Why Apple's MobileMe launch stumbled
I have no kind words for . Mac, Apple's online service that had its identity erased and replaced with the MobileMe brand on July 11. The . Mac service...
Special to The Seattle times
I have no kind words for .Mac, Apple's online service that had its identity erased and replaced with the MobileMe brand on July 11. The .Mac service never worked quite right for me, and I was looking forward to its successor.
MobileMe offers a reduced set of services for the same $99 per year but promised Microsoft Exchange-like synchronization for contacts, e-mail and events, as well as snappy and modern Web applications for a far better experience when away from your desktop or iPhone/iPod touch applications.
Instead of a clean launch, I and reportedly hundreds of thousands of .Mac subscribers had days of problems. And even when resolved, the problems left what Apple describes as 1 percent of its e-mail users adrift from e-mail for 10 days.
The company's MobileMe stumble resulted from its increasing busyness and business.
Apple has evolved from a has-been to an also-ran to a niche-but-pervasive force in computers, smartphones and digital movie rentals, and it continues to be a dominant force in digital music purchase and portable music and video playback. This has stretched its resources.
Last year's launch of Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) was delayed from spring to October because the company said it needed to shift engineers to the release of the first iPhone model. When Leopard shipped, it was shoddy.
I experienced regular crashes, something I hadn't seen for years with an Apple operating system. It took four months and the release of the 10.5.2 update for Leopard to settle down and meet the basic bar of stability and performance for most users.
The ballyhooed Back to My Mac service in Leopard for remote screen sharing and file transfer turned out to be much more complicated than the click-a-button description. GoToMyPC and LogMeIn both manage to get remote control right with that amount of simplicity.
Leopard wasn't the only stutter. In February, the company released its Time Capsule backup and Wi-Fi gateway appliance that works directly with Leopard's Time Machine backup system.
The bugs in that first release had to be patched through a massive set of updates three weeks later, indicating the device was released prematurely.
This brings us closer to the present day. Apple scheduled four events for July 11: the release of iPhone 2.0 software for existing iPhone owners; completion of the switchover of .Mac to MobileMe (which began disastrously two days earlier); the release of the iPhone 3G; and the opening of the App Store, a marketplace for iPhone and iPod touch software.
Perhaps that was a little much.
The .Mac Web site was nearly or completely unusable from the night of July 9 until the early morning of July 12, although most independent parts, like iDisk disk sharing, kept functioning.
Existing iPhone owners who upgraded to the 2.0 software and new iPhone 3G purchasers all needed to authorize the new software through Apple servers.
Despite predictions that AT&T would have problems with this, Apple was the one that buckled. Some users found their old or new phones unusable for several hours July 11.
The iPhone 2.0 software, installed on my original iPhone, is slow, crashes my phone regularly, and has made it generally a worse, less-responsive device. Rumors abound of a near-term 2.1 update that should fix those problems.
The App Store, miraculously, worked just fine. But the company lags in releasing updates to programs. Developers continue to improve their software, solving bugs that surfaced only when the iPhone 2.0 software was released; but these updates are stuck in Apple's overwhelmed queue.
This quadruple launch also distracted the company from fixing a critical problem with Mac OS X's domain name system (DNS) software, which affects nearly all operating systems.
All operating system and computer makers were secretly alerted to the problem months ago; all except Apple released patches in a coordinated effort July 8.
Exploits are now available, so users that rely on Mac software for turning domain names into machine-readable Internet addresses are vulnerable.
Meanwhile, once MobileMe got past its shaky start, I found it works quite well.
The new system doesn't wait for a regular interval to "pull" changes; rather, desktop and mobile software pushes changes to MobileMe, which in turn pushes it back out to your other associated devices. (The desktop software can take up to 15 minutes to receive changes.)
In practice, this means I can be walking back from a store near my office, create a calendar entry on my iPhone, save it, and by the time I'm back in front of my computer, the event is sitting there.
Rough edges remain. While the iCal calendar program can publish calendars to a Web site so that you or others can subscribe to updates from another machine, you can't have both "push" syncing and have an iPhone subscribe to a published calendar.
(It gets confusing. To help sort it out, read this blog entry from local firm BusyMac about how iCal, MobileMe, and their BusySync calendar software all work together: http://blog.busymac.com/blog/2008/07/ical-google-cal.html.)
Other folks continue to have more severe problems. Apple said a few days ago in an e-mail to its MobileMe members — e-mail that 1 percent of members couldn't receive, of course — that nearly all trial and paid subscriptions as of mid-July would have 30 days tacked on to their expiration to make up in part for the glitches.
The MobileMe members who didn't have e-mail access were slowly given access back over the last two weeks: first, they could send e-mails and receive e-mails that had been delivered since July 18; on Wednesday, Apple told users it had restored all the archived e-mail from before that date.
But for a company that has been long focused on what its customers need, Apple needs to take a long, hard look at how hard it's pushing its employees — and how little polish seems to be left on the company's image right now.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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