A Word for .Mac

Apple’s new MobileMe service is due out before too long, and I’m pretty excited about it. In particular, I’m looking forward to what I hope will be a wholesale remedying of the many irritating shortcomings of its predecessor, the useful but error-prone .Mac service.

I know that I’ve said it before, but I’m really inclined to repeat it until a solution for its many problems is actually in place (and not just marketed) — .Mac is a very poor service. In my estimation, it falls far short of the high bar for excellence that Apple has consistently set for itself and met over the past decade.


If you don’t believe me, then have a look at this little collection of .Mac frustrations that I’ve been collecting. Think of it as a gallery of failure.

Here’s my number one peeve. Each time I go home from the office and synch for the first time, or when I go back to the office the next day and synch again for the first time that day, I’m confronted with this particular conflict resolution dialog.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, the resolutions to these conflicts are immaterial; as far as I can tell, they’re only conflicts insofar as a contact’s icon has been changed. My guess is that when a users sign onto iChat or another instant messenger client from work, that client software uses a different picture from the client software they’ve used at home. (Mac OS X applies those icons from I.M. programs to the system’s contacts database, and then synchronizes them.)

Often, the result is that I’ll see a ‘conflict’ that, to human eyes, isn’t much of a conflict at all. Like this one.

I might be able to excuse this system error, because it’s somewhat difficult for a machine to draw the distinction between two different image files even if they look exactly the same to the naked eye. (With an emphasis on “somewhat.”) However, I find this similar error more or less inexcusable:

Substantively, this is the exact same error as above, but there’s a crucial difference. The image is supplied by Apple — it’s one of the stock images you can pick from when setting up a new account — which makes it reason that Apple should know when a user has chosen the same image from two different locations. I just don’t think there’s any excuse for continually confronting a user with this ‘conflict’ just because Apple has failed to account for it.

Those errors, at least, are somewhat benign, even if they’re annoying. Here’s one that’s somewhat more alarming.

I have no idea what this means. Thankfully, when confronted with this error I can almost always initiate another .Mac synch successfully.

Along those lines, here’s another somewhat inscrutable message that I get with some frequency when synchronizing my iCal data.

In both cases, I can usually dismiss the errors and initiate a new .Mac synchronization right away, and almost always successfully. Which is good. But the ease with which those warnings can be disregarded leads me to think that these messages, while having the appearance of being quite dire, are actually rather trivial. A simple message that said, “Sorry, had a little trouble synching that time — please try again,” would have made a world of difference.

You might argue “no harm, no foul” when the ultimate outcome is that I’m able to synch properly. But to me there are few worse user experience gaffes I can think of than alerting a user to a seemingly disastrous problem when none exists. That’s just irresponsible.

Finally, there’s this bizarre error that I get every time I try to synchronize .Mac on my home computer.

Not only is its consistent and inexplicable appearance an irritation, but it also halts all synchronizing activity until I actually enter in the password that it asks for. I have no idea what causes it, and an hour or two spent online with a .Mac technician produced mostly uninformed and utterly unhelpful answers.

As you can see, while I find .Mac useful, there’s no love lost in my regard for its reliability. Mostly, I find these errors, though relatively innocuous, to be examples of just sloppy craftsmanship. No two ways about it: .Mac is a slovenly written. I hope MobileMe rectifies the situation.

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. At this point, I’m so frustrated with all the various bugs that I’ve come across with .Mac. It’s gotten so bad that I’ve given up trying to even get my calendars to sync, and for whatever reason my mouse preferences for my Mighty Mouse are forgotten every time I have to switch computers. Instead of trying to trouble shoot it I’ve just been patiently waiting for MobileMe.

    To be honest, I don’t need new features, .Mac in theory does enough for me, I just want a version that works.

  2. I’m hopeful MobileMe will eradicate all of the long-term .Mac misgivings. Usability errors aside, I still find value in the .Mac service, but not enough to pay another $160 next time around (the Canadian version is outrageously expensive).

  3. Shut up and figure it out, you dumb ass. It’s such an issue when what you want isn’t put right in front of you.

  4. I think it’s odd (and telling) that I’ve never once experienced the same errors you have described. I do get the very occasional sync conflict warning, but they are usually ‘actual’ conflicts that require my attention. I’ve never gotten the icon error. Neither have I gotten any of the other ones you mention.

    I only say this to underline your point that .Mac (right now at least) is, at the very least, quite inconsistent. The fact that you have constant problems that I don’t have only points to the fact that it’s not currently a ‘well-oiled machine.’

    I do have very high hopes for the new version though. I don’t know anything about the back-end underpinnings and how they may be changing, but I hope that they will be changing as much as the front-end changes–which look spectacular.

  5. I really WANT to be excited about Mobile Me, but I fear that this is just a repackaged, remarketed .Mac. I seriously doubt that it is a ground-up rebuild. This service has always felt like a money-grab. (I do not have a Canadian iPhone yet, so I could be wrong about this, but) I do not understand why I cannot sync my bluetooth phone with my bluetooth laptop and transfer my iCal and Address Book information without a MobileMe account.

  6. I think it’s asking your password because you are syncing the keychain from the other machine, so you gotta unlock it for some reason.

    I have this happen all the time as well.

  7. I am having a hard time believing that they will solve a lot of these sync problems. I think the idea will be to replace sync with ‘Push’ updates. This would be a welcome change. Sync is so 90s Palm. I am also excited about the new Web Apps. They are using SproutCore as a framework and there is a lot of buzz about it. They will finally have online tools that can compete with the likes of Google.

  8. Paul. Use an ftp program for data transfer instead of finder… it will be about 10x faster. CyberDuck is a good free one.

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