Blog Post

Dear Technologizer: Apple Doesn’t Own Your Contacts


This past weekend, Ed Oswald of Technologizer published a piece about how Apple (s aapl) seems to have stolen his contacts as if they owned them. The gist of the article is that he canceled his MobileMe account — without taking any actions to save his data beforehand — and thinks it’s Apple’s fault that the contacts left stranded on his iPhone cannot be somehow “saved,” even though he killed the very method he was using to maintain them. 

I disagree this is Apple’s fault, and portions of his own piece seem to support my argument. For example, we get these statements — mentioned rather matter-of-factly — as if they should have no bearing on the issue:

This means that if you leave [MobileMe] for whatever reason, your synced information is as good as gone if you don’t have it locally.

Well, of course you would need it locally. Why would you still have access to Apple’s servers after leaving their service?

It won’t sync with iTunes (I wondered why new appointments and contacts suddenly weren’t getting synced anymore), 

Translation: I noticed there was a problem, but did nothing to analyze it or connect the dots. 

and there’s no way to go back to just syncing sans MobileMe.

He’s upset he can’t sync with MobileMe servers without MobileMe? Did he really just say that? In iTunes it’s trivial to go back to syncing local data, but we’ve already established he doesn’t have any. How is this Apple’s fault? 

Here’s a scenario to consider…

FIRST: A user, let’s call him “Bob,” calls me up and says “Tom, will you please host my contacts on your server for me? I’ll just hit up your server for additions, deletions, etc.?” My reply to this is “Sure, let’s do it.” We agree, and it’s a done deal. 

At this point, who owns Bob’s contacts? Like Mr. Oswald, I believe that Bob does. I also believe just as strongly that having his data on an “outside” server modifies the relationship Bob has with it. In other words, adding a third party to the mix changes the rules in a manner Bob must realize, and is obligated to act accordingly. As just one example, Bob must not be surprised that he cannot modify his data if my server is down; he must wait until I get the server back up. 

SECOND: Bob calls me up after a few months and says, “Thanks, Tom, but I’m not going to hit up your server anymore, I no longer want to use that method for my data.” My reply to this is “OK by me.” 

At this point I’m done with Bob; what’s my obligation with the copy of his data I possess? Well, I shouldn’t use it, or sell it, or spam it, etc. But at the same time I sure as heck am under no obligation to hang onto it, either. Why should I waste my server’s disk space on a client no longer using my service?

THIRD: Let’s forget any speculation that there may be telltale signs Bob is ignoring that something is amiss with his data, and just skip to the part where he calls me a month after #2 and says “Tom, um, I need my data just one more time.” My reply to this is “Huh?” 

I think you can see where we go from here. 

I’m sorry that Mr. Oswald lost his contacts. Really, I am. But blaming Apple is pointless. In iTunes it’s pretty clear when you use MobileMe syncing that there’s no “local” sync. The fact that he had issues after killing the service confirmed this, yet he did nothing. 

Finally, and to the heart of Mr. Oswald’s complaint, if I ever owned Bob’s data you could claim I did not take proper steps when the relationship was ended (at which time presumably I no longer owned it). In other words, when the responsibility of ownership passed back to Bob from me, I should have had to “hand off” the data back to him. But it’s the very fact that I never owned the data to begin with that makes this claim silly. Bob is (and always was) shepherding the data, it’s his even when it’s on my server. 

I think Mr. Oswald should have published a mea culpa, and instructed others how to avoid the same fate. If I were going to kill my MobileMe account this is what I would do: 

  1. Export my contacts and calendars using Export from the Address Book and iCal File menus.
  2. Go into MobileMe control panel and kill contact and calendar syncing. Do the same on my iPhone. 
  3. Go into iTunes and set contacts and calendars to sync from my Mac (i.e., locally).
  4. Import the exported files from step 1. 

I would absolutely do the above before killing the MobileMe account, so I could ensure it all works. When I was satisfied everything is OK, then I could safely kill my account. 

Keep in mind the above only discusses contacts/calendars because that was Mr. Oswald’s complaint. In my case, however, I also sync primary data on my iDisk, bookmarks, email, and other data as well. I would follow a similar process to the above for all of it, doing it all before killing the MobileMe account.

We’re not talking about a lot of work here, folks. More importantly, it’s the prudent thing to do because, well, I own this data; who else should I expect to do it?

