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MobileMe, a rare Apple screwup, finally bites the dust

One of the few black marks on Apple's product track record is being retired tomorrow, but parts of it will live on.


Come Sunday, Apple will make good on a year-old promise: MobileMe, its paid cloud sync and storage service, will go dark.

That means files that users have stored on the service -- as well as the sites they have published through Apple's iWeb software -- are going to disappear as well.

MobileMe users ought not to be surprised. The very same day that it named a replacement service, Apple said it would be closing up MobileMe. Since then, the company has steadily nudged people toward migrating their accounts to iCloud, which opened up last October.

MobileMe logo

Apple declined to comment on how many MobileMe users still have yet to make the switch.

A bad start
Looking back, MobileMe can safely be categorized as one of Apple's rare missteps, though one that was absolutely necessary as the company turned its attention to creating iCloud. At its core, MobileMe was Apple's existing Web-based .Mac tools combined with the understanding that computing was no longer just on computers, and was now happening on mobile devices too.

MobileMe's claim to fame was that it would keep a handful of things, like e-mail, calendars, contacts, photos, Safari bookmarks, and Mac Dashboard widgets in sync across all your gadgetry. Whether you had a Mac and an iPhone, a PC and an iPhone, or anything in between, the idea was that just about everything kept in step. Apple pitched it as "Microsoft Exchange for the rest of us."

But MobileMe got off to a terrible start. The switch-over from Apple's .Mac service to MobileMe had a delay, and left users unable to access their data. People also had trouble signing up for the $99 a year service in the first place. Once they were on, the service was plagued with a handful of service outages, some of which would actually boot users (us included) from whatever they were doing on the site.

Apple responded to the initial stumbles by giving early adopters not one, but two free, 30-day extensions, as well as setting up a special status page that would list issues and tell people when they'd be back up and running.

The whole affair left then-CEO Steve Jobs fuming. In an exchange described in a piece by Fortune last year, Jobs reportedly gathered the entire MobileMe product team together to chide them on the service, claiming that the poor launch threatened to "tarnish" Apple's brand. That exchange is why it was little surprise to onlookers when the company decided to kill off the service, and instead completely rebrand it.

Changing of the guard
iCloud, as we know it today, does more than MobileMe, but some of the things that were included in the original service will be shut down this weekend. That includes:

    Web sites made using iWeb.This is the what-you-see-is-what-you-get Web site maker that's a part of Apple's iLife software suite. Users can, of course, still make sites with the tool, and have them hosted elsewhere. In truth, the site hosting was more of a carryover from .Mac, a suite of early Web tools created at a time when personal blogs and Web sites were a niche.

    Hosted photo and video galleries. These galleries were places where users could show off photos and videos they uploaded onto Apple's servers. Apple has effectively replaced this in iCloud through a feature in iPhoto for iOS, as well as the upcoming shared Photo Stream feature in iOS 6, due out in the fall.

    Apple's iDisk, a hard drive in the cloud, goes kaput with MobileMe.
    Apple's iDisk, a hard drive in the cloud, goes kaput with MobileMe. Apple

    iDisk storage. This was Apple's hard drive in the cloud. MobileMe users got 20GB worth of storage with their annual subscription. It could be accessed from a folder on your Mac computer, along with a mobile app where users could view, download, and upload files on the go. While it's not quite a storage locker anymore, iCloud replaced the idea of a virtual hard drive with shared online document storage, and storing files and other settings from each app in the cloud.

    Odds and ends: The syncing of dock items, keychain passwords, Mac OS X Dashboard widgets, and system preferences are not a part of iCloud.

MobileMe lives on
Even though MobileMe will be no more, there's a project to keep parts of it alive for years to come. Beginning in November, a group of volunteers named the Archive Team started capturing publicly available content from MobileMe members and storing it in a repository.

That repository was completed earlier this week, and now holds 272 terabytes worth of public-facing data from 380,000 MobileMe members. It includes photo galleries, files, and hosted Web pages, though more than half of the entire backup is photos and videos from public galleries.

The MobileMe archiving project is more than 272 terabytes of public data from MobileMe members (click to enlarge)
The MobileMe archiving project is more than 272 terabytes of public data from MobileMe members (click to enlarge) Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

"MobileMe is far and away the largest thing we've attempted," Archive Team's Jason Scott told CNET in a phone interview. "We downloaded an average of 735 megabytes a second for six months."

That volume of data was "unreasonable," he added, saying that the group of volunteers was stretched thin. Nonetheless, the group finished the project several days ahead of schedule.

By comparison, Scott says the largest project the team had completed before MobileMe was a backup of Yahoo's short-lived user video service, which weighed in at about 18 terabytes. The group has also done similar efforts with GeoCities, and HP's Tabblo. The Archive Team views these, and other sites like it, as important parts of the Web's history that people will look back on much like art historians look at preserved paintings.

"There was all these sites like AOL Hometown and Tripod that were just being shut down arbitrarily and taking with them thousands and millions of user accounts," Scott said. "There should be a team of archivists that jump in and do something."

Scott views the closure of MobileMe as a bad move on Apple's part, though he noted that the company handled it better than some others by providing a reasonable amount of time for users to grab their digital belongings.

The team's project will eventually end up as part of a database, where it will be able to be sifted through, though Scott said "it's not entirely clear" what the next step is. He noted that the way it has been backed up through is compatible with the site's Way Back Machine -- the tool that lets viewers see snapshots of sites as they were on specific dates.

Where the rest of the service lives on is inside iCloud. MobileMe's replacement may be missing some features, but the ones that didn't make the cut didn't come along for a good reason. Hosted Web sites, photo galleries, and a cloud storage drive are all things that can be had elsewhere, and typically with a far richer feature set. Instead, with iCloud, Apple has focused on more closely tying its devices to one another, instead of just to the Web.