MobileMe: A Worthy Investment? (And a Few Alternatives)

I remember five years ago when I got my first Mac. Soon after, I had a .Mac account (the old version of MobileMe) in hopes I’d be able to enjoy some of the features of cloud storage and syncing.

Fast forward into today’s culture. Cloud storage is even easier to acquire (even for us Mac users) and syncing online has become an omnipresent feature with services like Dropbox. Today, I wanted to take a look at why people have moved away from MobileMe and give a few possible alternative solutions to avoid paying $99 a year.

From iTools to MobileMe

As Apple pushed into the foray of the internet, they launched the free iTools service in 2000 which included a email address, electronic greeting card service, personalized webpage, online file storage, and a few website directories.

.Mac, announced in 2002, acted as a pay-for successor to iTools with an expanded feature set, adding online backup, with occasional updates like Back To My Mac and .Mac Web Gallery. Hundreds of thousands of Mac users subscribed to .Mac within the first year, even after outrage over the cost of the service.

In July 2008, MobileMe was released, timed to co-incide with the iPhone 3G launch. It included expanded online storage, a transition to the e-mail addresses, push iCal/Mail/Contacts/Bookmarks, and eventually would support both Find My iPhone and a slicker online experience. Unfortunately, the transition to MobileMe wasn’t as Apple-like as anyone would have hoped. In the transition process, a small percentage of users lost access to e-mail and for many, sync services were extremely unreliable.

It was too bad Apple decided to launch MobileMe, the iPhone 3G, and the App Store within the same day. It quickly overwhelmed the company’s servers and infrastructure, leading to rolling e-mail blackouts and massive iPhone activation failures.

Syncing Horror Stories

The MobileMe mess slowly improved, but not without the occasional horror story. A month after launch, MobileMe threw a surprise deletion party on my Mac. I opened my Address Book to find that no contacts existed. None. I checked on’s copy of my contact data – it was gone. As was the copy on my iPhone.

Essentially, it had forced a sync that deleted my contacts across all of my devices, and then pushed that ’empty’ contact update across all of my devices. Simply put, I was extremely upset.

I remember having long conversations with AppleCare support (who could do nothing, as apparently, MobileMe was handled by an outside company). I learned not to trust syncing services to act as a solid backup.

The second story was from before the days. As an avid listener of MacBreak Weekly, I remembered everyone’s internet pal Merlin Mann talking about his monthly ritual of preforming a ‘Nuclear Reset’ on his .Mac data. Crazy to think that it was necessary to do such a thing. However, I quickly learned the power of such a reset to decrease sync times, CPU hang-ups as well as general preventative maintenance on losing data.

I guess I never understood the need to ‘reset’ everything on a regular basis for a service that was used by millions of users. However, knowing how to do such a reset is important should things get ‘wonky’ within your MobileMe account.

The Famous Nuclear Reset

If you decide that to get everything back in order with your MobileMe account has come to the Nuclear Reset, ensure you have a recent data backup of everything that is being synced. Just in case.

Hop into the MobileMe panel in System Preferences, and select the ‘Sync’ subtab. Under ‘Advanced…’, select ‘Reset Sync Data’.

Reset Syncing

Reset Syncing

This is the critical moment. You can select which categories, if not all, need to be reset as well as the direction of the reset. Make sure the arrow is going in the correct direction.

Heading away from the Mac will take everything from your Mac and upload it to MobileMe. The reverse will download the current version of the MobileMe data and reset all the local data. Remember to take an extra second to ensure this is necessary and is in the right direction.

Confirm the Direction

Confirm the Direction

iDisk and the Pinwheel of Death

While not as bad as the ‘Gray Curtain of Doom‘, and with many more names (Rainbow Wheel, Spinning Beach Ball of Death, Pinwheel of Futility, the list goes on), whenever you try to save a file into iDisk, open a document, transfer anything at all- the little rainbow wheel appears as your Mac sends a request to the iDisk server.