25 Responses to “Dear Technologizer: Apple Doesn’t Own Your Contacts”

  1. Thanks for laying out those four points above. I wish I would have seen them before I canceled my free trial of Mobile Me because I am feeling a whole lot like the Technologizer guy.

    Your solution does make sense. But I was just disappointed that my iPhone didn’t just revert to the same state it was in before I tried Mobile Me. I never actually synced anything to Mobile Me, though it did automatically copy my contacts to the “cloud.” Still, once I deleted Mobile Me, contacts that I had created on my phone well before I ever used the service were wiped of their informational data, e.g., my favorites folder listed a bunch of phone numbers stripped of their identifying contact names.

    It just seems like this is an Apple problem because my contacts should stay as they were instead of being wiped of their data. It is a little confusing for those of us who are not Mac Geniuses.


  2. Wow. This blog post is pretty obtuse, and is indeed missing the point. I had a contact list for years. I moved it from phone to phone. And, when the iPhone was released, I moved my contacts there as well. Didn’t subscribe to MobileMe, and my contacts worked just fine. Then one day I figured I’d give the free 30 MobileMe trial a spin. Was unimpressed, and ended up canceling it. Imagine my surprise to learn that yes, Apple did in fact steal my contact list. It was gone.

    So tell my how it is that I need MobileMe to maintain my contacts when they were there before I even used MobileMe? I never utilized Apple’s servers before. In fact, the only time their servers came into play was when they took my contacts after canceling service.

    Stop being a Fanboy and man up. Admit that Apple has no reason to delete your contact list after leaving MobileMe – especially when your contact list was there first.

  3. Carlos

    I’ve been reading this entire discussion and i have ONE simple questions. I let my mobile me expire and chose not to renew it for reason which are my own. I have a PC not a MAC. When i would sync my iphone with itunes i never included the contacts because i had mobile me. So i don’t have them Locally. After 5 months of the Mobile Me account being expired the contacts stayed on my Iphone. If i flip the switch on my iphone settings and and stop the sync, even though it’s no longer communication with the cloud. then they will completely wipe. So, Is there a way i can back up my contacts? If so please guide me or tell how to do so.

    Thank you,

  4. @JT: I think you misunderstand. Copies of the data do exist in all of the locations, and your contacts and calendars are still on your computer. Canceling your MobileMe account doesn’t affect your Address Book or iCal at all.

    However, when you turn off MobileMe on the phone it will wipe the phone and it’s up to you to sync from your computer. The original writer “Ed” had reformatted his computer’s drive thus loosing his contacts and calendars THEN also let his MobileMe account expire. The guy then wiped his older original iPhone by doing something wrong with sync again, although he didn’t document that part very well so it’s hard to tell.

  5. As an outsider looking in I totally see Ed’s point and must say that Tom comes across as a huge Apple fanboy! Tom makes it seem as if Apple has done, nor can do any wrong to any user.
    Being an iPhone owner form that very first day that Apple released the phone, and having used the phone for years I find it funny that Apple would assume that I don’t need to be told when there is going to be a change in the way things operate. If I have been syncing my address book to my computer and then I sign up for Moblie Me it never tells me that my data will no longer be stored on the computer and ONLY on the Mobile Me server. Why would they not tell me that. Being a VERY novice computer user I assume that the Mobile Me is just syncing the data between a few points and not that it is keeping one copy on the server and always updating only from there. Here is the problem with that. They never told me that is how Moblie Me works, and they never told me that from now on when my iPhone spends 10 minutes every sync backing itself up it is actually not even backing up my contacts or calendar. That my friends is a bunch… well it is not very nice. Now when I go to cancel Moblie Me it tells me to make syre my data is backed up. Okay, I remember yesterday when I plugged in my phone it took 10 minutes to back it up so of course I have a back-up. Look, it even says so when I look in my prefrences and see my back-ups. Of course I click to proceed because any logical, non fanboy, user would assume the contacts and calendar are there but they are not. Like I said, I don’t know much about computers nor do I claim to but it does seem to me that Apple is being very deceptive here.

  6. I agree with the comments that it is the user’s responsibility to back up their information. I won’t argue about whether or not MobileMe should leave a local copy behind when it is cancelled.

