If you are an Apple MobileMe customer, now is the time to start planning your transition to Apple's iCloud service as some parts of MobileMe are going away. While the move from MobileMe to iCloud is bound to be rocky, the good news is that there are third-party alternatives. However, there are some services that people have taken for granted which just won't be available when Apple pulls the plug on MobileMe next summer. While Apple never really seemed all that committed to MobileMe anyway, many of its features didn't keep pace with the competition. And with some planning and exploration of alternatives, other MobileMe users are likely to find they've wound up in a better place as well.


A Brief History of the Apple Cloud


Apple's tried to find its place in the cloud for a long time--since well before anyone called it that, and that's not even counting the 1994-1996 AOL-like service "eWorld." Back in 2000, the company introduced iTools, a set of Internet services for the Classic OS. Free, the service included online storage in the form of iDisk, a website builder and host called HomePage, an online greeting card service called iCard, and a .Mac email address.

That last service, .Mac, gave its name to the next cloud offering, a paid subscription service launched in 2002. In addition to the four services from iTools, .Mac included software for making automatic backups to iDisk.

Jake Widman is based in San Francisco, California and works as a freelance writer and editor for a variety of publications, specializing in digital printing and graphic arts, Apple and Mac-related products, consumer technology and gadgets, and cloud and collaboration services. He can be reached at jakewidman@email.com.

The changes continued with the launch and renaming of the rebranded, subscription-based MobileMe in 2008. In this edition, Apple dropped iCard, reflecting the growing competition from other online greeting card sites, and added new services, reflecting users' changing demands on cloud services. The primary change was the ability to sync data -- Safari bookmarks, iCal calendar items, Address Book contacts, Mail accounts, and more -- among multiple Macs and with Apple's increasingly popular mobile devices (iPhones and iPod Touches). MobileMe also included browser-based access to mail, contacts, and hosting; hosting for sites created with Apple's basic Web design tool; and the ability to publish galleries of photographs from iPhoto.

But recently Apple announced that MobileMe would soon be replaced by a new service called iCloud. MobileMe subscribers will be moved to iCloud automatically when it's rolled out this fall, and MobileMe will close its doors for good on June 30, 2012. The new service, as with the previous versions, keeps some features and adds some new ones but also drops some existing services, which users will have to find replacements.

First, what's staying the same: iCloud will still offer syncing of mail, contacts, and calendar items, along with access through a browser. (The initial announcement of iCloud didn't mention the Web apps, leading to speculation that it would only support syncing information to devices. But Apple now says that "if you happen to be away from home without your computer or one of your iOS devices, you can access your mail, contacts, and calendar -- ad-free -- from any computer at icloud.com."

New features include document storage and syncing services for compatible programs, as well as music and photo storage and syncing. The music offering has drawn a lot of attention Amazon and Google have also recently launched cloud music services.

What Services Are Going Away


Now let's look at what MobileMe offers that iCloud won't continue offering. Three major items will be missing:
  1. iDisk, the online file storage area that's been part of MobileMe/.Mac/iTools since the beginning. The new iTunes in the Cloud and Photo Stream will store your music and photos, but there's no longer the ability to drag files of any sort to an online folder in the Finder. Besides that convenience, users are likely to miss iDisk's public folder, which made it easy to share files with other people.

    To replace iDisk, most people will probably turn to the popular Dropbox, which duplicates most of the functions and the convenient drag-and-drop functionality of iDisk. Businesses and users with more advanced needs could use alternatives like Box.net, which integrates with Google Apps and has its own suite of third-party add-ins, or Egnyte.com, a "hybrid" solution that combines storage, backup and file sharing, or more than a dozen others that are available.

    On the other hand, compatible programs -- notably, to start with, Apple's own iWork suite -- can use the new "Documents in the Cloud" option to push documents to iCloud and sync them to other devices. Apple has provided APIs to enable other developers to make their products work with Documents in the Cloud as well. Whether the service will also support collaborating on the documents with others is not yet clear.

    Finally, users could presumably store some files on iCloud by sending them as attachments to e-mail. This is an old-fashioned and klutzy approach, however.

    Storage on iCloud starts with a free 5 GB. Extra space for mail and documents (photos and music are handled separately) costs US$20/year for an additional 10 GB, $40/year for 20 GB, and $100/year for 50 GB.

  2. Photo galleries. The new Photo Stream will let subscribers sync their photos to all their devices but doesn't provide a way to share them on the Web. It's easy to understand why Apple might want to get out of this business, since strong competition has made MobileMe an also-ran in the category. A Yahoo advertising page claims that Flickr has more than 51 million registered members. Google offers the smaller but still popular Picasa.

    It may turn out to be a non-issue anyway. Facebook claims that there are more pictures shared on Facebook than on all other photo sharing sites combined. The whole concept of a cloud photo sharing site may be passé before long.

  3. Web hosting. This will be the big hurdle for a lot of MobileMe users. By June of 2012 people and businesses who've used MobileMe to host their websites are going to have to find an alternative. (The future of iWeb itself is also in doubt: the Wikipedia page for the software alternates between present and past tense and refers to the product's "discontinuation," though Apple hasn't made an official announcement on the subject.)

    For people who choose to continue to use iWeb as long as they can, recent versions of the software also allows publishing to a non-MobileMe Web host. Users will have to find a new host and possibly transfer their domain name, but the process should be straightforward.

    Others -- or everyone, if iWeb goes away -- can either find another Web host and another Web design program, or turn to combination website building and hosting combinations. Some of the most popular are Squarespace.com, Weebly.com, and Cloversites.com. These sites offer an interactive, WYSIWYG approach to building a page, as does iWeb, and provide a place to host the site as well. Another site, Jimdo, has even explicitly offered to help users transfer their iWeb sites to Jimdo and provided instructions.

    Finally, businesses often complained that MobileMe was too slow, and the support too lacking, to serve as a good web host. For them, a dedicated hosting company with a modern webpage builder might work out better.