Why MobileMe is really worth it

I’m sure you have that favorite band, TV show, or movie that you absolutely adore and desperately pray to every God listening that you never have to defend in public.

I don’t. The awesomeness of the stuff I love is self-evident and even those who are dumb enough to mock, say, the pre-”Batman” film work of Mr. Adam West are at least sensible enough to know that to speak up would only reveal their own cod-slopping ignorance.

Open it up to software and hardware and online services, though, and it gets itchy. By far the one question I hate the most is a common one from new Mac users:

“Is a MobileMe subscription worth the money?”

Umm… It’s complicated.

This is not what the questioner wants to hear. It’s also what someone doesn’t want to hear when they’re about to be set up on a blind date and ask the question “Is this person good-looking?”

MobileMe has been tough to defend since day one of Mac.com. It costs a hundred bucks a year. What do you get for that dough? Oh, a whole pile of world-class, useful features.

You get e-mail which is every bit as good as Google Mail (which is free).

Online storage! If you’re a fan of Box.net or DropBox, you’ll love your iDisk so much that you’ll eventually forget that both of those services were free, and that Box.net supports live online editing of Office documents and DropBox automatically keeps your online storage in sync with folders on every Mac or PC you own!

And you say you like publishing your photos and videos on the Web? Apple has a spectacular solution for you: all of its iLife apps can export your media to lovely MobileMe online galleries. No more mailing photos to relati…

Eh? Well, yes, I suppose it is a lot like Flickr.

Away with the drudgery of…

And Vimeo. And Photoshop Express, and Picasa, and… Yes, which are all free. Look, we’re getting off-track, dammit! Just buy the damned service!!!

I’m sorry to say that this is indeed a typical exchange. It explains why I didn’t get a second interview at the Apple Store but was immediately headhunted by a recruiter for Microsoft Retail.

What finally turned the corner for me with MobileMe was the “Find My iPhone” feature of iPhone OS 3.0. It’s everything that an Apple feature is supposed to be. The name explains the function, and it simply works. Access me.com from any browser and it’ll toss up a map that pinpoints your iPhone’s location. If you lost it somewhere in the house, click a button and your phone will start bleating like a lost calf; listen carefully and hope the sound isn’t coming from the laundry room.

It’s a great time-saver but it’s not a feature that I’d pay $100 a year for. Before iPhone OS 3.0, I could often be seen wandering through the house with my car keys in my hand, muttering “No, I couldn’t have left it at the coffeeshop; I’m capable of heroic acts of stupidity but leaving my iPhone behind isn’t one of them.”

It’s the entire package that makes MobileMe worthwhile. It’s like those academic teardowns of new iPhones that identify every component and attempt to add up the actual total cost of the device: run through every feature in MobileMe, assign it a value, and you typically come up with something greater than $100 per year.

iDisk: $20; automatically sync of all of my personal calendars, contacts, and app settings across all Macs and backed up to a central server: $15; Find My iPhone: $5; Back To My Mac: $30… it adds up.

MobileMe isn’t a specific feature or function. It’s a utility, like the water or electricity. Its actual purpose is to maintain a pipeline so that Apple can deliver digital services and feature enhancements to whatever device they’ve sold you.

I just wish they’d punch that button more aggressively. Things I want MobileMe to do:

  1. Back To My Mac should simply work. I have a PogoPlug on my home network. It’s a $99 thing that shares any USB hard drive plugged into the device to any computer anywhere on the Internet, with no special software required and no monthly fee. It always works. Halfway across the world in Beijing, I mounted my PogoPlugged drive on my desktop with one click. Whereas the iMac on that same home network remained utterly invisible to my MacBook, as usual.

  2. With MobileMe acting as a go-between, standing on a street corner with an iPhone in my hand should be little different than sitting in my office in front of my iMac. Some limited form of Screen Sharing should work; I shouldn’t have to buy an iPhone VNC app. I should be able to browse my hard drive, view any file compatible with the iPhone’s viewer, and download files directly to memory. I should be able to stream content from my iTunes library.

  3. Apps and widgets should be able to exploit MobileMe to spontaneously create cloudlike spaces and intimate integration. My editor should be able to use MobileMe to find my MacBook, query the list of open documents of a certain type, and add a Note to the margin of the chapter I’m working on, highlighting a section we’d discussed and confirming that the Legal department said, quote, “Absolutely no *@&#ing way.”

(See, my defense was that Steve Jobs has so much money that he certainly could have bribed the Tampa Bay Rays to throw the deciding Game 5 of the 2008 World Series, solely to ensure that the next episode of “House” wouldn’t be pre-empted by a Game 6. “Has he ever denied it?” is the disturbing question.)

Okay, I’ve just written that I’d like to “intimately integrate with my editor” so I suppose I should wind this down. The thing to understand about MobileMe is that it’s here to support a thoroughly modern take on computing. In an earlier generation, your relationship with a PC or OS maker was limited to dark threats of explosive violence if they didn’t get the damned thing working as well as it does in the commercials.

Today, it’s an ongoing relationship and an open, two-way conduit. Particularly with a company like Apple, which likes to control the user experience.. Their main objections to deleting any sucky music that the iTunes Genius feature finds in your music library are mainly PR ones, not legal or moral.

Apple — with some justification — has a nasty reputation for wanting and exerting this kind of influence and control. If that’s their reputation, why don’t they leverage it to the consumer’s maximum advantage? An Apple computer on an Apple network using an Apple online service to interact with an Apple mobile phone could be an absolutely glorious totalitarian state in which every app, document, and device you use has a passported conduit to everything else you use.

I have infinite control over my Linux boxes and there, I bow to no earthly King. But I almost never use them for any real work. My Apples are the most restrictive systems on the planet, and they’re my favorites. It’s simple: I cede 80 mass units of personal freedom to Apple and they give me 402 units of power in trade.

In the OS world, Freedom is often just another word for nothing left to use.

[Andy Ihnatko is a longtime Macworld contributor.]

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