    However, I think the larger issue here, and perhaps what Ed was trying to get at, is that your average user (not the kind who obsess over Apple and technology and read blogs like we do) is not as savvy as you all assume they are. You assume everyone realizes that MobileMe is where they’re contacts are exclusively, and that if they get rid of MobileMe, they get rid of their information unless they take measures to preserve it. The average user sees their data on their iPhone, in Address Book, in Outlook, and thinks, “ah, my data is all there in that program.”

    So when they cancel their account, yes, they will be surprised to find their data missing. It may not be Apple’s responsibility to keep this data for the consumer, but for the sake of preventing data loss and the headaches on the part of both the consumer and them when they complain, perhaps a simple solution would be to issue a warning when you attempt to cancel an account warning the consumer to make sure to take measures to back up their data locally.

  7. Ezequiel

    I had this same problem, and I think its not fair. It is “data hijacking”. Obviously if I was a medium user in a hurry I would pay for mobile me and my contacts and mails reappear.
    It is not fair because you are left in a worst state than when you start trying the service. Local data is lost too.

    There is a way to re-import mailboxes and address book data from Library, I dont remember exactly but I lost 1 hour doing that after “MobileMe” joke

  8. Forgive me if I’m over simplifying, but if you toned down the headline of Ed’s post and don’t get wrapped up in “blaming” anyone it seems the issue is simple. When multiple systems are syncing, they are equal. Changes on each side are synchronized and that includes deletions and removals. However, I would see a complete canceling of the account on the server-side (or cloud if you prefer) as a fundamentally different thing than a removal of of the contact and calendar records.

    If the account existed and there were no longer any contacts there, i wouldn’t be surprised to see a blank/wiped phone. In that case it actually sync’d the existence of an empty address book. If it was unable to contact the service, and/or the account was no longer in existence then I don’t see much reason at all for the phone or itunes or any part of the system to react on that as a reason to wipe the phone.

    With that said, it is a poor man’s remote wipe. If someone steals your phone you could cancel MobileMe or simply unregister the device

  9. When you look into the MobileMe Knowledge Base you find an article about cancelling your account. They say:

    Important: Your account will be terminated immediately after you confirm the cancellation. Before canceling your MobileMe account, you should back up any information that you wish to keep.

    And they even post a link to an article on how to do that, and if I recall correct, when you cancel your account, you get referred to this article.

    So, whoever does not read and does not keep a local backup is on his own. And regarding the comment that even Steve Jobs knows that nobody keeps a backup: They offered a solution with Time Machine, now every Mac user who does not backup is a total moron.

  10. Weldon,

    Isn’t that what’s being discussed? Doesn’t matter whether it’s a trial or not. Yes, address book would be empty; I just killed the account it was based on.

    Avoiding this is trivial before the account expires. Export the contacts, swap from MMe to local sync, and then Import the contacts.

    Let me put this another way. My daughter has an account, and I decide she’s spending too much time on this whole Internet thing. Or maybe she’s abused the privilege, so I decide to kill her account. Do I expect the data to remain? No. It’s not Apple’s job to determine if the data should remain. That’s my job. Apple’s job is to wipe the data at my request. If I want to preserve it, it’s trivially easy to do so before I have the account killed.

  11. How would you feel if Apple did this with your desktop data? Let’s say you buy a Mac and sign up for the MobileMe free trial. You sync all your contacts from Address to MobileMe, but then decline to sign up for the paid service. You turn off MobileMe syncing in the system preference pane – would you expect Address Book to be empty after you did that?

  12. Ed,

    First off, thanks for taking the time to comment here.

    When a MMe account is killed I believe the user data is gone because the SOURCE of the data (i.e., the Cloud) is gone. To me, it’s confirmation the data was in fact removed from the server.

    When MMe first rolled out (bugs and all), one issue I had was getting the colors of calendars to sync correctly on the iPhone. Some trouble-shooting was to turn syncing off on the iPhone (the calendars “disappeared”), and then turn it back on (they came back). Same thing happens for contacts or email. ActiveSync for Exchange on the iPhone works the same way. Turn it off for email (or calendar or contacts), and watch them disappear from the device. Turn ’em on, they come back. This seems right to me.

    In the examples above the data is still on the server (MMe or Exchange) since the account wasn’t killed. But seeing the behavior on one device, my expectation is that killing the SOURCE account would kill it all. Maybe that’s the corporate side of my brain thinking.

