Woe Is MobileMe

MobileMeOver the course of several days last week, I spent a pretty sizable chunk of time trying to work out the kinks in Apple’s disappointingly buggy MobileMe service, the new incarnation of their equally error-prone .Mac. By the end of this first prolonged exposure to the service, I’ve decided that I feel exactly the same way about MobileMe as I did about its predecessor: ideally I’d like it to do much more, but at the very least I wish the stuff it does would work a lot better than it does. And when it doesn’t work, which is far more often than I’d like, it is in my view one of the most frustrating experiences that Apple has ever produced.

Like me, lots of folks are dependent on the features that MobileMe provides, so simply voting with our wallets, i.e., canceling our accounts in protest, isn’t as straightforward an option as some would argue. For me, over-the-air synchronization for my iPhone is something I’ve needed since the first day I bought it. Right now, MobileMe is the only viable option.


One for All and All for One

Luckily, we’re all in this together, right? With some dedication, I’ve been able to fix most (though not all) of my MobileMe problems thanks to the plethora of similar frustrations and findings from other users that can be easily found scattered all over the Internet. All it required was time, persistence and more time. In particular, Apple’s discussion boards were a big help, though ferreting out the solution one needs using Apple’s not particularly helpful user interface is a challenge.

As a way of making a reciprocal contribution, here are some of my notes on healing MobileMe pains.

Good Data, Bad Data

First, I can’t recommend enough that, before doing anything, you should have a single set of ‘good’ MobileMe data consolidated on one computer. That means having your calendars, contacts, keychains etc. in good shape and, crucially, backed up (and backed up again, to be safe; I stashed copies of all my data on a remote server just in case I somehow completely screwed up my local copies). This one ‘good’ computer is the computer from which to start troubleshooting; once it was working well, I moved on to the next computer and continued troubleshooting from there.

For most problems, I found that completely resetting the MobileMe account is a fairly easy approach. This means essentially removing all of your computers and data from Apple’s servers, and returning them to a state where they’re essentially isolated machines with no synchronization relationships.

To do that, you have to basically unregister all Macs from the MobileMe account. Just after removing the last Mac, you’ll be presented with a dialog box that will allow you to remove all of the synched MobileMe data from Apple’s servers (i.e., you’ll see a list of each data type that you can pick and choose from, though I just deleted them all). Delete all of them. This article at Ars Technica goes into more detail.

Ball and Keychain

For a Mac with particularly troubled synching problems, completely resetting (you might say “nuking”) that computer’s local MobileMe synchronization data is one option worth pursuing. Synchronization settings are rather intricate, and some monkeying around with the Terminal is unavoidable, I found. This blog post explains how to run three simple UNIX commands to surgically remove that data. (It cleans up directions available from this Apple discussion.)

For a persistent and incredibly annoying problem that I had in which I was constantly asked for the password for an old computer that used to sync with .Mac, I was happy to find that this Terminal command does the trick. (This problem is described in this Apple support forum discussion.) I had been plagued by this problem for months and months, and earlier attempts at fixing it had actually caused all synching to malfunction on one of my Macs, so I was incredibly relieved to come across that solution.

More Help

If those fixes don’t help, this Apple support article is a basic starting point for troubleshooting MobileMe sync problems. The most helpful insight it provides is the advice to create a new user account on your Mac in order to test if your sync problems are specific to the computer you’re working on or to your MobileMe account on Apple’s servers.

Right: Talking to myself. MobileMe’s live chat support is barely there.
MobileMe Support Chat

Of course, you can also submit a support request to MobileMe via email or even engage one of MobileMe’s tech support agents via Apple’s browser-embedded live chat tool. That is, if you can get them on the line. I tried several times to use the live chat tool, but I was kept waiting for hours and hours with dialog boxes like the one shown here. Actually, one time I did manage to get through… but I had walked away from my desk, and the agent tried to talk to me but signed off because he didn’t hear a response from me. Wonderful, right?

+
  1. I think one of the most disappointing things about MobileMe that I’ve discovered through dealing with these issues as you have is the realization that it’s really just .Mac with a new name, and not an entirely new, ground-up rewrite as we were lead to believe.

    But hey, at least the web apps I never use are prettier.

  2. And it continually surprises me that people forget that Apple is a hardware company, not a software company.

    Why would the service of .Mac or MobileMe be any good. Building software is not a core competency of Apple.

  3. I continue to have an irritating problem that despite MobileMe reporting success and despite the intervention of an Apple engineer who saw my pique, my home computer can’t sync or update Address Book. When you delve down into logs and watch what’s happening live, and you still see no errors — something seriously wrong.

  4. Totally agree with Khoi regarding the bugginess of MobileMe, but totally disagree with Jeff that MobileMe is just .Mac in sheep’s clothing. MobileMe — if it weren’t so buggy and contained 2 or 3 more things which will probably be in the next release — is exactly what I’ve always wanted. .Mac was basically nothing that I ever wanted or needed.

