant, Google Cal works as well as iCal for the most part, Google Docs is a great way to collaborate on documents and Picasa is a pretty decent photo sharing service that integrates well into a Mac or PC using a download. The best photo sharing service is probably still Flickr but if you want to keep everything inhouse and pay one bill, Google has most of what you would need. If you upgrade your storage for your Google Account, Google Sites may even address that file storage issue.

Update: I finally decided to go for .Mac despite my conclusion in this post. What persuaded me was the way .Mac synchronises my contacts and calendar so easily and enables me to share my calendars with my wife without any sort of Web kung fu. I am not really using my .Mac (soon to be me.com) email address having just migrated my personal mail to a new Gmail address (the migration worked out really well, thanks to how Gmail handles POP mail access) so that may or may not be a factor. I may change my mind later about the mail service. For the most part this is about syncing and backing up my key data in another location.

For some reason Spanning Sync hasn’t really worked out for me as well as it does for other people I speak to so I will probably not re-subscribe next year. My syncing solution does still include Plaxo because Plaxo does more than just backup my contacts and calendar, there is the De Duper which alone has saved me hours of pain and anguish.

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