What .Mac Lacks

.MacA few weeks ago I complained about Apple’s faltering .Mac service, how it was causing my system to lock up and, in general, how it appeared to have lost the devoted attention of the management team at Apple. And then last week Apple unexpectedly upgraded the baseline storage available to .Mac subscribers from 250 megabytes to a full gigabyte, added new features like .Mac Groups for helping friends and families communicate and share files, and introduced a new, more fully-featured revision of its Backup utility.

All of which is great news, but as an effort to reinvigorate the .Mac offering, it still strikes me as somewhat meek. Raising the storage limit to a gigabyte, while laudable, is basically playing catch-up to where online Web storage stood a few years ago. And the other improvements, while not offensive, still don’t do what, in my estimation, should be done: turning .Mac into a fully-fledged Web 2.0 offering.

Market Forces

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.

.Mac HomePage

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.

.Mac Mail

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.

  1. I’m with you. I’d love to get something out of my $100 per year.

    Each time the email comes up, telling me my subscription will end in sixty days if I don’t renew, it just sits there, waiting, in my inbox. Then the thirty day one comes, and I’m still wondering, “Is this really worth it?”

    I always renew, of course. I guess I’m like you are: just hoping that someone will improve the thing.

  2. This has been something of an issue for me of late, too.

    As a very new Mac user (I got my first Mac in June, and am writing on my second at this moment; yes, I was that impressed), I wanted a way to sync between my two Macs with maybe a little something to sweeten the deal.

    Whilst .Mac offers pretty decent synching services for Address Book and iCal, it’s distinctly lacking in some areas (from my perspective, at least). On top of your list, I’d ad that I’d like to be able to do things like merge-and-sync of folders and other applications’ data (for example, I’d like Unison-esque synching of my ~/Music/ folder, along with proper merging of my iTunes libraries).

    As it stands, I’m hesitant about paying for .Mac, but feel that I’ll bite the bullet simply so that I have nicely synched Address Book and iCal information (yes, I’m that anal), and will probably end up making some bespoke hybrid of Unison and AppleScript to do the rest of the stuff I want.

    Apple, like you say, could make .Mac a stellar product, but as it is, it’s very much lacking…

  3. Actually, I probably should have mentioned that iSync, for all of its shortcomings, is one of the main reasons I renew my subscription regularly. But you’re right that .Mac doesn’t help in keeping data files synchronized. I wouldn’t mind seeing that kind of feature added, but I do feel that there are plenty of third party applications that do a great job on synchronization. Instead, I’d rather see Apple do focus on overhauling their existing features to a more impressive effect.

  4. I too have the email from Apple about renewing my .Mac membership sitting in my Inbox. It’s at the top of the list, as it’s dated back on Sept. 4. This time I’m not so sure I’ll be renewing. The $100 for even the updated services just doesn’t seem worth it. Even though I do take advantage of the synching capablities of .Mac. I’ve got a few days left to make up my mind, but at this point I don’t think I’ll renew.

    If ever Apple were to further develop .Mac to a Web 2.0 state, then maybe I’ll change my mind. I really want Apple to take this route and leverage Safari’s capabilities and user base to offer services unparalleled to anything currently out there. I think we all agree that Apple has the skill do to so, but just wonder why they haven’t yet.

  5. I don’t know much about the .Mac services, but I’m getting my first Powerbook in a couple of hours(hurry up, FedEx! 😉 ).

    As far as the services go, I’d rather see Mac partner, or endorse the use of, applications such as Flickr rather than build their own suite of Web 2.0 applications.

    In addition, I’ve yet to see any email client that I’d prefer to use over Gmail (and no, the new Yahoo Mail isn’t the answer), and I don’t see any reason for Apple to spend resources trying to compete in that realm. I haven’t used the .Mac email yet, but if it allows me to forward my mail to Gmail, I’m happy to configure my gmail account to send mail as myname@mac.com.

    On the other hand, if they do have the resources, I suppose it’s a nice(and maybe a necessary) gesture to spend time adjusting the service as you’ve suggested, Khoi.

  6. Kyle: I agree, it’s probably not a good idea for Apple to try and build a Gmail of their own and a Flickr and a Typepad. Though I think they could have success perhaps building one of these, they’re probably better off licensing or partnering for the majority of them. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that, insofar as what .Mac should be, these third party services are a pretty lucid example of where Apple should go, ideally. Ideally.

  7. I renewed. Yes, .Mac is underpowered and it’s starting to get fairly long in the tooth, but there’s still some value here. Backup and syncing are the two main things I use all the time. I’ll admit that it’s an somewhat expensive fee to pay every year for remote backup and syncing, but both have saved my bacon at least two or three times this year, and that makes it worth it in my book.

    Backing up is a pain in the ass. Anything that makes it easier is a good thing. Backup 3.0 isn’t perfect, but it’s *good enough*, and these days I’d rather have that than something overcomplex and complex (looks at Retrospect).

  8. This is exactly what I have been thinking. dotmac web apps pale beside other ajax/w 2.0 offerings. Other sites are starting to catch up with gmail in the usability stakes. I have a flickr addiction dotmac just can’t satiate. Syncing is the only reason to stay on, oh and the cachet of having an @mac.com address. No decent replacements for iDisk yet, although not used often, very handy when needed.