For faster iDisk action, enable iDisk Sync. Sure, it will take 20GB of your computer space, but your Finder speed will greatly increase by keeping a local copy of the iDisk data.

This is one of the reasons that it never made any sense to use iDisk as any sort of reliable, fast backup or file storage. Even if it synced across your various laptops and, now, iOS devices.

The Dropbox Revolution

Our by-far favourite online service, Dropbox, has begun to replace MobileMe as a tool to sync and store data. From 1Password to text documents syncing to your iOS device, Dropbox features collaboration that makes fun of your iDisk public folder, a super solid Amazon S3 backbone, instant change sync, versioning and integration across all platforms imaginable.

If you haven’t signed up yet, do so now. I’ll wait!

I never imagined that Dropbox would grow to support so many users, and be integrated into nearly every content heavy iPad and iOS app. Back in the day, the only real way to synchronize settings and files between two or more Macs (especially when the Macs were not on the same local network) was .Mac.

After using Dropbox for a year now, I happily pay for their expanded storage service. Both in hopes to support future development and for the ability to store nearly anything I can think of on their servers. Unfortunately, to fill a 100GB Dropbox, you will need 100GB of matching storage on your Mac and any other connected computer.

While Dropbox doesn’t offer the Photo Gallery, One-Click Web Hosting, or e-mail service, there are very simple and cost effective ways to transition away from MobileMe but retain this functionality.

Replacing MobileMe

While you won’t get that lovely email address (or the traditional option), you can replicate the push syncing calendars, e-mail and contacts with Google Apps. With your Gmail and Google account, you can set up Google Sync, which acts as an exchange folder to sync to nearly everything MobileMe would.

To fill in the rest of the gaps, namely bookmark syncing and iPhone geo-location, we’ll use two services: Xmarks and Undercover.

Xmarks is a free bookmark syncing tool with an iPhone app. You could also use a service like Delicious or Pinboard with a similar supporting app.

To track your phone should you lose it, Undercover is an easy option at $5. It allows you to send push notifications that help you find your phone should a thief have it. For instance, you can write a fake bank account alert that pushes the thief to log into your account by clicking ‘Ok.’ At that point it grabs the phone’s location. You can even have it buzz or make noise to attract the attention of a passerby.

Between using Dropbox, Google Apps, Google Sync, Xmarks, and Undercover you can replicate MobileMe on the cheap! There are a few downsides, though. Dropbox accounts over their included 2GB aren’t free. That upgrade alone will push your budget above a MobileMe account unless you spend time recruiting other members to expand your space through referral bonuses.

Google Apps and Google Sync aren’t perfect options as they are not quite as reliable and don’t keep your calendar colors the same (which may annoy some).

Xmarks/Delicious/Pinboard aren’t integrated with the iPhone, which means you’ll need to launch a separate app to grab that site you forgot the URL to. Also, Undercover, while a great option at $5, does not let you track your phone unless someone clicks that pop-up message. If the phone is on silent mode, no sound will be made. With MobileMe, you can always view the location of your phone as well as make a sound at any time.

Right now, I doubt I’ll be dropping my MobileMe subscription anytime soon. However, I have moved away from using most of its primary features. I’d love a MobileMe ‘Lite’ account that only synced my Calendars, Contacts, Bookmarks and offered Find My iPhone, but I won’t be holding my breath.

It really comes down to your budget. Can you afford an extra service to sync your data, and how reliable does this service need to be? Either way, I cannot stress enough the importance of backing up your data. As often as possible. With push syncing, you can lose everything before you have time to reach for that iPhone or iPad.

I can’t say I came to any newfound conclusion. I’m still going to use Dropbox for file storage, backup and syncing. My MobileMe account remains a personal e-mail and exchange server. I’m okay with that, and considering how helpful Find My iPhone is, I can’t imagine a world without it!

Are you all planning to switch away from MobileMe, or have you already done so?