Walt Mossberg

Apple’s MobileMe Is Far Too Flawed To Be Reliable

People who work for large corporations are used to having their email, contacts and calendar appointments synchronized instantly among their various computers and smart phones. But average consumers haven’t had an easy way to do that. They often waste a lot of time manually synchronizing calendars and contacts, or waiting for email to be fetched.

So it was a big deal when Apple (AAPL) announced a new service that, for $100 a year, would bring corporate-type synchronization of email, calendars and contacts to anyone. It was even better that Apple promised that the service, called MobileMe, would work on Windows computers as well as on the company’s own Macintosh computers, iPhones and iPod Touch hand-helds. To top it off, Apple threw in 20 gigabytes of online storage, a suite of Web-based applications, the ability to synchronize browser bookmarks and an online photo gallery.

Unfortunately, after a week of intense testing of the service, I can’t recommend it, at least not in its current state. It’s a great idea, but, as of now, MobileMe has too many flaws to keep its promises.

I am not referring to the launch glitches that plagued MobileMe earlier this month, such as servers that couldn’t keep up with the traffic and email outages that, for some users, persist as I write this. Those were bad, but they have eased considerably. Apple already has apologized for them and is giving customers an extra 30 days on their subscriptions to make up for the poor start. The problems I am citing are systemic.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work. You subscribe to MobileMe and set up a new MobileMe email account, which can also suck in email from your current address. Your MobileMe email is pushed to your Windows computer using your choice of Microsoft (MSFT) Outlook, Outlook Express or the new Windows Mail program. It’s also pushed to your Mac using the built-in Apple Mail program. And it shows up instantly on your iPhone in the phone’s built-in email program.

Similarly, if you add, delete or change a calendar entry or a contact on any of the devices, the change automatically is reflected on all the others. In Windows, the MobileMe calendar shows up in Outlook, and the contacts can be viewed in Outlook, the Windows Address Book or Windows Contacts. On the Mac, the calendar and contacts appear in the built-in iCal and Address Book programs. On the iPhone, MobileMe uses the built-in Contacts and Calendar programs.

Bookmarks can be synchronized using either the Mac or Windows versions of Apple’s Safari Web browser, or Internet Explorer 7 on Windows.

At the MobileMe Web site, using any computer, you can send and receive email via a Web-mail program, and view and edit your calendar and contacts. Changes made on the Web site instantly show up on your computers and your iPhone, and vice versa. Also at the MobileMe Web site, you can maintain a photo gallery and view your online file storage.

But in my tests, using two Macs, two Dell (DELL) computers and two iPhones, I ran into problem after problem. One big issue is that while changes made on the Web site or the iPhone are instantly pushed to the computers, changes made on computers are only synced every 15 minutes, at best. Apple has admitted that this is a problem, and says it is working on it.

But there’s more. The Web site was sluggish, and occasionally calendar entries wouldn’t load at all. Sometimes, you have to manually refresh the Web pages to see changes made on your devices. And when I tried to open my Web-based file-storage page directly from the MobileMe control panel on Windows, I got an error message on both Dells.

My MobileMe calendar, which originated on a Mac, didn’t flow into the main Outlook calendar, but appeared as a separate calendar in Outlook, which was visible only by changing settings. My address-book groups on the Mac, which are simply distribution lists, didn’t show up as distribution lists in Outlook, but as separate address books, and they also weren’t immediately visible. Apple blames Outlook quirks for these issues, but in my view, it should have overcome them.

Other problems abounded. On one occasion, my synced contacts on the iPhone appeared as names only, without any information. In general, synced contacts on the iPhone loaded slowly.

When my Apple Mail program used rules I had set up to automatically file certain emails into local folders instead of leaving them in the inbox, they simply disappeared from my MobileMe account on the iPhone and the Web site. Avoiding this requires a tedious editing of all your rules.

Twice, MobileMe was unable to sync my bookmarks at all, and when it did, their order was scrambled. When I synced contacts to my iPhone, my custom ringtones for particular contacts were lost and had to be reselected.

Apple patiently explained each of my problems, sometimes helping me with workarounds, sometimes claiming they were rare, other times saying that it was working on fixes.

If Apple does get MobileMe working smoothly, it could be a terrific service. But it’s way too ragged now.

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