Is Apple's MobileMe Worth the Money?

Monday Aug 24th 2009 by Ryan Fass
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Given that Apple’s MobileMe tools are largely available for free elsewhere, is the service worth $99 a year?

Apple’s MobileMe service has been around in various incarnations for nearly a decade. Originally launched as a free collection of Internet services for Mac users in January of 2000, the service was later upgraded and rebranded as the paid .Mac service in 2002.

More recently, Apple rebranded the service as MobileMe last summer when it launched the iPhone 3G and 2.0 firmware update – making the service less Mac-specific and integrating it more with the iPhone.

Ever since Apple added the .Mac moniker and began charging for the MobileMe suite, there’s been a debate over whether the features it provides are worth paying for – particularly since the service has a $99/year price tag (though if you purchase it with a new Mac, you get a $30 discount).

The question ultimately comes down to what value MobileMe offers users (be they Mac, Windows, or iPhone/iPod touch users). MobileMe includes a sophisticated set of features, but in the past equivalents to many of its core traditional features were found freely available through other providers, most notably Google.

However, with the release of the iPhone 3.0 update this summer, Apple may finally have succeeded into making MobileMe a service without equivalent free (or even paid) options.

Core Email and Website Features

Let’s start with the traditional core features of MobileMe. The first of these include an email account, website and online photo movie/gallery hosting. Neither of these is particularly dramatic in terms of features – there are many free web host and email services out there from vendors like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft.

And most Internet providers offer one or more email accounts as well as some free web space to customers. Apple does manage to offer some added value to even these basic services.

Apple’s web and photo/movie gallery options

While there are any number of sites to host a website, most free sites are ad-based, which often leads users to seek out paid solutions.

Apple has leveraged the power of its iWeb software (included with the iLife package) to make professional-looking web design not only easy for even web development neophytes but by including one-click publishing to a MobileMe account.

If you’re a Mac user wanting an easy-to-use ad-free website, this is a real value. And compared to some web hosting options, the price isn’t too bad. Apple even provides several back-end tools that are easy to manage such blogs, podcasts, and image hosting.

Is it the perfect solution for anyone with a serious web design background? Probably not – but for the majority of families, it’s got a pretty good value.

Similarly, there are a number of places to share your photos and videos online for free (Flickr, Google’s Picassa, and YouTube all come to mind, as do social networking giants like Facebook).

Apple does manage to create absolutely stunning web galleries with MobileMe. It also makes uploading and managing content pretty easy and straightforward directly from its various iLife tools (like iPhoto and iMovie) and the iPhone. While, I’m not sure that any of this makes MobileMe worth the money, it does make a nice gift with purchase.

Email may feel like the least valuable of the MobileMe core services. There is no real limit to the number of free email providers out there (Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have all made a name for themselves in that space). And most people also receive email free of charge from an Internet provider, employer, or school. And many email providers offer web-based and email application access.

But Apple has managed to add value to MobileMe’s email service in two ways.

One, the service’s web-interface is stellar and looks and feels virtually identical to Apple’s Mail client for Mac OS X (another nice gift with purchase but maybe not a killer feature). The real MobileMe email value is for iPhone and iPod touch owners because MobileMe offers push notification – instantly alerting you to new messages (as opposed to periodically checking for new email).

This is common for business users of Blackberries and Windows Mobile phones, but MobileMe delivers it to self-employed professional and, well, everyone.

Exchange for the rest of us

Speaking about push notifications brings me to one of the major values of MobileMe – what Apple’s Phil Schiller called “Exchange for the rest of us” when announcing the rebranding of the service last summer. MobileMe has the ability to not only have your iPhone notified of new emails but to also wirelessly sync changes to your calendars, contacts, and web browser bookmarks with your computer when they happen. If you rely on your iPhone or iPod touch as a mobile lifestyle device, this is a huge benefit.

And this benefit is not limited to one Mac and an iPhone. MobileMe allows you to sync this data between multiple Macs, PCs (you’ll need to install the free MobileMe control panel applet for Windows), and iPhones/iPod touches.

