Synchronization is hard. It may sound simple: copy personal information, such as contacts and events, between computers and keep them all up to date. But over the years we’ve seen sync programs that don’t quite work. I not-so-fondly remember manually deleting hundreds of duplicate contacts from my Palm handheld years ago, and even now I run into records in which separate companies and individuals were long ago squished together into the same contact.
Apple has thrown resources at this problem over time, and the latest incarnation, MobileMe, adds the capability to synchronize some data to devices and other Macs lickety-split, the way Microsoft’s Exchange Server performs in the corporate world. (In fact, Apple calls MobileMe “Exchange for the rest of us.”) MobileMe definitely comes closer to fulfilling the promise made by the six-year-old .Mac (which it replaced), though it has more than a few rough edges.
With an online service such as MobileMe, I’m writing about a moving target shortly after what turned out to be a disastrous introduction. Not only was MobileMe rolled out at the same time as the iPhone 3G ( ) and the iPhone 2.0 ( ) software update—which greatly strained Apple’s overwhelmed servers during the first days—the service ran into snags days before that when it was soft-launched in advance of its grand debut. The service was frequently unavailable and synchronization often didn’t work properly. Apple apologized for the snafus and extended all MobileMe subscriptions by 30 days. So, it’s possible that the reliability of the service will improve over time.
Existing .Mac subscribers automatically become MobileMe subscribers, and were given a new firstname.lastname@example.org e-mail address. New accounts are available from Apple for $99 per year ($149 for a family pack of five licenses), but you can also buy a boxed version that includes a registration code from retailers like Amazon.com for less.
Upgrading the software on the Mac is oddly tricky, however. Under Leopard, the Mac OS X Update for MobileMe 1.0 doesn’t appear in Software Update. You must first open the .Mac pane in System Preferences, and after a minute or so, a dialog appears informing you of the update. Only then does Software Update make it available. According to Apple, this unusual two-step process was required to add the MobileMe imagery to the preference pane; future updates will be available just via Software Update.
Users running Tiger won’t see a MobileMe update at all, even though the service works under Mac OS X 10.4.11 (except for Back to My Mac and some sync options, which are Leopard-only features). Although I didn’t run into any problems with syncing under Tiger, several reports in Apple’s discussion forums advise deleting .Mac preference files if you encounter problems (in the Finder, go to [home]/Library/Preferences and look for files with “com.apple.dotmac” in the names).
I recommend making a backup copy of your Address Book and iCal (or Entourage) data before upgrading, just to be safe. To avoid initial data munges, it’s a good idea to also use the Reset Sync Data option in the Preference pane.
In essence, MobileMe is a rebranded .Mac (without, thankfully, the initial period in the name, though the name itself may take some getting used to), but the service offers one stellar feature that may convince new people to subscribe. Some information can now be synchronized among devices as it changes. Under .Mac, data would get updated only during a synchronization event (initiated manually or on an automatic schedule). That left gaps of time where a record could be updated in different ways on several machines, leading to sync conflicts. Now, your data resides in a “cloud” (which, in reality, probably resembles less fluffy vapor and more distributed clusters of Apple servers), and changed records are updated on all devices as soon as possible.
Contacts and calendar events are updated shortly after changes are made on an iPhone and online when viewing your information at me.com. It usually took anywhere from 15 to 60 seconds or so for the update to propagate throughout my accounts; to view the change at me.com I occasionally needed to refresh the page or click to another item, suggesting that my browser may have been holding on to a cached version of the outdated record even though the actual information had been updated in the cloud.
iCal and Address Book records under Leopard are updated every 15 minutes (and therefore are not “pushed” when edited, a clarification Apple made after the launch; Tiger syncs hourly). However, calendar and address book updates sometimes applied regardless of the settings I chose in the MobileMe preference pane: with syncing set to Manual, I still watched MobileMe occasionally reach out for updates on its own, though the behavior was inconsistent.
It’s one thing to just copy an updated contact or event from one machine to another; the real test is whether MobileMe can synchronize more granular data such as specific fields within a contact record. To test, I updated a contact’s Work phone number field in three separate locations (in Address Book, on an iPhone, and on the Web), which resulted in no errors when the changes were synchronized among the other devices. I edited the Web version only a few seconds after the iPhone’s version, and the iPhone was almost immediately updated to the Web version’s number.
In fact, after syncing dozens of times over the course of a few days, I ran into serious trouble only once. On my Mac, I signed out of my MobileMe account so I could sign in with my mother-in-law’s account (I convinced her to use MobileMe so that I could access her machine remotely using Back to My Mac, whose features are unchanged). After performing some remote troubleshooting for her, I signed back into my MobileMe account and changed a contact’s phone numbers in Address Book and on the Web for testing.
However, signing off and then back in again turned off my sync settings and unchecked each item in the preference pane, and MobileMe thought I was signing in on a different computer. Enabling syncing prompted me to confirm that this was the same computer, but all of the updated phone numbers appeared within the test contact’s record.