    Clearly, we have different expectations. I believe that blowing away an account resulting in blowing away the corresponding data is expected behavior. Like with Exchange, if I blow away a MMe account I don’t want that data left behind; it’s not the service provider’s job to determine if it should remain. If any access is necessary after the fact, preparations are easily made before the account is killed (by the one authorized to kill it).

    Maybe you believe other services are doing you a favor by not wiping the data. That’s certainly one viewpoint, but I’m not sure I can agree with it. I think they’re being a bit lazy; and at the very least playing fast and loose with my data by leaving it behind.

  13. Tom, do explain to me however, why the data needs to be touched. When you say no I don’t want to sync via MobileMe anymore, the device deletes the data. Apple assumes here because it was a MobileMe sync that for whatever reason I don’t need whatever was synced there. If you want to wipe your device clean, you should do it separately.

    The point is, and I’ve done additional research, MobileMe is basically the only service that acts in this manner when you cut the sync. It’s completely counter intuitive, and is a method that is ripe for a risk of data loss.

    When you switch back to a standard sync, there shouldn’t be any need for any kind of wipe. That’s my point. It’s completely fair for me to criticize Apple for doing something that makes absolutely no sense.

    It’s like playing Russian Roulette with people’s data.

  14. I would tend to agree here.

    First, there is a way to change it to sync locally. Part of the issue, I guess, is that Ed assumed he had a local copy of the data. After all, doesn’t MobileMe also sync with your desktop? Is there a way to tell where the data is? How do you tell where your data is?

  15. While I suppose he has a somewhat valid complaint in that removing MobileMe from an iPhone wipes the contacts list, he completely missed the point that the iPhone is the only one in this situation that acts that way. If your MobileMe account expires/is deleted/MobileMe is down/etc. and you have your contacts synced to your Address Book on your Mac, or Outlook on your Windows machine (and don’t forget the options to sync to Google or Yahoo address books), none of them are affected.

    I give him a validity score of 10% simply because the iPhone wipes that info (and wipes it when you’re starting a MobileMe account on an iPhone as well, without much warning), however it doesn’t affect stored data on Outlook, Address, or Google/Yahoo services. If he had used MobileMe for its intended purpose to sync to one or more of those places, he would still have all his info, and I believe that’s what Apple was intending as well.

  16. Ed,

    But there IS a way “back from MobileMe”, and to say otherwise is disingenuous. It implies once you go MMe you have to re-enter all your data locally if you change your mind. At least, that’s how I read it, and that’s false.

    Apple’s apps are fully capable of grabbing the data you need LOCALLY before you kill the MobileMe account. I outlined as much in my post. It’s not about having some backup strategy. Rather, it’s about making a local copy of it before you kill the lifeline with the MobileMe server. This is not hard to do, and given the nature of the Cloud it’s at least something you should have considered.

    You imply Apple assumes you have a backup. My belief is they assume nothing regarding a backup, nor do they need to. You ask to kill the account, and they do so. What steps you’ve taken to manage your data after the Cloud is none of their business.

    If you want to think Apple should have protected you more from yourself, fine. However, I still believe your readers would have been better served with a “here’s how to avoid what happened to me” article than what you wrote, which blasted Apple for behavior that many (I’m certainly not the only one) can envision occurring when you kill a Cloud service without first preserving the data locally.

  17. <i<Apple CANNOT assume people have multiple backups — Steve himself has admitted people don’t back up.

    LOL. I think I will commence to wipe out my hard disk and call Apple to see if they have a back up.

  18. Tom, this post is pretty disappointing. You as well as some of our more vocal critics on Technologizer are completely missing the point. If you break the sync, YES THERE IS NO EXPECTATION of any saving of data on Apple’s side. I never said that, and your post frankly insinuates I did. What I DID say is once you select MobileMe to sync, there is no way back.

    Thus, say you have a computer error after canceling MobileMe, which takes out your information. Because Apple wipes the phone by design, there is no way to bring that data over because you have been locked in to syncing through MobileMe only.

    Apple CANNOT assume people have multiple backups — Steve himself has admitted people don’t back up. There is no good reason why this wipe occurs. Live Mesh as well as other Microsoft sync services BREAK THE SYNC ONLY, leaving all data intact.

    I am not blaming Apple, what I am saying is there is no reason to touch the data when you leave the service. None.

    I would be interested in hearing your reasoning as to why this occurs.