By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, July 24, 2008
If you want to use the same contact list and calendar on every computer you might sit in front of, there's a simple, reliable and cheap way to do so: Carry around a paper organizer.
If, however, you want to access addresses and appointments from each machine you use, things get complicated. The organizer program most people run, Microsoft's expensive, powerful Outlook, mires these records in a proprietary, sharing-hostile format.
Some people instead store their calendars and contacts on a Web service, which works just fine as long as those people have perpetual and universal Internet access.
The smart way around this would be a system that both provided access to the vitals of your daily routine through any Web browser, and synchronized them -- reliably, painlessly -- to your choice of offline programs. Apple's new, $99-a-year MobileMe service looks an awful lot like such a creature, until you try it.
MobileMe replaces an earlier Apple Web service, the underwhelming Mac.com. Where that offering let users sync their contacts, schedules and Web bookmarks among multiple Macs, plus other features, MobileMe jumps the Mac/PC divide to sync data between a Mac's Address Book, iCal and Safari with a few of their Windows counterparts.
MobileMe also provides live, over-the-air synchronization with an iPhone or iPod Touch, plus Web-based applications that look and function like Address Book and iCal (though Apple warns against using this on Microsoft's Internet Explorer 7 and doesn't provide a version for mobile-phone browsers). Lastly, MobileMe includes a me.com e-mail account and file- and photo-sharing, backed by 20 gigabytes of online storage.
That's the potential of MobileMe. Its initial reality was a meltdown, starting July 11, that led Apple to e-mail an apology to MobileMe users the next week, complete with a free, 30-day extension to their subscriptions.
My own experience kicked off with a few rejected synchronization attempts; once Apple's servers accepted my data, me.com began playing hide-and-seek with it. Random contacts would only appear with a name and employer, and calendars would frequently refuse to display at all.
This never affected the underlying data -- changes made on me.com showed up on the Mac and vice versa -- and after a week or so they've mostly vanished. MobileMe also succeeded in sending my data to a second Mac and to three Windows programs: Outlook 2003; the Windows Address Book inside Outlook Express; and its Windows Vista successor, Windows Contacts. Bookmark synchronization seemed to function correctly, too.
A test with Outlook 2007, however, failed. After Windows XP rebooted automatically for an update in the middle of a sync, MobileMe crashed every time I tried to redo the data transfer.
Editing contacts on these extra PCs left MobileMe acting like a checkbook slowly and inexorably unbalancing itself. Some of this chaos, like the way Outlook 2003 scrambled categories from Address Book, can be blamed on features missing from Microsoft's aging programs. Other problems arose from MobileMe malfunctions: Duplicate entries began showing up in my address books, and edits from one computer had to be redone before they'd show up intact on the Web site.
MobileMe's most ambitious feature, the live "push" synchronization of calendar and contacts to iPhones and the iPod Touch, provided a particularly awkward failure. (Apple once touted the same instant MobileMe sync for computers before correcting its ads to note that those updates occur every 15 minutes.) My schedules appeared on an iPhone 3G right away, but not any addresses, leaving the phone with an empty contact list until MobileMe beamed them down a day or two later.
Glitches aside, Apple needs to broaden MobileMe's limited compatibility to give Windows users more choices. It doesn't connect to non-Microsoft contact applications and is stingier with Windows calendar software; it accepts only Outlook, excluding even Vista's free Windows Calendar program. Nor will it sync a Mac's bookmarks to the popular Mozilla Firefox browser.
MobileMe also needs better connections to Web-based contact and calendar solutions. Although it will send your contacts to a Gmail or Yahoo Mail address book, it ignores Google and Yahoo's calendars.
These flaws and fumbles don't render MobileMe hopeless. It seems competent at Mac-to-Web synchronization and (after its buggy setup) legitimately crafty with real-time iPhone updates. If you exploit Apple's free 60-day trial offer, it could also be a relatively painless way to escort your data off Outlook and into a Mac.
But this service remains many bug fixes short of the elegance of most Apple products -- as well as the reliability that would justify paying $99 every year.