Building Bridges

MobileMe: The Unappreciated Super Cloud That Changed the World

- 2012.07.03 - Tip Jar

Over the years Apple has received a lot of flack over MobileMe and its performance, mainly because a lot of people simply didn't understand the way it worked.

Few people today know how it got started, and even fewer realize that it actually shaped the world that we take for granted today (in much the same way Apple's Lisa computer did). Today I will share the story of the unappreciated super cloud that changed the world.

iTools, 2000-2002

Twelve-and-a-half years ago, Apple launched a service that would eventually start the "cloud" revolution. That service was called iTools, and it was revolutionary.

MobileMe began life as Apple's free iTools service in 2000.

iTools offered a host of features exclusive to Mac users running the then-current Mac OS 9. iTools would eventually be called .Mac, then MobileMe, and finally iCloud.

iTools was a truly revolutionary service. It was the first service freely available to consumers that gave them their own cloud (called iDisk) to store their documents, photos, videos, websites, and other information. Its other features were a free email account (anything you wanted, KidSafe (Internet filtering for kids that focused on what kids can look at, as opposed to what they can't look at), HomePage (a web hosting service), and, one of my favorites, iCards (e-cards that you could send your friends of Apple products).

While a number of these services were available from other providers for free, Apple was the only one that gave you an integrated experience, and the iDisk was an amazing step forward.

  • iTools for Mac required Mac OS 9 through OS X 10.x. There was also a version for Windows XP.

.Mac, 2002-2008

Ten years ago this month, Apple discontinued iTools and replaced it with a subscription-based service called .Mac (pronounced dot-Mac).

.Mac was designed to give customers an even better, more integrated experience than iTools by adding in features such as more iDisk capacity (100 MB as opposed to 20 MB), McAfee virus protection software (this was before Apple was advertising the Mac as a virus-free platform), automatic backup function to iDisk, and Address Book/iCal publishing functionality.

dot Mac
.Mac added several new features to iTools at $99 per year.

But all of this additional functionality came at a price. The free iTools service was dropped, and .Mac replaced it for $99 per year. Apple gave existing users the option to subscribe to .Mac for 50% off for the first year, then the normal subscription fee after that. This left a sour taste in the mouths on many people who had come to believe that Steve Jobs had implied that the email address that they had setup using iTools would be "free for life".

.Mac had a very rocky existence. Many people believed that it made more sense to simply shop around and "stitch together" the various services that .Mac offered from other providers that gave them away for free. While this approach worked for some people, others found that the way .Mac integrated everything made everything easier - and for the most part it did.

iSyncIn January 2003, .Mac started including some pretty advanced new features, including the ability to keep your Address Book, iCal calendars, and Safari bookmarks synced across multiple Macs using a new application called iSync. This was a pretty big breakthrough, because now you could access your information from any Mac, and if you made any changes they would be reflected on your other Macs as soon as you synced them with iSync. .Mac also started offering new perks just for members, such as free and discounted software and free online training courses. Later that year the included storage jumped from 100 MB to 250 MB.

When Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger launched in 2005, .Mac started including even more features. Among the new features were support for syncing Mail accounts and signatures, Calendars, Contacts, Keychains, and Bookmarks automatically without using the iSync app. This was exciting, because you would no longer have to manually sync your Macs to .Mac, furthering the integration and ease of use.

Later in 2005 Apple also increased the storage from 250 MB to 1 GB.

.Mac received a pretty major make over in 2006. It had even more integrated services that made things easier. If you used iWeb to create your website, you could use .Mac to host it by simply clicking Publish in iWeb. You could also share your photos from iPhoto with a single click that would send your photos in their full quality to the .Mac Gallery.

Updates in 2007 were also significant. When Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard was launched in October of 2007, .Mac received some new features, including the ability to automatically sync Dock items and user settings (including your Desktop Picture!) across multiple machines.