Apple acknowledged that the company is being “conservative” by disabling syncing by default when you sign into your account, and that the service isn’t designed for repeatedly signing in and out of multiple accounts. A better option in my case (and I suspect I’m not the only one doing this) is to set up a separate user account on your machine and sign in to other MobileMe accounts there.
Sync conflicts do arise when the same record has been changed at more than one source. In those cases, Apple’s approach of displaying the troublemaking records side-by-side has always been helpful, but I frequently want more information. On several occasions I was notified of sync conflicts for values in records that appeared identical. A modification date and time at least would be more helpful.
Mail also gets the quick-sync treatment for iPhone owners, with messages being optionally delivered as they arrive, even when the phone is not active. I don’t need that type of always-on access to my e-mail, so the ping and buzz from the iPhone indicating new mail was a frequent surprise. For people who need to be more plugged in than I do, this MobileMe feature will be welcome.
Synchronizing data between machines is largely unchanged for people who want to replicate one environment as much as possible on two machines. In my testing, full synchronization didn’t always happen right away after I’d changed my information, particularly with Mail accounts (creating and deleting an account); performing a manual sync on both computers several times finally made the correct configuration stick.
Also, MobileMe does not currently sync published or subscribed iCal calendars to iPhones or me.com. (An Apple tech note points out that calendars are, in fact, synchronized—it’s just the events in the calendars that don’t show up, which isn’t helpful.)
MobileMe on the Web
The most visible part of MobileMe is the Web presence at me.com, which takes advantage of advanced Web technologies to come very close to replicating a desktop application.
Me.com gives you access to your mail, contacts, calendars, Web gallery, and iDisk, as well as account settings. Using the modules is surprisingly interactive. You can now edit published galleries on the Web, such as dragging photos to reorder them; changes you make online are synchronized to the galleries you originally set up in your desktop application (like iPhoto).
With the MobileMail Calendar, you can use your mouse to drag events to reschedule them, or extend duration by dragging an event’s borders—with .Mac, you had to use a dialog box to enter such information. In fact, the MobileMail Calendar performs better than iCal under Leopard in some ways. For example, you just double-click an event to edit its details; in iCal, you double-click the event to view the details, and then must click Edit to make changes.
The site uses advanced Web technologies to provide an interactive experience, such as dragging an event’s top or bottom edge to change its time and duration. Keyboard shortcuts abound using the Control key, such as Control-N to create a new outgoing message or Control-Shift-R to reply-all in MobileMe Mail. You may forget you’re using a Web browser.
MobileMe now includes 20GB of combined e-mail and file storage (double that of the last .Mac plan) for individuals, or 40GB for the $149 Family Pack. You can also purchase additional storage for either plan.
Transferring files between your computer and iDisk finally doesn’t feel as sluggish as in the .Mac days; I found copying to my iDisk roughly equivalent to copying the same amount of data to my ISP. And the Finder copy window now accurately displays the transfer progress (a little annoyance in .Mac that always bugged me).
One iDisk feature, which would act as an alternative to e-mail by letting you share large files via linked message, has yet to be implemented.
Retrofitting .Mac to become MobileMe involved abandoning several pieces on the shop floor. iCards are gone—I suppose the avalanche of poor-quality Flash animated cards at other sites finally proved overwhelming. Publishing photos as .Mac slides (where your images could act as someone else’s screen saver), and Web access to bookmarks are also gone, although bookmarks are still synchronized between Macs.
.Mac Groups can no longer be created, though you can still use existing groups. And HomePage, which was supplanted by Web Gallery, continues to function but won’t be getting any further attention from Apple.
And although customers who signed up for e-mail-only .Mac accounts can renew that service, an e-mail-only plan is not an option with new MobileMe accounts.
Macworld’s buying advice
If you need up-to-the-minute access to your important data on your iPhone or online, MobileMe is a great solution (even given the 15-minute lag from the desktop, something I expect Apple will fix in the future, since they demonstrated the capability when MobileMe was announced). Similarly, if you work on multiple Macs and want to keep information consistent among them, or use Back to My Mac to control them remotely, MobileMe is worth the yearly subscription price.
MobileMe isn’t as compelling for casual users. For online storage, photo publishing, or Web-based e-mail, calendars, and contact management, alternatives such as Google are cheaper. However, these alternatives do not offer the polish of MobileMe on the Web, or the convenience of having everything in one full package.
MobileMe got off to a sputtering start, and there are still clearly some kinks to work out (the system status updates at www.apple.com/support/mobileme/ provide an idea of how the service is doing). But with MobileMe more closely tied to the iPhone now, I expect—I hope—Apple will solidify the service.
EDITOR’S NOTE: 11:50 a.m. – The article has been corrected to reflect the version of the software reviewed.
[Jeff Carlson is the managing editor of TidBITS (tidbits.com) and author of several books such as The Apple TV Pocket Guide, Second Edition (Peachpit Press, 2008)]