Dear Technologizer: Apple Doesn’t Own Your Contacts


This past weekend, Ed Oswald of Technologizer published a piece about how Apple 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?


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