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 @mac.com 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 @me.com 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 me.com’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 me.com 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 Me.com 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 @me.com email address (or the traditional @mac.com 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?


  • http://www.infrasoundkids.com L1

    The reason I use MobileMe is primarily for the short email suffix, the gallery and the fact that everything is all in one service, I’d hate to have several different services doing the same thing that one can do.

    If I could make my own backup/email/gallery/sync service however I definitely would and do a lot of things differently.

  • Nick

    I thought that Xmarks was shuttering at the end of this year? I’m almost positive I read that on Gizmodo. Very sad, because their service was so valuable.

    • Don

      I think they found a buyer. http://blog.xmarks.com/?p=2007

    • David Ferguson

      They are staying open.

      Think I saw that there will be a free and a premium service. Someone bought them out and decided to keep them running.

  • Dennis

    One thing that is really annoying on MobileMe is the bad performance in Europe(Germany). IMAP access is just really, really bad.

    Besides that I never understood why you cannot create a calendar entry with a reminder in the web-interface.

    Besides that though, it still remains the only valid option for me, since I do not want to have ads and MobileMe is cheaper than a “real” Exchange account

  • http:/www.photogen.eu Janik

    I’ve been using MobileMe for about two years now, even though I didn’t have to pay at first using the family account of a co-worker.
    Anyway I think it’s a great way to share all the data like emails, contacts iCal etc. between my Macs and iPhone.
    But I can totally agree with the idea of a “Lite” Version of MobileMe, excluding the iDisk.
    I’m using it somehow to back up some data and stuff but just to have no bad feelings paying for it and not using it.
    Dropbox has better features than iDisk and is meanwhile the perfect iDisk alternative, supporting all the syncing stuff for apps like 1Passwords, Things etc.
    On the other hand I can use it at work, where I’m using a Windows Computer, which is working better than iDisk on windows, too.
    I’d love to save some money canceling my iDisk and spend it for a 100GB Dropbox.
    Cheers, Janik

  • http://themacinstructor.com Rick

    I used to work at an Apple Retail store, and we would have this conversation back of house all the time. You’re definitely right in that you can find free (or next to free) alternatives to MobileMe, but in the end, it’s all about convenience. For the tech savvy folk, your suggestions sound great; but for all the normal people, they want just one account (one name & password) which manages all these features. Not to mention its direct integration with iOS and OS X. Sign in once, and it’s all configured. For the type of customers I work with now, this is easily worth the $99.

    For me personally, I use iWeb for my site, so the $99/yr for 20GB of hosting is great. I’ve never used Back to My Mac or the Time Capsule integration, but they’re things that some people might miss if they were to abandon MobileMe completely. I use Where’s my Wife?—err, I mean Find my iPhone all the time.

    Oh, and great overview of the Reset Sync options. That’ll pretty much clear up and syncing issues people have.

  • http://azzcatdesign.com/blog Catherine Azzarello

    What a timely piece! I just spent 3 hours yesterday trying to fix a MobileMe calendar snafu…I completely missed an appt. b/c my iTouch (where it was input) NEVER synced with my iMac or MacBook!!!

    The ONLY thing I ask of Mobile Me is to keep my contacts, calendar and email synced across computers. That’s it. And again, it failed. A whopping $99 failure.

    BTW…I’m a web pro. I use Dropbox to sync my working files across computers and to share w/customers. I prefer Apple Mail to gmail–have all 5 email accounts IMAPed to Apple Mail. I use smart mailboxes and Mozy for off-site automated back-up.

    But I cannot get my calendars to sync???

    Something is very wrong w/MobileMe and the Genius Bar will be getting a piece of me tomorrow. Especially since the Apple site borked while I was summarizing my problems yesterday. Guess they couldn’t handle all the Beatle downloads AND customer service at same time. :P

    • impaler

      So did you see the Genius? What did the person say? I’m curious.

  • Frank

    Or you could buy the old version for half the price at Amazon. That’s what I do and it works great. I hate the waste when sending a serial number in a box.

  • Morgan

    I worked through similar options one quiet Saturday – and came to the same conclusions: MobileMe is convenient when it comes to iCal, email, bookmarks, contacts, Find My iPhone – more convenient than bolting together four or five services. Convenience costs, I guess. I renew as cheap as I can, typically on Amazon. Gimme MobileMe lite.

