by Jean-Louis Gassée

Friday morning, I stop at Il Fornaio to get my last caffeine fix of the morning. Once arrived at the office across the street, I realize I “lost” my iPad. Not to worry, I’ve done this before. Find My iPhone will tell me where it is. It worked a couple of months ago when I left an earlier 3G iPad at a California Street burger joint. When I came back, 10 mins later, the iPad was gone. I fired up the iPhone app and saw the lost puppy still was in neighborhood. I got in my car as I saw the iPad move South on El Camino Real, ending up around a Hobee’s restaurant. Going there and asking around got me nothing. I remotely locked the iPad, displayed a message asking to call me. No joy. I then wiped it, that is erased its contents from my iPhone. Only a consolation, but an important one.
Still, thanks to the presence of mind of an IT consultant who was asked to unlock an iPad “found in a bus”, I was reunited with my tablet a few weeks later.
Interestingly, Apple recently made Find My iPhone a free service. Before, you had to be a $99/year MobileMe subscriber. This is another confirmation of Apple’s business model focus, anything and everything in the service of the real margins engine: hardware.
Still on the positive side, Back to My Mac, another MobileMe service, was recently and discreetly improved: it now works through (most of) aggressively firewalled corporate networks. This makes Screen Sharing (an Apple VNC implementation) even more useful.

So, MobileMe works, right?

Let’s see, I must have forgotten this iPad on the counter as I picked up my latte. It’ll be just a minute, I’ll log on MobileMe and confirm its location. No such luck, the system doesn’t know me anymore. Breathe three times, slow down, this is just a typo. Nope.
Same on my iPhone. Foraging around, I notice the App Store update tells me something like my password is locked because of a security problem.
Sigh. I go back to my computer and click on the Lost Password link. I land on a page offering to email a link to a password update page to my alternate email address. Done. I answer questions, set up a new password, log out and back in to my Apple ID account. No problem, I’m recognized again.
But back to MobileMe, no joy. I’m still locked out.
Another path to the Apple ID password restoration page, answering more questions. Success. New password. Out and back in. Success.
But no, I’m still locked out of MobileMe and can’t locate my iPad.
I still get MobileMe mail. But not for long. When I try and change the password to the latest one, I’m out. And reverting to the old one doesn’t work either.

One could see this as a banal security incident. Perhaps someone tried to log into my account and tripped the alarm system. I ended up on the phone and on email with a competent and pleasant support person and, around dinner time, I was back in business with a fresh temp password, changed to a new one of mine and a new secret question this morning. What’s to complain about?

Unfortunately, many things.

Let’s start with iDisk. A great idea if you want to share and synchronize files between machines. In practice, things can turn mystifying as some but not all files stubbornly refuse to synch between computers. I went to Apple’s support pages on the matter for guidance and to related discussion forums for empathy and reassurance about my mental state. Those dives weren’t entirely comforting. I tried progressively aggressive remedies and ended up having to nuke the entire set up — after careful backups — and rebuild the connections. Today, things work nicely, but I no longer try to sync “the most recent version” of a file, the burns still hurt. I just store and retrieve as I move from one machine to another as I write pieces like this one.
Unnamed Apple friends roll their eyes and tell me to go Dropbox myself. Not the Drop Box in my Public folder but the very successful backup and syncing service. The company is well-financed, supported by noted philanthropists such as Accel and Sequoia.
Still on Cloud services, we have iWork.com, not to be confused with the iWork suite for Macs and iPads. Not even a hobby. Contrary to the likes of Google Docs, Office Live and other Zohos, iWork.com won’t let you edit documents online.

