MobileMe to iCloud: Lost in Translation

iCloud is Apple’s replacement for MobileMe and will be available sometime this fall. Meanwhile, MobileMe will creak along until June 12, 2012 — when Apple will at last remove MobileMe from life support (Apple has already halted allowing new members to sign up). At that point, iCloud will be the only Apple-supported cloud-based option.

As explained by Steve Jobs in the WWDC Keynote earlier this month, iCloud has nine main features — from revamped versions of MobileMe’s Mail, Calendar and Contacts to Photo Stream to the new iTunes in the Cloud options. What Steve didn’t explain was what would happen to the features, currently in MobileMe, that were not among iCloud’s new nine.

There are a surprising number of features in this potentially “lost in translation” group: web apps for Mail, Contacts and Calendar; web site hosting (with integrated support in iWeb), the Backup utility, Back to My Mac, Gallery (with integrated support in iPhoto), iDisk (with the ability to store and share files, similar to how Dropbox works) and Find my iPhone/Mac. You can also throw in MobileMe’s ability to sync Safari bookmarks and Notes app data.

None of these features were mentioned in the WWDC Keynote. What does this mean about their future?

Based on reports from the developer preview of iCloud, we already have some answers. Find My iPhone/Mac will remain (not a surprise given the value and popularity of this feature). So will syncing of Safari bookmarks and Notes data. As for the rest, we can only speculate at this point.

My speculation is that none of these remaining features will be present in iCloud when it debuts this fall. There has been speculation around the web that Apple simply couldn’t cover everything about iCloud at the Keynote. Nor would Apple want to go into such detail, even if there were time. By this logic, support for (at least some of) these features will be announced when it gets closer to iCloud’s launch. My take is: ”Not so! Not gonna happen.”

Steve Jobs has supposedly already confirmed, via an email to a user, that iCloud will not include web hosting support. I view it as nearly certain that iWeb will be dropped from the next version of iLife.

According to Joshua Topolsky, Apple PR has similarly confirmed that the three web-based apps from MobileMe will not transition to iCloud. Others have taken exception to this view. Jim Dalrymple has gone so far as to state: “Of this, I am sure — Apple will have a Web-based interface for iCloud.” I am much more skeptical (although it’s worth noting that, when Steve mentioned that the three former MobileMe services were being re-written for iCloud, this did not specifically exclude web apps as part of the rewriting). To me, these apps have always been largely redundant. Yes, there are situations where web apps could prove useful — such as if you are in a location where you don’t have your Mac or any iOS device but want to access your iCloud data on some other computer. But I would contend that this only affects a very small percentage of Mac users. For example, given that you can access your calendar data from iCal on a Mac (or Outlook on Windows) as well as from the Calendar apps on iOS devices, I see little mainstream value for Web-based access. Personally, I never used the web apps except to troubleshoot a syncing problem — and that was only rarely. Others I spoke with here at Mac Observer expressed similar sentiments.

Beyond that, you can take it as certain that the Backup utility will be gone. iCloud’s new backup storage will handle iOS device data and related data on your Mac (such as your iTunes Library). For the remainder of the data on your Mac, if you want online storage, you’ll have to turn to third-party options (such as CrashPlan or Backblaze).

As for the remaining trio of missing features (Back to My Mac, Gallery, and iDisk), I believe they have a minimal chance of survival. They won’t be around when iCloud debuts in the fall. However, depending upon the level of complaints from endusers, they may return before MobileMe’s ultimate demise next year.


Why is Apple giving up on these MobileMe features? In my view, there are multiple answers and the importance of a given answer varies depending upon which feature you are considering. Here is my “in a nutshell” assessment of Apple’s logic:

• Keep it simple. Apple does not have a great history with “cloud-based” services, as Steve Jobs himself admitted in the Keynote. The last thing Apple needs at this point is to bite off more than it can chew. Offering too much too soon with iCloud — resulting in a trouble-prone poor-performing service — is a sure recipe for disaster.