You also get a slick web-based tool for accessing or editing that data from any other computer. That’s a big value and while it’s true you can get some of that with various free services (including ), there is something nice about the simplicity of MobileMe.

Syncing Even More

Syncing contacts and calendars is great (and the wireless push sync between multiple computers and the iPhone/iPod touch is honestly reason enough for me to pay for MobileMe). But, if you’re a Mac user, MobileMe offers even more sync goodness. MobileMe can sync an impressive array of personal and system data between your Macs.

This includes Dashboard Widgets (complete with onscreen position and settings), Dock items, Keychains (and thus secure passwords for various system and web services), additional email account, email rules and signatures, notes, and all System Preferences settings. All of which pretty much makes it possible to ensure all the Macs that you use always have the same major system and user preferences. Definite value if you routinely use more than one Mac.

Accessing Your Stuff Anywhere

MobileMe offers two features for accessing your files and even controlling your Mac remotely. The first is the venerable iDisk, a feature that has been part of MobileMe since its inception in 2000. The iDisk is essentially a virtual hard drive store on Apple’s servers that delivers 10GB of storage.

Again, this isn’t an entirely unique concept – Box.net, Microsoft’s SkyDrive, and others offer similar features – but it still is a useful inclusion, especially since it can be easily accessed from any Mac, PC, or an iPhone (using Apple’s recently introduced free iDisk utility or the commercial OneDisk, which unlike Apple’s utility allows you to copy files to your iDisk as well as view them).

If simply accessing some of your files isn’t enough, MobileMe provides Back To My Mac, a feature that allows you to remotely and securely access your Mac for either file sharing or screen sharing.

While experienced Mac and computer power users can set this feature up without MobileMe, doing so requires configuring your Internet router and requires you to be able to identify your router’s IP address (which, with most Internet providers is assigned dynamically and may change).

Back to My Mac allows Apple to leverage the fact that your Mac at home can identify its location and securely authenticate you as a user to make the process easy enough for even a novice to setup.

Finding My iPhone – The Killer MobileMe App

I’ve discussed a lot of the features of MobileMe and whether or not they have free or easy to use equivalents. In many cases, the ease of use has been the overriding advantage. However, there is one feature that is to me the killer reason for any iPhone owner to purchase MobileMe – Find My iPhone.

This feature allows you to log into the MobileMe webpage and attempt to locate a lost iPhone. MobileMe sends a message to your iPhone that uses the location services and GPS capabilities of the phone to establish its location and then displays that to you using Google Maps. That’s a huge aid for a lost/stolen phone that likely has a lot of personal data on it.

You can also send a text message to the phone to display to anyone who might find it. And you can issue a command to remotely erase all data on the iPhone – quite important for a device with a lot of personal data.

Even if the iPhone isn’t turned on, the next time it is activated, it will lock itself and begin the remote wipe. If you later recover the phone, you can restore its contents by syncing it with iTunes.

Find My iPhone can also help you’ve just lost your phone in your home or office, by playing an alert to help you locate it (something that I used at least once in the first week after the feature was introduced).

But Doesn’t It Go Down a Lot?

Unfortunately when Apple launched the iPhone 3G, a major update to existing iPhones, and MobileMe all at once last summer, there were a number of MobileMe outages (as well as many active delays for new iPhone owners).

In the year since, however, Apple has made a number of improvements to MobileMe’s backend and even displays the system’s status publically. So, while there was a dark cloud of MobileMe’s initial launch, the service is now largely stable and functional.

Is It Worth the Money?

In my opinion Mobile Me is a great companion to the iPhone and to Mac OS X. While many of the features are available free or at lower costs from other providers, Apple has delivered several unique features for owners of its products in MobileMe (and has paired it fairly well with the Mac, if not quite so fully featured for Windows).

Apple has made those features easy to use for anyone and almost completely seamless as a service experience across Mac OS X, iLife, the iPhone and iPod touch, Windows, and the web. It may cost a little more, but sometimes you do get what you pay for.

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