A year ago, during his interview with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates at All Things Digital, Walt Mossberg noted that Apple had let .Mac stagnate. Jobs acknowledged it, and promised that Apple would be “making up for lost time” in the near future.
Although Apple updated .Mac in August 2007 with excellent photo and video slideshow support and 10GB of storage, at the time I did not think this is what Jobs was alluding to, and it now seems clear that we will be seeing a more significant update to .Mac, including a possible name change.
As long as I have owned Macs (since 2005), I have been tempted to subscribe to .Mac. Before I owned an iPhone, I loved the idea of being able to publish my calendar online, and I loved the idea of having email@example.com as my email address.1 Moreover, .Mac’s easy photo upload and slideshow is tempting, and having 10GB of online storage, that mounts like a hard drive in the Finder, would be great. I would love to have these things, but I have not subscribed to it because of its cost — $70 is reasonable, but was always too high for me to say screw it and order it.
Since owning an iPhone, though, .Mac has went from being a great service to potentially an indispensable one.
.Mac already synchs calendar, contacts, bookmarks, and notes between Macs. Now think of a .Mac fully-integrated with the iPhone. The end-user’s calendar, contacts, and bookmarks will always be in synch between their iPhone and Mac; their email will be pushed to their phone; and the iPhone suddenly has 10 GB of storage it did not have before.
Suddenly, its price — about $6 a month if you buy it on Amazon — is a steal.
Currently, to synch calendar, contacts and bookmarks to the iPhone, it must be physically connected by USB, just like a regular iPod. While synching over USB makes sense for media, which requires a fast connection, this logic does not apply to personal data. Unless you are using a Mac desktop, where you can leave your iPod hooked up in perpetuity, odds are that you only synch your iPod when you have a new album or video to put on it. I handle my iPhone the same way — I charge it from an outlet, and only hook it up to my computer when I would like to synch new music or a new video.
Which sucks, because I update my calendar and contacts regularly, both on my phone and computer. The two end up getting weeks out of synch with each other. My iPhone usually has the most up to date contacts, because I add and edit contacts while on the go, while my Macbook Air usually has the most accurate calendar information.
My contact and calendar information is devalued as a result. Calendar information on the iPhone is especially important, because when up to date, its list view acts as an excellent itinerary. But that is really no use when I cannot trust it to be up to date. It is just as important on the computer, too; I may edit, say, a meeting’s date and time on my phone, and if I check it later on my computer, if I do not remember to synch my iPhone and MBA, I may miss the meeting altogether.
You could say that the problem here is not the iPhone’s method of synching, but rather my laziness. Which is true — to an extent. Remembering to constantly synch my MBA — a mobile computer that I use all over the place, not strictly at a desk — is a pain in the ass, and I am not going to do it, period. But this points to a fundamental problem with wired synching: whereas media changes infrequently and is relatively unimportant,2 personal data changes all of the time, is critically important, and thus requires a different solution. Over-the-air synching solves this.
It is easy to dismiss OTA synching of calendar, contacts and bookmarks as a non-sexy or needed feature, but I see it as a defining feature of a new .Mac service with iPhone integration. It keeps your shit together without any effort on your part.
Because that is what the new .Mac should be: it should exist as the middle-man, the “cloud,” between your personal Mac and your iPhone. Instead of acting like two devices, which the iPhone and Mac still do, .Mac should exist to make them function like one device.
The iPhone has a significant advantage over the Mac: it has ubiquitous web access, and soon, relatively fast access. No Mac has ubiquitous access, so they depend on local storage.3 The iPhone, though, does not need to depend on local storage. 3G and WiFi means that the iPhone can access files from almost anywhere — and that makes things interesting.
.Mac’s iDisk mounts in the Finder and acts like any hard drive, and it could do the same on the iPhone. One of the strongest criticisms of the current iPhone is there is no way to store files on it other than through email, which is hack. Integration with .Mac would solve this, and make it even more powerful: rather than have the iPhone mount on your desktop as a hard drive, you would just stick files into your iDisk — and it would be in synch across all of your Macs and iPhones.
I can imagine Apple enabling iDisk on the iPhone so you are never “disconnected” from it — it connects more or less invisibly to your iPhone. No FTP login, password, and directory data to input, no UI even necessarily needed to login and connect — it does it itself.
Placing a file on your iPhone would not require the annoying steps of mounting it on your desktop, dropping it into your phone, and dismounting it. Instead, you would just drop the file in your iDisk, and suddenly that file is available to all of your devices, seamlessly. Forgot to print out a homework assignment or paper? No big deal; just access your iDisk on your iPhone and email it.
Effectively, your iPhone and your Mac would be tied together at all times by shared storage, whether they are physically connected or not.
This has another benefit, too: by using iDisk-access for document and other file storage, your iPhone’s flash memory, which is relatively small, can be dedicated to storing your music, video and photos, which are more dependent on local-access. You could even save more space by placing all of your photos in .Mac and accessing them from your iPhone.
Even cooler, though, is if Apple wrote into the iPhone SDK a way for third-party apps to plug in to the iDisk. Instead of using the iPhone’s flash memory for storage, apps could just save on the iDisk. A word-processing application, for example, would save its documents onto the iDisk automatically, without configuration. The last part is the most important — the application just does it, and thus without any effort on the end-user’s part, they would have instant access to the document once they are home and want to finish it on their computer. No setting obscure settings and logins. It just works.
For students, freelancers and other professionals, this is great. Forget emailing documents and presentations to yourself and others — they will just put it on their iDisk, and have simple, ubiquitous access to their files wherever they are, and whatever device they are on.
With push email, OTA syncing of contacts, calendar and bookmarks, and constant access to iDisk, .Mac would fully integrate the Mac and iPhone. The barriers between the two would almost cease to exist — everything between the two would be in synch at all times.
We will see what Apple announces at WWDC. With the rumored name-change for .Mac looking all but confirmed, I am expecting some rather significant changes to .Mac. I hope these are some of the new features we see.