Let me begin this by saying that I'm a stingy guy. In high school, I bought a hair clipper and adopted a buzz cut largely to save cash by not having to go to the barber. I will also stop dead in my tracks to pick up a penny.
So for me, spending $99 a year on Apple's MobileMe, a service that basically does Web e-mail, contact syncing, photo hosting, and file storage, was a hard sell--especially after its bad start. This week, however, Apple finally got me to take the plunge. Why? It's starting to add genuinely useful tools for Apple hardware owners, with the promise of more to come.
On Monday, the company demoed a new tool for MobileMe subscribers called "Find My iPhone" that lets you both find a lost (or stolen) iPhone, as well as remotely wipe its contents. You can also get it to ring and vibrate for two minutes straight, which can be a huge help if it's stuck between couch cushions or buried deep within a bag. Anyone who's been late to work, or had a near-heart attack from trying to find a lost phone can appreciate how this service alone may be worth a Benjamin.
Then there's the upcoming iDisk iPhone and iPod Touch application that lets you access files you've stored in your MobileMe online storage. This in itself is not groundbreaking, but if you're an iPhone or iPod Touch user who is already using MobileMe's online storage, it's a nice bonus. Apple is advertising this as a way to show off presentations and get at important business documents, but I'd argue that it's a great way to extend the limited storage on the iPhone by keeping some of your music and videos on MobileMe instead. If you've got a Wi-Fi connection, you can stream both.
But let's get back to the basics. Is the rest of the service worth the cash? Not in my mind--and a big, fat no if you're using it for the Web apps alone. Let's break it down:
For Web e-mail: No
On the iPhone and iPod Touch, you get messages as soon as they're sent. On the browser, however, it's missing a lot of features that competitors like Yahoo and Google have had for years. Both of those services are free, and between Gmail's labs, and Yahoo's just-introduced apps platform, MobileMe's Web mail feels rudimentary. It also drives me nuts that the service logs you out after 15 minutes of activity. This isn't my bank account, it's my e-mail. (Note: readers wrote in to let me know that you can avoid having this happen if you check off the "keep me logged in for two weeks" option when first signing on).
Web storage: Maybe
If you're a Mac user, MobileMe's iDisk storage explorer looks the same, but on the browser it's missing really important things like search and file previews. If you don't know where the file is stored, you have to hunt it down, which is a pain.
Also, despite the fact that you can view photos and videos in other parts of MobileMe, the only way to view those file types from your browser is to download and open them from your hard drive. Most of today's Web storage providers may charge for the kind of space Apple is offering, but they've built in search and preview features that rival the desktop experience.
For all its faults, though, you get a generous amount of storage for what it costs. You can also allocate space away from other parts of the MobileMe service to increase your limit without purchasing additional storage from Apple.
Contact/calendar management and sync: No
When MobileMe first came out, management and syncing of your contacts and calendars was major selling point, but since then Google has put the heat on Apple with the release of Google Sync. This free product syncs calendars and contacts from any Google account, and sends any changes over the air, which is exactly what MobileMe does. The one big difference is that Apple's solution lets you sync contacts and calendars without wiping out existing data.
But even there, Apple's own data syncing is flawed. When I did my first sync to MobileMe, I chose to merge my existing contacts from Mac's Address Book app and my iPhone (something it does on iTunes every time I sync my phone). Instead of finding the obvious dupes and ignoring them, it made duplicates of all my contacts. Apple is also further cannibalizing the appeal of this feature by letting users subscribe to LDAP directories, and CalDAV/hosted calendars as part of iPhone OS 3.0. If you're someone who's already using services with these data channels, there's no reason to pay for MobileMe since you can set up your phone to sync up to them.
Photo/Video/Site hosting: Yes
While I'm a big proponent of sites like Flickr and YouTube, Apple's hosted galleries are really nice. They're simple and beautiful, and there are no ads or distractions. Sure, they're not as social, and you're limited in storage by how much you've paid for, but if you're trying to send a photo album to friends and family it's a really elegant solution. This is especially true if you're using Apple's iPhoto, which lets you publish and make changes to your Web albums from its software.
As for the Web hosting, though, I'm not sold. To make a hosted site you need to use Apple's iWeb or another piece of Web publishing software. There is not a way to build or maintain a site from Me.com alone, which means if you want to make edits from a computer without the software, you're hosed. This is unfortunate considering how many tools are out there that let you do this right from the browser. Apple may add this to future versions, but for now it's a feature you can't fully use without software.
So will Apple add more features to MobileMe later this year? I think so. If the company releases a Netbook, you can bet a major selling point is going to be MobileMe, since it's on track to replace hard drives and software with Web apps and virtual storage.
At least that's its potential. The problem will always be that MobileMe is treated less as a useful suite of Web services, as much as a direct link to specific Apple hardware and software. It's great to have a tightly-knit ecosystem, which is what made Apple such a success to begin with. I just wish it meant that its Web apps got the same kind of attention as their software counterparts. In the case of MobileMe, it's just not there yet.
Update: Several readers have pointed out that MobileMe can be had through Amazon for around $60.