.Mac Defection

The premise

I have become increasingly disaffected by Apple’s .Mac service, so much so that when I recently got an email congratulating me for subscribing for another year I immediately went to the website and cancelled.

The background

But before we start going into all the details, what is .Mac? Basically it’s Apple’s on-line services that are geared for Mac users but are also usable by those stuck in the Microsoft world. When I first got my iBook back in 2001 it was called iTools. It had a more limited set of features back then, but that included a something@mac.com email address.

That changed in 2002 when they renamed it .Mac and suddenly started charging for it. They added a few extra features as a sweetener but at the time I just let my free membership lapse as it just wasn’t worth paying for.

Over time they added new functionality. There’s the iDisk, an on-line disk, synchronised over the internet to all your computers. You can synchronise your mail, address book, calendar and Safari bookmarks. There’s easy web hosting which has grown more sophisticated over time and now includes a “Groups” feature which is blog-ish.

Issues at stake

For me .Mac only became worth paying for when I added a new Mac to the home mix. As a desktop machine, the iMac had a bright big display but my iBook would still get some use as my only portable machine. The idea of having my documents, address book and Safari bookmarks seamlessly synchronised between the two machines was worth paying for. The web hosting had some value — it’s nice being able to quickly publish a few pictrues for friends for example — but I certainly wouldn’t pay for that with so many free alternative.

And for a while it was great.

But then bad things started to happen.

The first worth mentioning is reliability. I work in IT so I have reasonable expectations, I understand that nothing has 100% reliability. However it seems that .Mac is always having technical problems. Some affect all users, some affect all services, most just touch certain parts of the system. In short, for a paid service that it supposed to add convenience I find that it’s something that I can’t rely on.

Closely connected to relability is the how well the service functions when it’s up and running. That, it turns out, is surprisingly badly. Often Apple products have glitches on their first release, but .Mac has been around for years. However the syncing, the main feature that I subscribed for, has not worked correctly for at least a year. Apple always suggest removing all the sync info from one machine and refreshing fully from the network.

This is not a good idea for two reasons. Firstly it’s not much of a “synchronisation” if you have to delete everything on one computer. Secondly, even after doing that information fails to sync correctly. I have a few theories where their software may be going wrong but I won’t get into them here. The point is that it plain doesn’t work and it shouldn’t take someone with a Computer Science degree to theorise why it might be broken. Apple’s sell based on their “Just Works” reputation, something that clearly does not apply in this case.

The one part of the syncing that generally does work is the iDisk. However it seems to cause both my machines to beach-ball far more frequently than my wifes G4. My G3 iBook I could forgive, but my G5 is substantially faster than her machine. I don’t see why I should wait longer than her just to save a file!


Now comes the clincher.

Can we replace .Mac email? Yes, that’s easy. Everything from my ISP, to GMail to specific email hosts.

How about .Mac web hosting? That’s a piece of cake. If anything there are many more hosting options.

The iDisk, on the other hand, has been more problematic. There are alternatives but they mostly seem to fall short in some measure. The .Mac service is a simple WebDAV server, most of the others seem more complex. I think what I’m going to end up doing is either emailing myself documents or occasionally using rsync.

Similarly, .Mac syncing appears more difficult to replace than I ever imagined. The obvious alternative is something like del.ic.icio.us, but I like my bookmarks in my browser and not on a web-page. There are tools to upload and download the links to Safari but there currently does not appear to be one that syncs both ways. (I think there are Firefox plugins that do this. It’s a shame that I prefer Safari!)

Overall I think it’s odd that there are no direct competitors to .Mac. Most of the pieces are out there but I have, so far, been unable to find one solution that bundles all, or even most, of the components.


All this is to say that moving away will result in some frustration, and where there’s frustration there is, I’m sure, money to be made. I think Apple are shooting themselves in the foot by neglecting .Mac. Software such as most of the iLife suite pushes people to the convenience of .Mac but once you join up the reality lets you down.

Let’s assume that .Mac worked as advertised. Would I subscribe? Yes. They’ve had two years subscription fees from me; I’ve put my money where my mouth is. I do think it’s over-priced as many of the components are available for free elsewhere. But for the convenience and its seamless interface in OS X and iLife (iPhoto in particular) I’m prepared to bite the bullet. However, for a service that does not work correctly, nearly ?70 a year is far too much.