MobileMe other offerings involve photo galleries. They work nicely but expensively. For $200/year one gets MobileMe and 60Gb of storage. For $100/year, Google will get you 400Gb and the free Picasa/PicasaWeb combo, which also works nicely. Actually nicer as it accepts bigger uploads than MobileMe.
For Web sites, MobileMe can be combined with the free iWeb desktop application, they work really well. But iWeb was left behind in the latest iLife iteration, no update. And, contrary to Google, MobileMe won’t host your domain name.

iTunes is a terrific product. Without iTunes there would be no iPhone, no App Store, no Ratatouille on my iPhone. And yet, it gives us a glimpse of how disjointed Apple’s Cloud services are. From time to time, for no stated reason, I’m asked to reenter the security code on my credit card. A security precaution or a bug? Amazon asks once and my credentials are valid in the US as well as on Amazon.fr, for example.
Not with MobileMe. This morning, after a full update of my Apple ID account, including the credit card security code, I’m asked again for it on iTunes when I re-synced my Apple TV which started by declaring my Mac wasn’t authorized. This got me a “This Mac is already authorized” message when I asked iTunes for the connection. Same trouble on my iPad when I updated an application. The new and improved password was accepted, but I had to state credit card security number again, for a free update, mind you.

Continuing to iCal. In the Mac, there is a Preference panel for MobileMe. You state your Apple ID, a mac.com or me.com adress and your password. (It used to be you didn’t need the suffix, just the first part, luser rather than luser@me.com, but that was too simple, let’s leave it to Google to accept spj for spj@gmail.com.) OK, you might think you’re done, you’re authorized. But no, if you have a MobileMe account in iCal, it doesn’t work. Hello iCal account, it’s me@me.com again and my password is moimême.

In the process of working with the Apple support person, I got another peek at how disjointed things appear to be in MobileMe. This individual explained that the new password validation process didn’t do anything. Yes my Apple ID account appear to work with the new password but, for unexplained reasons, the update didn’t propagate. I got a couple of emails to verify my information and was (no longer) surprised to see that the screen snapshot the support tech emailed me had obsolete information. I also fell into a Secret Question trap: Yes, you can design the question and the answer. But better make sure you remember everything down to the last detail. In particular, the answer recognition is case-sensitive: “boarding school” will get you locked out if the correct answer is “Boarding school”. Making progress in the obstacle course, I now have a simpler one word answer with an unforgettable capitalization.

MobileMe was launched in 2008, with a little bit of grandiosity: the new service was offered as Exchange For The Rest Of Us. That proclamation was quickly withdrawn. In August 2008, I wrote a less than laudatory Monday Note piece on the new service’s difficult beginnings. Sacrebleu! I shouldn’t have done that, such an infraction got me a robust personal attack from a Guardian of the Apple Faith who frequently posts on one of the dedicated Apple blogs. The individual, who otherwise produces very good, thoroughly researched pieces, applied his skills to a long litany of my misdeeds. That was good for my soul but didn’t do anything for the disquisition. So it goes: slam the man if you can’t take the argument apart.
In this vein, as an experiment, David Pogue, the NY Times tech expert, once wrote a two-part review of an Apple product, one laudatory, the other critical. You can guess what happened: rabid Apple fans latched on the negative half and labeled him anti-Apple; others, who object to Apple’s products or ways, focused on the positive half and accused him of having sold his soul to Apple. (See David’s piece here. A little tip of the hat to the NYT geeks, and to their bosses who didn’t get in the way: when you hit the Shift key twice on a NYT page, you see paragraph signs, like this ¶. A right click will get you the URL to that paragraph, as the relevant one on Pogue’s piece. Neat. Well… It doesn’t always work.)
Back to the MobileMe early days, Steve Jobs apologized to MobileMe users a bit later and extended their subscriptions.

Two and half years later, things are better, but MobileMe still looks disjointed, half-hearted, not very competitive. And certainly devoid of the flair and finish of most other Apple offerings.
When Steve returned to Apple, the difference between Mac 1.0 and Mac 2.0 was the team of computer scientists Jobs brought with him from Carnegie Mellon, Xerox Parc and Inria. They successfully remade the Mac OS into a modern operating system. Today, much engineering effort seems to go into securing the lead Apple got with iOS. Think hardware margins.
It would be a shame for Apple to leave its Cloud flank unguarded by not enforcing the high standards of OS X and iOS in its Cloud services.
Steve secured Apple’s independence from carriers for iTunes, the App Store and installed apps on its devices. A similar independence or preeminence in Cloud services is equally strategic.
Put another way, it’s a great opportunity.

We’ll review Google’s array, or disarray, of such products in a future Monday Note once the dust from this past week’s three announcements (books, Chrom Web Apps and Chrome OS) settles.

JLG@mondaynote.com

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