Move over .Mac., here comes MobileMe

Apple's move to MobileMe strengthens the iPhone as a platform

When Apple CEO Steve Jobs took the stage on Monday at Apple's Worldwide Developer's Conference (WWDC), the focus of attention was on the new iPhone 3G\new and iPhone 2.0 -- the coming firmware update for all iPhones that will bring with it a slew of new apps.

But one of the most important announcements concerned Apple's new suite of online services, called MobileMe. Think of it as a revamped .Mac with an eye on tying the iPhone to what has until now been largely a syncing/storage/Web-based tool. Oh, and say goodbye to .Mac, which will disappear next month, replaced basically by .me. Old .Mac e-mail accounts and Web pages will still work fine. But the emphasis will be on "Me." In fact. .Mac e-mail addresses can be converted to .me addresses once .Mac users are upgraded to MobileMe.

MobileMe, which will offer twice the storage space now allocated for .Mac members -- 20GB instead of 10GB -- will continue to cost US$99 a year.

What's new now, and what's important, is the emphasis on the push technology unveiled in the upcoming iPhone 2.0 software update. On the business front, that software adds direct integration for Microsoft's ActiveSync technology out of the box. This eliminates the added server, software and licensing costs inherent to the Blackberry platform and simplifies the job of IT support. By licensing Microsoft's ActiveSync technology, Apple is making the iPhone platform a real alternative to the popular BlackBerry, which offers similar 'push' functionality. For those without access to an Exchange server and Active Sync, MobileMe offers a solution.

Put simply: Exchange enables push technology for business users; MobileMe means push technology for the rest of us.

When it comes to push technology, the iPhone currently has to "poll" or constantly ping a server for status updates, usually at set intervals. E-mail on the iPhone, for example, currently uses this polling technique to check for new mail -- a setup that hits battery life and can eat up processor cycles. That's because this polling often runs as a background application. The reduction in battery life is noticeable when the iPhone is set to check for e-mail every 15 minutes instead of, say, every 30 minutes. Once the push technology is in place, the iPhone will be automatically alerted when e-mail arrives or when any actions occur in applications that take advantage of push.

During Jobs' WWDC keynote, Apple noted that developers will be able to incorporate this type of push technology into their applications instead of using traditional background processes. The decidedly inconvenient caveat is that this API won't be available to developers until September. (Exchange and MobileMe push support will be available in early July, however, with the next iPhone software update.)

Keep that September time frame in mind if you're still awaiting instant messaging (IM) software like iChat that can alert you about incoming messages -- even if the application isn't running. Jobs noted that IM software would be one of the beneficiaries of the new push API, though developers can implement the feature in their apps however they choose.

MobileMe isn't just about pushing out data to the iPhone. It's also a replacement for Apple's current .Mac Web services, which currently include: online storage, e-mail addresses, contact and calendar syncing across multiple computers, Back to my Mac and photo-sharing. While the majority of functions in MobileMe are similar to those in .Mac, one of the big differences is that Apple is making MobileMe accessible to iPhones and iPod touches -- and it has made the service entirely cross-platform. Once MobileMe rolls out, Windows users will be able to sign up for Apple's previously Mac-only Web services.

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Michael deAgonia

Computerworld

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