A year ago I wrote about various alternative services I use in lieu of Apple’s .Mac suite of online tools. With Apple’s recent upgrades to .Mac, I thought it worth returning to the subject to see if there is any way I could justify paying the $99 a year for services I’m already getting elsewhere online.
I think that for a new web user who just bought an Apple computer, .mac is certainly a good deal; however, for someone who already has an IMAP account, a photo gallery, a blog, an online backup solution, etc. it takes more careful consideration. In general all-in-one solutions tend not to be as good as specialized tools, but Apple’s tight integration with its desktop applications may still make it the right solution for many users. Below I try to sort out how Apple’s .mac offerings compare with existing Web 2.0 alternatives.
Lets take each of the .Mac services one-by-one:
- Web Gallery
- The competition here are sites like Flickr and YouTube. Apple’s integration with iMovie and iPhoto should make it very easy to share your work, and Apple’s design team certainly makes your work look great online. However, with FlickrExport for iPhoto and a Pro Flickr account you get what I think is a much richer experience, with unlimited storage and a host of tools which build upon Flickr’s innovative API. It isn’t free however, the software and the pro membership will set you back about $50, almost half of what you pay for .Mac, without the video features. Still, I’m not ready to give up Flickr for Apple’s Web Gallery, and I think if I started uploading videos I’d use up that 10GB very quickly.
- Website Hosting
- Again, Apple’s integration with its own software makes this a great option if you use iWeb to design web pages. But I think it is hard to compete with the free offerings of sites like WordPress.com, with its huge and active user community. No matter how easy iWeb is to use, I can’t imagine anything easier than WordPress. And if you want desktop integration there are a number of tools, like ecto, which make posting a breeze.
- IMAP Mail
- Since neither Yahoo nor Gmail currently offer’s IMAP, this feature alone, together with 10 GB of storage space, might be enough to decide some people in favor of .mac. Here too, however, there is some stiff competition. Many people like Fastmail.fm, but I’ve been using Luxsci.com for years and have never once had any of the severe service interruptions I’ve seen reported on occasion for both .mac and fastmail.fm. More importantly, I’ve never dealt with any company whose customer service comes anywhere near to the quality that luxsci has consistently offered since the beginning. E-mail is very important to me, and so while I think .mac’s IMAP service is probably fine, I can’t see myself switching anytime soon.
- Apple’s group features are new, and I have to give them credit for assuring us that PC users can use the group tools as well, but collaboration is where Web 2.0 shines, and so it is hard for Apple’s offerings to compete with the many options already available on the web. I personally am a big fan of Google Groups and Google Calendar, both of which work great.
- If there is a killer feature in .mac it is probably sync. In my last post on the subject I identified some of the various tools one can use to approximate .mac, but my sense is that few people will want to struggle with setting up and installing all of these tools when .mac can do it all out of the box.
- Calendar and Contacts: Plaxo is good for calendars and contacts, and its what I use, but some unexpected behavior has made me wary of recommending it to friends. I’ve currently disabled calendar sync and am using a command-line unix tool called Unison instead. Unison works great for a lot of my files, including many not synced by .mac, but it is difficult to set up and doesn’t easily adapt to changes in my computer setup.
- Bookmarks: .mac only syncs your browser settings if you use Safari. If you use another browser, like Firefox, you are out of luck. For this I recommend either the del.icio.us Firefox bookmarks add-on, Google Browser Sync, or using both together, which is what I do.
- Keychain: Google Browser Sync will sync a lot of your web login info, but having something that syncs your entire keychain is really nice, especially if you are using 1Passwd.
- Sync Services: While 1Passwd syncs using the OS X keychain, other applications make use of .mac sync services to keep databases in sync across computers. I’m surprised Apple doesn’t do more to publicize this, as I think it is perhaps .mac’s one true killer feature. It is certainly the only thing that has me seriously considering signing up despite having already found numerous alternative solutions. Some programs which make use of sync services include: iGTD, Yojimbo, Transmit, etc. The only real alternative to .mac is SyncTogether by Mark/Space, but the price is so high that it seems hard to justify not just getting .mac to begin with.
- 10 GB certainly makes iDisk look a lot more appealing than it did before. There are serious bandwith limitations however, and numerous online alternatives. My favorite is JungleDisk which can also be used for backup (see below). JungleDisk is built upon Amazon’s S3 service, and as such offers no limitations. Instead you pay for exactly what you use, and you can use a lot of storage and bandwidth without paying more than a few dollars a month.. If you need something that will let you share files online, I recommend box.net, which is very easy to use. UPDATE: I forgot to mention BingoDisk which gives you a secure iDisk-like WebDav disk for a very reasonable price.
- I don’t really have a sense about iBackup, but I know if I used it to backup my entire home folder I would quickly use up most of the 10GB of space that comes with .mac. Currently I use JungleDisk for backup. I like their incremental approach to storage pricing which doesn’t lock you in to a particular amount of disk space. Another option, which I would have used if I wasn’t already using JungleDisk, is Mozy. Mozy has some great features not currently offered by JungleDisk, but I believe that these features will be added to future versions, so I’m happy to wait.
For now I’m not sure I need .Mac, but if I sign up it will be because of third party tools like iGTD and 1Passwd which make use of Apple’s sync services, and I will be unlikely to use many of the other features. Apple’s all-or-nothing approach to pricing thus creates a barrier to my signing up. I think they could learn a thing or two from Amazon’s more incremental approach which is what makes JungleDisk so attractive.