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Forget the e-mail woes -- MobileMe simply too pricey for what it does

As if Apple didn't have enough trouble on its hands with the ongoing MobileMe e-mail nightmare, the company faces an even thornier problem with its revamped, renamed online service.

Though better than .Mac, it's not massively better.

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I've been using MobileMe/.Mac since it was a free service known as iTools (according to my account status, that would be Jan. 17, 2000). I have continued to pay the $99 annual membership fee because I liked the mac.com e-mail address, the online iDisk storage and its integration with Mac OS X and Apple apps such as iCal, iPhoto, iWeb and Address Book.

I love how easy it is to push a button in iPhoto and have the images appear in my gallery minutes later. And how easy it is to create a Web site or blog with iWeb and with a push of a button post it to the Internet – no HTML or FTP required.

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And iDisk is great for sending large files back and forth to work (I don't need to remember to put a flash drive in my pocket) or to friends and family.

Given what I do with the service, however, many of MobileMe improvements don't do much for me.

True, the browser-based online versions of iCal, Mail and the Address Book look great, feel as responsive as any desktop app and work almost exactly like their Mac counterparts.

But I have little need for Web-based versions of those programs. It's not that often I want to access my contacts and calendar from a computer I don't own. Generally I'd rather use the versions on the hard drives of my Mac Pro and MacBook.

For some reason I expected more from Apple here. Maybe I'm the exception, but the few browser-based apps MobileMe offers aren't ones that I would use with any regularity.

So the flashiest aspect of MobileMe gives me marginally more functionality than .Mac did, since .Mac kept all my iCal, Address Book data and Safari bookmarks synchronized on all my Macs (and my iPod Classic, for that matter).

How about the "push" technology that is supposed to keep all the data on my Macs synced automatically?

Well, it turns out that MobileMe is better than .Mac was at propagating changes, but Apple's early promises of data instantly updated on all Web-connected devices wasn't quite accurate.

Tech-savvy users quickly figured out that while data saved directly to the MobileMe servers would push out to any Web-connected Macs, PCs or iPhones, changes made to an app on your Mac's hard drive would not transmit to other devices until the Mac synced with MobileMe at its next scheduled interval – which could be up to 15 minutes.

That's not much different than how .Mac synced data.

All this is not to say that MobileMe is a total disappointment. Apple improved several aspects of the service significantly.

One of the more intriguing features of MobileMe is the improved accessibility for those using Windows PCs. Not only will MobileMe sync with a PC running Internet Explorer, Outlook and Windows Contacts, but it also allows PC users to run those Web-based Mac-like apps – yet another carrot to lure the unenlightened away from the Dark Side.

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Since I use the iDisk more than any other feature, I'm pleased with the doubling of storage space to 20 gigabytes. I'm very pleased with its much faster speed (under .Mac just opening the iDisk to see your files could result in enough face time with the spinning beach ball to hypnotize you).

Yet MobileMe's Web-based version of the iDisk still lacks key features when compared to mounting the iDisk on your Desktop the old-fashioned way via the Finder menu command.

When you open your iDisk in the Finder, you can see previews of photos, text files and movies; when you use the Web-based interface, you can't. And you can't drag-and-drop files from the browser window to your Desktop as you can from an iDisk Finder window.

Apple could easily make MobileMe much more compelling, however.

The secret lies in its browser-based apps – MobileMe needs more of them. And Apple has several excellent candidates among the existing iLife and iWork programs.

Imagine enhancing the photos in your Gallery with a browser-based iPhoto, or managing your own music collection in the "cloud" via a browser-based iTunes, or using a browser-based iWeb to maintain your MobileMe-based blog. Imagine a browser-based version of the Pages word processor.

Think about it: most people don't buy iLife, as it is included with every Mac. Including lite versions of a select few of these apps in MobileMe would give more Mac users a reason to buy it while ratcheting up the temptation for Windows users to switch. Meanwhile, Pages lite would serve as an online demo to promote sales of the full iWork suite.

Because despite the new features and enhancements, at $99 per year MobileMe remains more expensive than it's worth to many users. Adding a few more apps, a la Google Apps (which is free, for Pete's sake), would go a long way toward fulfilling the promise of a fee-based Apple-run online service.

And installing servers that don't drop users e-mail service for a week while wiping 10 percent of their messages wouldn't hurt, either.

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