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Aspiring polymath since 1982

MobileMe = Apple+GMail

When I bought my first laptop, a 12″ Powerbook G4 (still chugging along nicely), I was asked by the salesman if I wanted a .Mac subscription also. Hmmm, while the vanity of having a @mac.com address was attractive, paying $99 annually for it was not. Irrespective of the free storage, webpage creation facilities and all. GMail had also come out around that time so it made doubly no sense to pay for that which was available for free. Reading about the introduction of Apple’s new replacement for .Mac called MobileMe, it seems that Apple still fails to address the needs of the Apple fans and users with this service. MobileMe (and .Mac) can be called the biggest duds in the Apple ecosystem which is sad, because they present a great outreach opportunity for Apple.

A person buying an Apple laptop or desktop is not buying it out of a simple feature and price comparison with other PC manufacturers out there but is making a lifestyle choice out of his purchase. Is there a premium? Well, there are a lot of comparisons out there with regards to cost of Macs versus Windows, ranging from significantly more expensive to comparable and so on. For me, it boils down to whether I want to pay a premium for an icon of industrial design, an operating system which works perfectly well out of the box, and the convenience and security of a platform not subject to outages caused due to junkware, malware, viruses and the other nasties that profligate on the Windows platform. For me, this is worth the premium.

I’m sure that other non-professional Mac users also have the same logic. (I exclude professional users who might be using the Mac to access programs not available or not as efficient on the Windows platform such as Final Cut Pro, Shake and other professional applications.) So what you have is a large number (and growing as per reports) of users buying not only into the “Cult of Mac” but also into the completely different way of working that the Apple OS and applications encourage. It’s a pleasure to be a Mac user and we show this by buying deeper into the Apple ecosystem. We upgrade from OS to OS, we start ditching Microsoft Office for all but official work and transition to iWork, we start building our digital memories and diversions around ILife and our hardware purchases also revolve around the inter-operability with the Mac. How many Mac owners have a Zune?

The PC blogger might call this the “fanboy” syndrome or disparage Apple users as being befuddled by Steve Jobs’ “Reality Distortion Field“. If so, there must be a really small number of Apple fanboys because nearly everyone I know who has a Mac, has it because it just works better for them than the PCs that they have used so far have. Therefore, its very clear that most Mac users are buying into Apple not just because its the cool thing, but because it increases their productivity and fits well into their computing lifestyle. There is a big gap in the Apple ecosystem though, and that is in online services.

Increasingly, paid online services are transitioning to free (for the consumer) ad-supported services. This holds true for the entire spectrum of services from commodity services such as mail, calendaring, social networking etc. to “premium” services such as online magazines like Salon, The Atlantic and others. By transitioning to a free ad-supported model, what most of these services have been able to do is reduce the bar for consumption to zero. As a consumer, I can now try 10-15 different email services, 10-15 different social networking services and then decide which best suits my needs and my persona (relevant, in social networking sites). Once that decision is made, the company knows that as long as my needs are met, I will be a regular consumer of their services, providing them with a steady click-through rate and pageviews (important for advertisers).

In this scenario, a paid product like MobileMe loses its relevance because all its functionality is duplicated or done better in free services. For example (focusing primarily on the Google and Yahoo empires),

I’m not going into an apples-to-apples (pun intended) comparison of features here, but excluding the integration with Mac software such as Address Book, iLife and Mail, I do not think that there is any significant difference. What about Push Mail you say? Both GMail and Yahoo Mail have IMAP functionality. You pipe up with, “Don’t you have to pay hosting charges for Google Sites & Yahoo Site Builder?” Nope, only for Yahoo Site Builder. Plus, if you have your own domain name, you can get the entire suite of Google services available at your custom domain for free, thanks to Google Apps. The only area where free online services do not match up to MobileMe is for backup, and its a moot point of how many people actually use online backup for essential data. I think it should just be dropped.

Since its clear that most of the MobileMe functionality is duplicated in free services and therefore not attractive to the average Apple consumer, its also clear what needs to be done. Apple needs to collaborate with these services, not create alternatives for them. A lot of the functionality of MobileMe is based on its Ajax-based interface for services and seamless integration with the Mac OS and with Mac programs such as iTunes and iLife. What Apple can and should do is separate these unique features from the commodity business of running data centers that is the forte of companies like Google. I doubt if there are any companies out there who know how to run data centers and online services better than Google and Yahoo.

Once Apple passes on the crud work of dealing with data centers to Google or Yahoo, it frees up a lot of its own internal resources (financial and technical) to focus on its unique strengths which are interface and integration. Converting MobileMe into a layer above the online service provider or data center provider, allows Apple to maintain its user interface, its branding, reduce cost of service provision and distinguish its offering from the base service provider. Does the person using Yahoo Mail care where his mail is stored? Not likely. What about a business model? How about a two-tier pricing model:

  • MobileMe Personal: $10 per annum gets you a @mac.com or @me.com (as per your preference) email address, all the MobileMe services up to a 10GB limit (combined), all the snazzy integration with the Mac that you crave and near 100% uptime and access to your Mac whenever and wherever you travel
  • MobileMe Family: $50 per annum gets you a @mac.com or @me.com (as per your preference) email address for your entire family, all the MobileMe services up to a 50GB limit (combined), all the snazzy integration with the Mac that you crave and near 100% uptime and access to your Mac whenever and wherever you travel

Is it necessary that Apple makes significant profits out of this? I would think that the MobileMe service should be seen as a lure, adding the functionality of basic online services and integration to ensure that Apple users do not have to go out of the ecosystem to meet their needs. Creating a cheaper MobileMe service through a partnership with Google or Yahoo also allows Apple to transition more and more of its buyers to this new platform creating the critical mass to monetize this user-base later on in the future. Imagine a new Macbook buyer getting a complementary Personal membership to MobileMe for a year. What do you think the chances are that they won’t renew it at the end of that year? Little I would guess (unless they have invested heavily in another platform like Google/Yahoo).

Apple has always been known in the past for its strident user evangelism through the offices of people like Guy Kawasaki (and now unofficially, John Gruber and the like) and this should be the focus of their online efforts. MobileMe should be the online Evangelical Church of the Mac, bringing together Apple users scattered across cities and countries together onto a platform that allows for seamless transition between their online and offline lives. This becomes more significant as more and more of us start moving our memories and presence online, through photo sharing sites, scrapbooking sites, online email and chat etc. For us Mac users, we have given up most of our digital offline presence to Apple. With a reasonably priced online service, there is no reason that Apple can’t expect its users to do the same with their online presence.

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