    Let’s assume the bugs are worked out within a few months. After that, all we’re missing is:

    1. Subscribed calendar syncing.

    2. Simpler setup, config, and maintenance.

    3. Parity on desktop computers of the iPhone’s push capabilities.

    The only really frustrating part to me is that I feel Snow Leopard is the release that is really going to complete the chain, and it’s probably 9 months out. It’s puzzling to me that Apple was able to release Exchange syncing on the iPhone, plus an entirely new syncing architecture on the desktop, and then not have the ability to connect to Exchange on the desktop. Perhaps this explains why things seem a bit unfinished now.

  5. Not to buck the trend, but I’ve rarely had these problems reported with .Mac and have had even fewer with MobileMe since I started with .Mac when it was free.

    I currently sync my iPhone’s address book and calendars ‘over the air’ with my personal MacBook Pro, work G5 and a little home G4 tower which barely gets used. It all seems to quite happily sync itself with out any intervention from me.

    I also sort out my father’s synching which involves his iPhone, his office Powerbook, his home MacBook and his PA’s eMac (soon to be a shiny new iMac) and that has also been pretty stable. I set up the over the air iPhone syncing yesterday having just upgraded the phone to OS V2 and after a few hours of syncing (so granted it’s not great speed-wise) it seems all the address book items and calendar events I added and later removed from each individual machine (including online in MobileMe – which looks FANTASTIC BTW) have worked as advertised. The only possible Achilles heel being the eMac which is still on 10.4.11 being as how it’s just not capable of being upgraded enough to accept 10.5 in any reasonable manor.

    We’ll see how it works ‘in anger’ I guess but it all looks good so far.

  6. I have recently started to use zyb.com to sync my phone contacts and, though it’s not push, it works really well.

    What I don’t know is if there’s a way to configure your Mac to use SyncML to sync to Zyb.

  7. @Khoi

    From Apple’s company profile page:

    >> ‘Apple, Inc. designs, manufactures, and sells personal computers, portable digital music players, and mobile communication devices, … as well as related software, services, peripherals, and networking soluti

  8. Tim: you’re right, Apple does make their money from hardware primarily. But to say that their emphasis on software is so secondary that it’s unrealistic to expect good software from them is laughable. They’re responsible for some — if not most — of the highest quality, most acclaimed software of the past ten years. Take Mac OS X, just for starters, and you could even just end it there. So, sorry, I don’t buy your argument one bit.

    Mike D.: Obviously, I agree with Jeff’s point about .Mac and MobileMe being essentially the same at their core. Looking at Apple’s support documents for MobileMe, even, demonstrates this rather acutely: the majority of them are clearly just .Mac support documents upon which a search and replace has been performed to swap the old branding for the new branding. Aside from the new features that you find useful (which have been essentially ‘bolted on’), most everything else works exactly the same as .Mac. For better or, usually, for worse.

  9. Maybe I’m one of the lucky people, but I haven’t experience any issues with MobileMe. Syncing works perfectly, so does the push service. Galleries upload and display just fine and my mail and contacts are all up there. To say that MobileMe is the same as .Mac is way off base. To me MobileMe is A LOT better and one of the many things that separates the two is the speed of the web based applications. MM is much faster and easier to use in my opinion.

    And to that comment above claiming that Apple isn’t a software company… are you kidding me?

  10. I followed your advice about unregistering all of my registered computers. When I was then asked about the synched data remaining on the MobileMe servers, I checked all of the boxes to remove it. Out of curiosity, I then logged in to my account at the MobileMe web site, and lo and behold, my data was still there waiting for me.

  11. I really am surprised at the number of people who actually expected MobileMe to be everything they needed from a mobile service from the start. From my experience, first generation Apple products almost never are. Instead, they usually leave something to be desired.

  12. Thanks for the info and links, Khoi.

    @ Tim

    I’d say the history of Apple is as a hardware *and* software company, and the integration of the two is where they aim their focus. When it works, it’s sublime. When it doesn’t (MobileMe or .mac), it’s frustrating at best, offensive and shortsighted at worst.

    A collective ‘ARGHH’ is appropriate, imho.

  13. @ Michael Jackson

    The whole point of the post (and others by Khoi on the subject) is that MobileMe is so NOT a first generation Apple product… it’s the offspring of .mac, which they never got right after years of charging $99 a year for it.

    ARGH. Ag

  14. Apple is neither a hardware or software company. Rather an internet company. A company whose prime objective is to facilitate and broaden the scope of the internet by creating appliances to make the internet a greater and better experience.

  15. I may have been in the minority but overall my experience with Dot Mac were primarily positive. I really found the syncing of bookmarks, contacts, and email to be very good. I also made good use of the ability of easily sharing files via creating many password protected pages. The other parts of Homepage were too basic for me, but still of some use. Backup was USELESS and UNTRUSTWORTHY. But overall a very good service. MobileMe was a mess for me at first. After a week of twiddling I have finally got it working. What I found helpful: was to unregister all machines. Reset data via iSync app and then syncing. I now have even my calendars syncing not only between two macs but also with my Zimbra calendar at work. …too cool. Next i will tackle hosting a personal domain on Mobileme.

