MobileMe still sputtering

So far, the wait to use the MobileMe service has proven longer than any line for an iPhone 3G at an Apple store.

Apple's MobileMe service promises features which, like the release of Mac OS X Leopard, made me regret the recent purchase of another Windows Vista laptop, at least for a moment.

Having lost two laptops and five years of life history to theft several weeks ago, the allure of having precious data pushed automatically from a laptop to the "cloud," coupled with Time Machine backup, feeds my desire for security as well as my laziness (yes, I review software, and I didn't have a third backup). It seemed MobileMe could serve me better than the new iPhone would.

It's all about Me.com not working this week.
It's all about Me.com not working this week. Donald Bell/CNET Networks

The replacement for .Mac subscriptions can synchronize mail, calendars, contacts, photos, Safari bookmarks, Dashboard widgets, and more among Macs, the iPhone, and iPod Touch. It lets you stash 20GB of files on Apple's servers, and it even cooperates with Outlook on Windows computers. Plus, MobileMe's online applications would let you check in on all that from any Web browser.

I tried to find .Mac users to share their cheers and jeers about that $100 annual service, but many colleagues at CNET said they couldn't afford it. However, MobileMe sounds like a better value, with expanded tools that aren't available elsewhere in a cohesive package.

I finally was able to use the calendar at Me.com once. But online e-mail still hasn't worked for me.
I finally was able to use the calendar at Me.com once. But online e-mail still hasn't worked for me. Elsa Wenzel/CNET Networks

In advance of the release, I wrote a first-take CNET preview of MobileMe , hoping to follow up with a rated review, after exploring the nooks and crannies. However, I've barely been able to skim the surface of the product, and many other subscribers share the frustration.

If Apple's servers are overwhelmed this week, you might blame me a bit for refreshing Me.com for what has felt like every five minutes. Despite wearing out my trigger finger, I was only able to access my MobileMe account twice yesterday, for a total of two minutes. What a tease. I figured things would improve once the company finished .Mac migration.

MobileMe was due to be complete on Friday, with the full "push" synchronization intact. Around noon, I was able to synchronize mail, contacts, calendars, and upload some photos from a MacBook to Me.com. Hooray! Oops, I cheered too soon.

Yet another error message spoiled playing with Me.com, just when it was working for 10 minutes.
Yet another error message spoiled playing with Me.com, just when it was working for 10 minutes. Elsa Wenzel/CNET Networks

Today I've been logged in and out of Me.com countless times. The service kicks me out against my will, just when I feel that a new feature I hadn't tested must surely be within reach. I haven't been able to stay logged on to Me.com for more than 20 minutes at a time. Attempting to verify my account on an iPhone also failed.

So far, there are more than five dozen comments, most from similarly thwarted .Mac users, on a CNET News story about MobileMe's failed launch. You'll find the same frustrations repeated in this and other publications chronicling the marred release of both Me.com and the iPhone 3G .

I agree with some users who mused that those at Apple must have had their heads in a cloud by scheduling the .Mac migration for a weekday. Between 20 and 25 percent of .Mac subscribers use the service for business purposes, according to Apple. At least I'm not relying on a former .Mac account for a job. A few hours of downtime could kill a potential gig for, say, a freelance photographer.

Nevertheless, I'm withholding judgment of a rated review of MobileMe today until I can give the features more than a cursory glance. If it stops working like an alpha release from a cash-strapped start-up, the service might yet live up to its promise as Microsoft "Exchange for the rest of us." Who knows?

For now, this botched launch highlights both some pitfalls and promises of relying increasingly upon Web 2.0 services for work and play.

Before my computers were stolen, I could have at least uploaded my personal writings to Google Docs , or synchronized my photos with SugarSync, or entrusted everything to online storage, such as Box.net. But I felt wrong in my gut about sending those things to unseen servers, no matter how secure. I never got around to buying a backup drive. Instead, my stuff went out the window, literally, with a thief.

If your own computer crashes or disappears, you might have only yourself to blame. But providers of online applications and remote storage services bear a greater responsibility than makers of desktop software, when they hold the keys to our data. For .Mac users whose pictures and Web galleries were held hostage on remote servers, the epic failure of MobileMe may simply dull Apple's polish. The rocky start drives home the very need for a service that does what MobileMe is supposed to do: keep our data safe and accessible in more than one place.

 

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