Bear in mind that iCloud is free (as opposed to MobileMe’s $99/year). For that reason alone, it is likely to be far more popular than MobileMe. Even with Apple’s dramatic new super-large server facility in North Carolina, Apple doesn’t want to risk a barrage of users gumming up the works by pounding on bandwidth-intensive features. Keep it simple instead — and make sure that what you do offer really works well.

• Too little users, too little money. At least from Apple’s perspective, several of the lost MobileMe features are not worth supporting. Never mind that only a small fraction of Mac users ever signed up for MobileMe. What’s perhaps worse is that only a small fraction of MobileMe subscribers apparently ever used these lesser features.

I am guessing this is true of Backup, Back to My Mac, and web hosting. Why devote time, money and resources to support features that Apple customers have already shown they have little interest in using? Better to dump them. Sure, some users will be unhappy. But Apple has long shown a willingness to weather such minor storms.

In the case of Gallery, I suspect it was a closer call. Apple probably would have liked Gallery to become a strong competitor to Flickr and other photo services. But it didn’t. And it isn’t likely to happen now — even with iCloud being free. Apple already has Flickr and Facebook support built-in to iPhoto. It appears that Apple is ready to cede this feature to these third-parties.

The fate of iDisk is similar to Gallery. It was a great idea. Unfortunately, Dropbox and its competitors offer similar options that are cheaper than and superior to iDisk. Again, Apple appears to have decided not to compete here. It may be that, if Apple eventually sees a Dropbox-like capability as critical, they will purchase Dropbox or implement a new competing feature on its own. In either case, I doubt that we will be seeing this within the next year.

• Control. This is the final nail in the coffin that explains MobileMe’s missing features. If you look closely at iCloud, you will see that it provides much less user-control over what gets backed up than did MobileMe. Users have virtually no access to the iCloud data itself. This is how Apple likes it.

With MobileMe’s Backup utility, you could decide what files you want to backup or omit. You could choose almost any file on your Mac. This is gone from iCloud. In the same way, Apple is abandoning the control you had with iDisk. You could place almost any files you desired onto your iDisk. You could even use iDisk’s Public folder to leave files for someone else to access. This is gone from iCloud.

As Dan Moren pointed out in an excellent Macworld article, iCloud is also part of Apple’s larger strategy to transition OS X from a traditional “file-based” system to one where you instead have access to your “stuff” (photos, music, Pages documents, whatever). From this perspective, the concept of files becomes almost irrelevant. In such a world, a file-based storage like iDisk doesn’t really fit.

All of this allows Apple to maintain tight control (Apple might say “security”) over what you can and cannot do with iCloud. You don’t get to decide what gets copied or synced to iCloud. Apple sets the rules. If you don’t like it, well there’s Android phones and Google and Amazon. This obsession with control is in Apple’s DNA. You see it in Apple’s restrictions regarding App Store submissions as well as its attempts to block any unsupported method for installing apps on an iOS device. You similarly see it in Apple’s recent hardware, which keeps getting harder and harder to open up in any way — such as to make end-user repairs or upgrades. And so it goes. The same philosophy is at work in iCloud.

Bottom line

Whatever iCloud ultimately includes or excludes, one thing is already clear: there is a great deal to admire about iCloud. While some on the web have derided iCloud as “nothing new,” I would beg to differ. For one thing, the seamless way in which iCloud works is different and better than any comparable option I have seen. Using the beta version of iTunes in the Cloud, I purchase an app from iTunes on my Mac and the app appears on my iPhone and iPad nearly simultaneously — without me having to lift a finger. As Apple reps stated at the Keynote: “It just works.” Yes. Yes it does. Beautifully!

If all of iCloud ultimately works as smoothly as iTunes in the Cloud, Apple has finally got it right this time. At some point, Apple may be confident enough in iCloud’s success to fold back in some of the missing MobileMe features. But don’t count on it. For the most part, if you are a MobileMe subscriber that depends any of these “lost in translation” features, you have until June 2012 to figure out an alternative. I’d start working on it now.