    Overhaul it, open up the API. Apple could really make some nice tools.

  9. well put. this topic came up at tuaw.com and here was my comment. very similar to your experience.

    Dot Mac needs a dot Overhaul. hey, and i like the idea of an api, too. as time progresses, the more i think .mac is just another way to get 100 bucks more a year out of me. why do i keep renewing? because i am eternally hopeful that .mac will meet my expectations sometime soon…

  10. Unfortunately nothing will change until people cancel. It’s a good business they got going. They update the sucker once a year and we Mac addicts let the credit card renew ever year. I do it… I’m worse. I don’t even use the sonnuva bitch except for the occasional for my signup/spam email address.

  11. The question I’m asking myself is: “Can I afford to continue to ‘begrudgingly’ renew?”

    My subscription expires in 10 days and I’m seriously considering letting it lapse — I’ve been a .Mac member since the beginning. I know they’re going somewhere with it, because, as you mentioned, there’s too much potential. I just can’t justify the $100/year to wait for it.

    I wonder if my username will be kept secure … ?

  12. I am actually in the middle on contemplating whether or not to keep my .mac account. At the moment, I’m heading towards NO.

    I originally got it to make a portfolio website (I’m a graphic designer) and I used it for the e-mail.

    At this point, it seems like I can get everything I need elsewhere and for free. Just got a g-mail account, I’m using rapidweaver for a website (hosted by godaddy). I tried hosting it through the .mac account and nothing ever seemed to go right.

    For backup, I burn a CD or DVD every so often. There are even file sharing sites now that let you host or transfer files for free.

    I was hoping the upgrade last week would help me stick with .mac, but I can’t say it has. I have til Decemeber to decide, but I just don’t see why it’s worth it anymore.

    Too bad. I love my Apple!

  13. Clarence, visit your .Mac account online and adjust your prefs. They are 512MB for Mail and 512MB for iDisk by default.

    I agree with most people’s concerns about .Mac. It seems like these articles pop up at the end of each September with the same complaints. I don’t think this service is a big deal to Mr. Jobs anymore. iSync is the only thing that is getting most people to renew… Apple just adds a little more storage space and a few features each summer to keep people from bailing out.

    The “competition” mentioned here is pretty formidable. Do you really think Apple will try to duplicate Gmail, Flickr and Typepad for their users? Most people who want these are already using them. Personally, I think Apple should try to get some focus and reinvent .Mac as “the” premium web service. First of all, the storage space should be raised considerable for the price we are paying. It should be enough to back up the average set of iLife files. All of the current offerings should be reevaluated and if they aren’t necessary, take them out and make the remaining services the first class software we come to expect from Apple.

    .Mac was great as iTools, but it has been playing catch-up for a long time. Apple needs to do some serious work to inspire us again.

  14. I agree with all this, and I reckon people behind the scenes at Apple are going to be thinking the same thing.

    Proper code is now all over the Apple site, and Ajax *is* creeping in slowly. Check out the store, and try adjusting the specs on a PowerBook or something: you get instant updates to the price and display. It’s a start, and it shows that someone (Dunstan, is that you?) is pushing things along.

    Maybe more Web 2.0 stuff is on the way – but perhaps putting out a beta version isn’t what Apple is aiming for, and they want to make sure everything is matured a bit first? (Hey guys, just gimme back some of my dollars in the meantime, yeah?)

    On another point, what exactly *is* the OS X syncing/backup strategy? First iSync handled most of it, then that moved over to the .Mac preferences in Tiger, and now Backup offers me the option of backing up my personal settings…? Why the heck not just have one central method (say, iSync) and stick to it? I’d love to see a way to have iSync merged with Backup so that everything – iDisk, iPod, Bluetooth syncing with my phone, regular backup to hard disk or CD etc. are all together in *one* place. What gives?

  15. Maybe you all shouldn’t renew your account every year in hopes that something will happen and that will lead Apple to realize that they’re not offering what the people want. Start a boycott on .Mac and they will be forced to change.

    I am not renewing my account this year. I’ve had enough. Flickr, gmail, and a normal php/mysql webhost has filled the void for me.

  16. And while they’re at it, they need to fix the synch functionality — especially bookmarks. For example, it works fine to synch bookmarks between my 2 Macs (sometimes), but if I add a bookmark in the web interface, it never appears on either of my Macs. What’s more, my bookmarks are currently not identical on my 2 Macs, and Apple leaves one with no way to “fix” it or declare one the master and start over (a very unattractive options).

    In fact, had my renewal not *just* happened w/o me paying attention, I’d be inclined to wait until they spiffed it up a lot to resubscribe. My friend got me hooked basically by showing me bookmark synchronization and, if that’s not working, what good is .Mac?

    Also, iLife backup is a JOKE! Who can back up their music, videos and other multimedia content in that miserly amount of space? I can’t even back up my purchased music only. Sheesh!

  17. I cancelled my .Mac account when it came up for renewal *last* year. I just installed Tiger on my G5 and I considered giving it another try under the 60 day demo, but then thought better and passed on it.

    It seems that folks who have .Mac subscriptions tolerate it, they don’t love it. Sounds like when people talk about MS Office. At this point, Google has duplicated most of .Mac’s features in a better interface, cross platform, cross browser and free.

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