Back to my Mac (BTTM) also made its debut with Leopard. BTTM was a pretty revolutionary idea that would let you connect to your home/work Mac from a second Mac remotely, access all of its files, and even remotely control it with a built-in VNC utility. This feature is still one of my favorites to show off and is still available with iCloud.

  • .Mac for Mac requires Mac OS X 10.2 through 10.5.x.

MobileMe, 2008-2012

At the WWDC in June 2008, when the iPhone 3G was introduced, Apple announced that .Mac was being replaced by an entirely new service called MobileMe.

Apple had decided that in order for .Mac to be successful, it needed to be completely rebuilt from the ground up. MobileMe was designed to work with the new iPhone OS (version 2.0) - and Windows computers in addition to Macs. It didn't made sense to keep calling the service .Mac when it was no longer limited to Macs.

MobileMe was Apple's first multiplatform cloud service.

MobileMe was basically the same as .Mac, except it received a whole new web interface that allowed you to add information to your calendars and contacts, and share files with your friends by sending them a special link to your iDisk. It also increased the included storage from 10 GB to a whopping 20 GB. However, it did drop a number of features that .Mac had on the website, including the ability to see your Safari bookmarks from any computer, and iCards were no longer there.

In the first few days following the launch of MobileMe, it was was plagued with system outages, sync data corruption, data loss, and other issues. The data loss was primarily caused by the fact that many people would log their empty iPhones into MobileMe, not realizing that everything on their Cloud was being replaced by their empty iPhone. It was clear that Apple did not anticipate that people might accidentally replace the info that was already in their cloud with the data on an empty iPhone, and they also didn't expect the high level of demand that would be placed on their servers when MobileMe launched. It was a recipe for disaster.

MobileMe quickly earned a reputation for being unreliable, but it didn't take long for Apple to take action. Apple quickly realized that it needed to have phones merge information into the cloud instead of replacing it. This has a tendency to duplicate information if it is on both the iPhone and on the Cloud at the same time (which is still true today), but that is a lot better than loosing all of that data.

When iPhone OS 3.0 was released in the summer of 2009, it included a surprise feature for MobileMe users, one that made people flock to MobileMe (at lease for awhile). It was called Find My iPhone, and it allowed you to track your iPhone in the event it was lost or stolen. This was way ahead of its time, and it didn't take long for other phone manufacturers to start incorporating this type of feature into their smart phones.

MobileMe remained largely unchanged after that, until it was announced that it would be replaced by another new service called iCloud. MobileMe was discontinued on June 30, 2012.

  • MobileMe required Mac OS X 10.4.11 through 10.7.1.

iCloud, Free at Last!

iCloudIn June 2011, Steve Jobs made his final keynote presentation. At that presentation he introduced iCloud to the world. iCloud is a service that takes the essential features of MobileMe (syncing Mail, Contacts, Calendars, Bookmarks, Photos, and Notes) and streamlines everything so that it is very easy to use (in most cases you won't even know you're using it). It will also sync documents, app purchases, music purchases, and iBook purchases across multiple iDevices, and it still gives you the Back to my Mac function if you want to use it. iCloud includes 5 GB of free storage, which can be upgraded, and it no longer features iDisk (which I feel is a huge bummer) or Photo Gallery. It also will no longer host your website.

The best part about iCloud is that it is free, so you could say that Apple has come full circle and decided that its cloud service probably should have been free all along.

When iCloud was announced, folks who already had MobileMe had their subscription extended until June 30, 2012 and were given 25 GB of free storage until September of 2012.

  • iCloud for Mac requires Mac OS X 10.7.2 or newer. On iDevices, it requires iOS 5. On PCs, it supports both Windows Vista SP2 and Windows 7.

It really is the end of an era. I'm really going to miss my iDisk. I suppose I need to sign up for a free Dropbox account so that I still have access to files on the go.

iCloud has come a long way since it was first introduced as iTools in January 2000, and I hope that you now see why it was the unappreciated super cloud that changed the world. LEM

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Chris Carson is a longtime Mac user and a more recent convert to iPhone and iPad.

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