Why I will (probably) not renew my .Mac account

When .Mac was first announced at the July 2002 Macworld Expo in New York (remember those?) it held the rare distinction of being one of the few Steve Jobs keynote announcements to draw silence instead of applause. Of course, why should anyone applaud when they’ve just been told that something they were getting for free would now cost $100 per year? But when even the most faithful Mac users (i.e. the ones who waited for hours outside the building to get into the keynote) aren’t excited, then you’ve got problems.

I’m not going to raise the old argument that iTools should’ve been free for life. In fact, I was an iTools member who took the 1/2-price incentive that first year and got a .Mac subscription. I’ve continued to renew that subscription each year, but not without some hesitation.

Because the free iTools service ended in October, the majority of .Mac subscriptions also lapse this fall, so us .Mac members have a $99 decision to make. And unless Apple makes a major change or two, I will not be renewing this year.

But why now? If I’ve managed to rationalize the purchase in years past, what makes this year different? In a word: iWeb. You might think that the addition of iWeb to Apple’s iLife suite would be a reason for me to continue my .Mac membership. But instead it’s making me want to drop it.

Prior to iWeb, there was HomePage, Apple’s simple, online web page creation tool. The pages you could create with it were limited in their variety, but it was simple and easy to use. I could select a group of photos in iPhoto, hit the HomePage button and it would automatically create a new web page with those photos in the order I had made and with the captions I wrote. It would also link that page to all the others on HomePage and create a thumbnail link on the main menu page.

The benefit to me is that it’s easy to use and simple to keep updating. The benefit to Apple is that because it uses their proprietary software, it locks me into their system. And if I don’t renew my .Mac membership, my online storage disappears and all my online photo albums go away.

So imagine my surprise when I I tried to easily accomplish this same task after installing iLife ’06. The HomePage button has been removed from iPhoto and replaced with the iWeb button. I gamely give it a try, but the first test has failed: it’s not as easy as using the HomePage function. After publishing the page, I realized that it doesn’t link to my previously existing .Mac pages nor does it link from my previously existing main menu. In fact, it’s not even under the previously existing domain. It’s under the longer, more unnecessary web.mac.com/username/iWeb/Site/ instead of homepage.mac.com/username/

It is still possible to use HomePage on the .Mac site, and create photo albums, but it’s no longer a one-click operation. It involves exporting the photos from iPhoto to a new folder on the Finder, uploading them via the iDisk, creating a new page on .Mac, re-ordering them and re-captioning them. If I wanted to go through all of that, I could use any of a number of online photo-hosting services. And it wouldn’t cost me $99 per year.

That’s just one aspect of .Mac that affects me individually. But every user of .Mac is affected by at least one of its services, and even if they never use HomePage, they use something else:

Obviously, getting an e-mail address from .Mac is not a big selling point. But the track record of their service is incredibly poor. When it was a free e-mail account, outages could be excused. But it’s been years since users have been paying, and even as recently as last week e-mail was intermittently unavailable for 12 hours. I’ve had an EarthLink e-mail account for years and it’s never been unavailable for more than an hour a year.

iDisk is the most interesting yet poor quality feature of .Mac. When it originally appeared, it was a useful and simple way for Mac OS 9 users to transfer Mac files (containing Type and Creator Codes) via the Internet. The tradeoff was its glacial speed. Now that OS X doesn’t rely on type and creator codes and has given in to filename suffixes that usefulness has gone away. But the speed problem didn’t. Subsequent major updates to OS X have touted increased iDisk speed as a benefit (thus admitting it was slow). But I don’t know anyone that would call it fast. The syncing was a way to mollify that problem, but it’s caused problems of its own (ever seen a rogue process called SynchronizationServer) and at the current minimum of 1GB of storage space it can make things even slower.

The big question at this point is whether Leopard’s Time Machine will turn the Backup application into the next Sherlock. Will Apple simply lose interest in Backup or will Leopard users simply not have any reason to use Backup?

What? You aren’t aware of any widgets that come with .Mac membership? That’s because Apple never released any, though they promised to. After Tiger’s release, Apple promised its .Mac members they would be getting exclusive widgets. To this date, they have never arrived. Is there a legitimate reason for Apple vaporware?

Overall, .Mac has gone through a number of changes over the years, but it hasn’t improved much. And when the Macintosh faithful are still not excited (nor even resigned to ponying up the annual fee), it’s time for Apple to re-evaluate what .Mac is and does.

Apple, you’ve got one month to pull out something new and exciting to convince me to renew my .Mac account.