  • http://azadcreative.com Saddam Azad

    I have both Dropbox 50GB and MobileMe subscription.

    I have all my important files synced with Dropbox. Contacts, calendar and email are synced with Google Apps.

    MobileMe seems like a complete waste of money. I don’t even use my awesome @me.com email address!

  • Kevin W.

    I actually had to take this decision two weeks ago when MobileMe wanted me to pay again.
    Since I’m only 19 years old and still a student I was kinda frustrated to pay that much money just to keep the mail address and the synching abilities…

    In fact that’s why I decided to keep it. I use @me.com as my primary personal mail address. I thought I couldn’t just drop the mail and hope to remember every service registered or people knowing that mail.

    Apple should really release a free mail account like Google or Yahoo is doing.
    Synching would be cool, too but not that important in my eyes.

  • http://www.applemanifesto.com Dan Perez

    I’ve had MobileMe for a long while now (not long enough to have been around for iTools though, haha), and I love the syncing between my iOS device, iMac and MBA. Also, back to the Mac and being able to register my Time Capsule and accessing it anywhere has been extremely helpful. I never have had any syncing horrors (maybe I’ve just been lucky!)

  • sjsw

    Nobody has mentioned Fruux. http://fruux.com/ Fruux is basically Mobile Me Sync without iDisk and the email account for about 19 EUR per year. Fruux+Dropbox is a very viable alternative to Mobile Me which, in my opinion, is overpriced. I finally let my Mobile Me account go a few months ago…just wasn’t worth what I was getting out of it.

  • http://www.daarkomendeclowns.nl henk Willemsen

    My experience with the trial of MobileMe is that it’s very, very slow (and it keeps forgetting my login.) Dropbox is easier to use and also easier to share.

    If Apple wants mobileMe to become the standard service for consumers who buy a new macbook it should really be free. Otherwise too many people will keep looking for the free alternative and mobileMe won’t become as great as it can potentially be.

  • impaler

    I’ve been using this service since it was iTools back in 2000, and I am pretty satisfied with it. Since the new calendar adopted the new CalDAV standard, it’s much more reliable. I’ve had email problems. I think Apple’s servers block spam, or at least what it thinks is spam…but without sending the email to me anyway. I wanna see it! Put it in a Spam folder, or mark as Junk, but for god’s sake, don’t blow it away! I found out the hard way my girlfriend didn’t get 2 emails from me sent from me.com, because I’m behind a proxy server and for some reason they never got there. What a bummer.

  • http://twitter.com/trshd TRSHD

    What!? NO ONE mentioned Prey!? It’s the exact same service as Undecover, but for FREE.

  • Enrico

    I am using MobileMe since ages to sync the Address Book, the Calendar, and the Bookmarks among my various macs and phones (now, an iPhone).
    I had several horror stories, mostly related to the address book suddenly duplicating entries, and very recently I had all my calendar entries of years wiped out but for the current month (I had to resort to a backup of one month ago, since TimeMachine does not work anymore with the new calDav protocol). I am tech-savvy but MobileMe is VERY convenient compared to any other alternative – if your devices are all Apple’s. I’d like to escape from it, but to be fair I had several horror stories with XMarks as well — I will never suggest a friend to use it.
    So, my solution is now to have an automated daily backup of the address book, calendar, and bookmarks, since apparently TimeMachine is not reliable for that (maybe it is for the address book).

  • http://binarysprocket.com Chris

    The way that MobileMe seamlessly integrates and synchronizes ALL of my important data that I use/change/update on a constant daily basis across all of my devices makes it an absolute no-brainer for me. I know a lot of people think it’s expensive but I think it’s totally worth it, primarily because it does what it does SO well.

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  • Mary

    I loved MobileMe until they changed it so it doesn’t work with Microsoft Outlook. I felt it was worth every penny…when it worked. I run a business and my PC laptop is still the mother ship. Have an iPhone 4, iPad2, and iMac for mobile and video work.

    I’m looking into Xmark and Google apps as an alternative. Loved the Fruux option, but no PC compatibility. Any other suggestions?

  • http://www.jsncafe.com Angela Denby

    I have recently converted from iDisk to Dropbox, and my experience has been good so far. I posted some other options and a tutorial on converting to Dropbox here: http://jsncafe.hubpages.com/hub/mac-idisk-alternatives

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