  16. @Daniel: If someone charges you $99 for the first year of using something, and it sucks, shame on them. If you renew that contract and give them $99 more for the second year, despite the fact that they haven’t fixed any of the bugs from the previous year,

  17. @ Walter

    How about using Time Machine for backup? I’d imagine in a worse case scenario, having your own mini backup type server at home would be most efficient.

  18. @ Todd

    None of those products would work without the internet. All their products cater to delivering a better internet environment and that includes their computers.

    The iPod achieves its greatest success through ITunes, distributing, renting, songs,

  19. @Omaha Nebraska imo you’re overstating the importance of the internet in relation to the hardware and the software.

    The design of Apple hardware is integral to the use of the Apple software, the internet is merely a delivery method (much like CDs, floppy

  20. @ Matthew.

    The internet is the backbone that binds their hardware and software into one strong unit. Which is their angle in technology and solves previous personal computing issues. It’s what the ‘i’ stands for in their products. iMac, iTunes, iPod, i

  21. @Khoi and Mike D.:

    Yeah, what Khoi is referring to is the sort of stuff I’ve noticed that leads me to feel like MobileMe is just .Mac with a new brand. Besides the documentation being the same, the system preferences pane is identical, it still has the w

  22. The internet is nothing like CDs, Floppy, USB and Firewire. In fact, all those products will all be obsolete. Wireless and internet is the focus of Apple’s company. Which brings on the Macbook ‘Air’.

    Well the internet could just as easily be a local network, a 3g card, or something wired – which is to say – again – its just a method of delivery. The internet is just a way of getting the data from point A to point B the fact that its called ‘the internet’ and therefore begins with ‘i’ is irrelevant.

    The design of the hardware and software (both visually and in the way the user interacts with it) is FAR more important than some nebulous and quite possibly changeable ‘internet’.

    the ‘i’ in iMac way well have originally been for internet, but it was only as that was a popular thing in the publics psyche at the time back (and proceeded a few internet or ‘i’ machines form PC manufacturers) then and its a bit old hat now, hence the dropping of ‘i’ form many Apple products – imo.

    ‘What makes Apple is a combination of many helping hands, but if you boil them down into a few simple components, packaging the internet is what makes Apple.

    I think you have Apple confused with Google.

  23. (I added an event in iCal yesterday afternoon and it’s still not on my iPhone this morning), and the lack of true push really stings after the marketing.

    I assume you have sync set to auto? It should sync every 15mins, if you want to force it onto the iPhone just do a ‘Sync Now’ from the Sync menu – Im sure you know all this though.

  24. I completely avoid having to use MobileMe at all by filtering all email accounts through Gmail (which also takes care of most all SPAM issues), then connecting to those accounts at home, work, and on my phone via IMAP. Changes made from any machine are reflected relatively quickly on the others.

    For my calendar synching I use Spanning Sync.

    I know this isn’t a complete replacement for MobileMe, but it’s free, and it seems to be working a hell of a lot better.

  25. Street protest?

    Outraged at the inability of apple to either fix my mail, (which has been out for over a week), give an explanation or to be in anyway available for contact; I am considering organizing a placard caring storefront protest. Seem like a good idea?

  26. MobileMe is so disappointing. Apart from all the broken stuff and difficulties synchronizing data, it’s really overpriced for what you get. I only wish someone would make an app that syncs my Safari bookmarks… Everything else in MobileMe I can get elsewhere, at a lower cost and higher quality.

  27. @ Mathew

    Everything in this world is meant to deliver something. A fan delivers air, a blanket delivers warmth, a phone delivers communication.

    Google collects links and puts ads on displaying search pages. To me that’s not packaging the internet. Once

  28. @ Mathew

    iTunes does sync your Safari bookmarks, under the Info tab. Scroll down under Web Browser and check the option to do so.

  29. Google collects links and puts ads on displaying search pages. To me that’s not packaging the internet. Once you go to another site. Google is out of the picture.

    What about Gmail, Google Docs, Google Earth, Google Maps etc etc.

    Google are not just about ads.

  30. @ mathew

    I know google has other Internet apps but 1. Ads + search is their foundation and is how they support their work

    2. they offer a default package. Icons resembling the win 3.1 era. Lack of true branding and identity

    3. Until they offer their u

  31. Can anyone please help me. I joined a .mac account and went through the mobile me registration. I then cancelled my mobile me account to change the log-on/user name. The old mobile me account is still hanging in mid air with my domain name linked to it. I can log into the old mobile me account, but no information opens in the account window. I cant close the account. I deactivated my .mac account to try and boot everything, but no luck. The old account is hanging on to my domain name. Has anyone had this problem?????