Below: Flickr it ain’t. .Mac HomePage photo sharing interface is overwrought and under-featured.
For the US$100 annual subscription fee, it seems fairly reasonable to me to expect .Mac to offer services comparable to some of the much more robust alternatives currently available on the market — usually for free. Take, for instance, Gmail. Apple’s Web client for .Mac mail pales in comparison to it, and, overwrought user interface aside, is much closer to the under-powered Squirrel Mail (which many hosting providers offer to their customers as a bare bones means of providing Web access to email). It’s something of an embarrassment.
Also consider .Mac’s HomePage service, which ostensibly allows users to easily create Web sites from well-rendered templates and, notably among other features, to share photos directly from the company’s own iPhoto application. A lot of initial usability engineering probably went into making this service simple for novices when it first debuted in 1999 as iTools, but today, it’s clunky, slow and feature poor — The fact that it provides no weblog tools like Blogger or even a fraction of the thoroughly executed photo sharing functionality of Flickr is glaring. In fact, it’s safe to say that a combination of iPhoto and Flickr (bridged by Fraser Speir’s superb Flickr Export) is clearly vastly superior to iPhoto and .Mac, which is again nothing that should inspire pride over in Cupertino.
What’s the Point of Having This Superb Web Browser if We Don’t Use It?
Below: Gmail it ain’t. .Mac’s Web mail interface is prettier than SquirrelMail, but roughly as limited.
There are a lot of reasons why this is all so disappointing, but the one that sticks out to me the most is that Apple, even more so than almost anyone else, has the opportunity to build truly innovative Web-based technologies. In Safari, they actually own a Web browser that they can reasonably expect to be available to 99% of their .Mac customer base, which is something no one else — not Google, not Yahoo and not even Microsoft — can claim. It’s a unique situation that should really be capitalized upon.
Personally, what I’d like to see Apple do is build a truly knockout set of Web 2.0 interfaces for their .Mac features: a Web-based email client that’s as powerful as Gmail but that actually looks beautiful, and that leverages the power of Spotlight. A blogging service that’s as robust as TypePad and blends seamlessly with a Flickr-like photo sharing service, while leveraging iPhoto on the desktop. An online calendar that’s as responsive and pliable as Basecamp, but with bi-directional integration with iCal. Online storage that works robustly through the browser, without always requiring a desktop-bound WebDAV client like iDisk. And of course, I’d like to see it all executed in clean, Web standards-compliant code, with judicious use of Ajax and generous helpings of the classiness that Apple is known for but that they’ve so far failed to bring to the Web.
Apple as ASP
All of this gets Apple into the application service provider business, a line that, admittedly, they’ve never shown much interest in and for which, as an organization, they are probably not compositionally well-suited. Even given the hundred dollar .Mac membership fee, it’s probably unrealistic to expect a single company to provide a complement of services that can truly equal the likes of Gmail, Flickr et. al. There are probably more realistic — and innovative — ways in which Apple can leverage its unique position to improve its offering, and I’d be happy if Apple would even entertain them.
The point is that, as it stands, .Mac is something of a wasted opportunity, a so-so collection of tools built with only occasional enthusiasm. But it’s yet another testament to the company’s aura that even the idea of Apple taking Web services truly seriously suggests something possibly very great. All I can do is hope, I guess, while the company continues to dither aimlessly in this market. Hope and continue to pay the renewal fees begrudgingly.