Apple's MobileMe, Designed for Consumers, Could Be Potential Headache for IT Managers

Apple's recent rollout of its integrated Web app and synchronization services, an early effort to join the cloud computing trend, focuses on the consumer too much to be a good business platform. That means MobileMe gives IT managers another application to worry about.

When Apple initially rolled out its MobileMe service for synchronizing e-mail, contacts and calendars among computing devices, its tagline—"Exchange for the rest of us"—suggested that businesses might find some use for the technology.

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The service, however, has little to do with corporate information technology and more to do with redefining Apple's online service as a contender in the cloud computing space. Companies from software maker Microsoft to search giant Google offer productivity applications as services on the Internet—"the cloud" in industry parlance—allowing customers to have access to their data from anywhere.

MobileMe is Apple's first major move in the game. With its .Mac service, the company had collected common Internet activities—such as Web site creation and community groups—into a single offering. Now, the company has a more focused service that competes with other companies' Web applications, but—so far—without the document or spreadsheet components.

"The focus of MobileMe is 'me,' so it's really not targeted at companies," said Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director with business intelligence firm JupiterResearch. "But if you want calendaring and contact synchronization, it certainly does the job."

Yet while the service may not be adopted by businesses as a way to synchronize data or provide access to e-mail and calendars on the road, employees may take to the service and bring it into the workplace. Already, Apple has focused on making its iPhone mobile device enterprise-friendly. It's likely that workers will follow suit with MobileMe.

The Consumer Feel of MobileMe

Here's how MobileMe works. For an annual subscription fee of $99, or $149 for a family of five, consumers get a polished experience allowing a single user to synchronize calendars, contacts and e-mail between Macs, Windows PCs and iPhones. Subscribers can also save files to online storage, known as an iDisk, and synchronize those files among computers. The service also allows photos to be easily uploaded and shared as well as provides rudimentary editing functions. Finally, the collection of applications can also be accessed from any computer through the Web in a way that mimics Apple's desktop versions of the software.

Setting up the service on the Mac or iPhone is simple, requiring that the user update Mac OS X and Apple's iTunes software, which the company continues to develop into a more general data-synchronization hub. Users of Microsoft Windows will find the process a bit more involved, but the end result is nearly as good.

Apple, which did not respond to requests for comment, initially advertised the service as a business-friendly alternative to Microsoft's Exchange messaging platform.

"Think of MobileMe as 'Exchange for the rest of us,'" Apple CEO Steve Jobs said in a statement announcing the service in June. "Now users who are not part of an enterprise that runs Exchange can get the same push e-mail, push calendars and push contacts that the big guys get."

The company has backed away from the "push" concept, which suggests instantaneous transfer, according to The New York Times and other media reports.

The rollout of MobileMe, which happened on July 11 the same day as the release of Apple's next-generation iPhone 3G, initially caused some significant issues. Users could not connect to the service for nearly 48 hours, leaving .Mac customers—which had been transfered to the MobileMe system—without e-mail for two days and without access to their Web and group sites for nearly a week.

While such hiccups could turn off potential business adopters, Apple handled the situation well, said JupiterResearch's Gartenberg. Last week, the company apologized and awarded customers a month of free service.

"I would have been surprised if there were not bumps in the road," Gartenberg said. "In the end, I don't think the bumps matter. It's how you deal with the bumps, and Apple did a respectable job there."

Apple's not out of the woods, yet. Apple users continue to run into problems with MobileMe. Users complained about a host of issues on Monday in Apple's forum for the service, including being unable to access e-mail and problems with data synchronization.

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