Apple’s MobileMe Mail Mess: careful what you wish for

Matthew JC. Powell
25 July, 2008
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By any reasonable measure the transition from .Mac to MobileMe was a debacle — a slapstick shambles of vaudevillian proportions. The only upside is that if Apple’s claims that only one percent of users were affected are true, there’s about 100 times as many MobileMe users as I thought. But there is another benefit: if users had been able to use the service, they’d have seen just how limited it actually is.

Imagine, for a moment, an e-mail program that doesn’t allow you to search for past messages you’ve received except by flicking through the list and hoping you don’t miss one. Imagine not having the facility to mark messages as read so they don’t irritate you with notifications, except by reading them. Imagine not having the ability to have all your messages in one unified inbox except by forwarding mail from your other accounts to that one — meaning that if you also want to have mail going where it’s meant to go you have to receive everything twice. Imagine having no ability to quote only part of a message in your replies, except by deleting the characters you don’t want, one by one. Imagine not being able to select text and paste it into other messages. Imagine not being able to forward only some attachments from an e-mail message to someone else — all or nothing, even if some of the attachments are irrelevant to other users. Imagine not being able to add documents to your e-mail as attachments, unless they came to you as attachments. Imagine not being able to create a distribution list and send e-mail to a group of people at once, except by adding addresses one by one.

The horror. The horror.

Yet what I have just described is exactly what you get with the mail client on the iPhone. I mentioned in my review of the iPhone that the mail client is not as good as what you get on the BlackBerry. On further usage I have concluded it’s not as good as the baseline expectations you ought to have of a mail client on any device, mobile or not. Really, it’s borderline useless.

On several occasions recently I’ve started to reply to messages on the iPhone, then given up and decided to wait until I was at my desk and reply then. That should never happen. It used to happen on my Sony Ericsson Z600, which was not by any definition a mobile e-mail device. On the BlackBerry it doesn’t happen because you have a fully-featured e-mail client. The iPhone is, in that regard, woefully inadequate.

Thankfully, with MobileMe completely failing to proceed much of the time since its launch, hardly anyone’s noticed that even on a good day the default e-mail client on iPhone kinda sucks. There just haven’t been enough good days.

Apple is setting the iPhone up as a computing platform in its own right. And rightly so — it’s a powerful device with a truly revolutionary user interface. But a computing platform needs to do a whole lot more than this can.

Take, for example, a real-world situation I have. Australian Macworld has a list we prepare well in advance outlining the features that are coming up for the year ahead (we’re starting 2009 planning now). From time to time I get calls from PR companies and the like asking for copies of that list so they can see how relevant our content is for their clients. At my desk I simply attach the document to an e-mail and away it goes. That’s a pretty basic thing to expect a computer to be able to do.

You can’t do it on the iPhone. The only way to have that document available on my iPhone is to e-mail it to myself and then forward it to anyone who requests it — not very professional. There’s a program called FileMagnet that lets you have documents sitting on your iPhone for viewing, but if there’s a way to send them as e-mail attachments I haven’t found it.

MobileMe includes 20GB of online storage. Surely that’s the way to store documents for viewing and usage such as forwarding on your iPhone, right? Nope. If there’s a way to access my iDisk on the iPhone and use it as a hard drive, I haven’t found it. That part of MobileMe is apparently not mobile at all.

Of course given the 14GB of unused space I have on my iPhone I shouldn’t need to use 20GB of online storage. There should be a way to have documents on my iPhone for me to use as I will. Ideas, anyone?

The scary part. In this week’s Weekend Edition podcast, our special guest Matt Drayton from Nolobe remarked that there are certain things that sensible iPhone developers won’t do, in order to avoid incurring the wrath of Apple as gatekeeper of the App Store. One of those things, he suggests, is developing an application for the iPhone that competes with an Apple application.

Now, I don’t know if that’s just his own speculation or a vibe he’s picked up from Apple. I’ve put a call in to Apple to find out what the policy is in that regard, and I’ll let you know as soon as I hear back. Even if it isn’t policy though, the fact that developers have that notion in their minds is a bit of a worry and Apple should do something to change that perception.

UPDATE: Apple’s spokesperson says that while the company doesn’t want to discuss its policies regarding the App Store publicly, the kind of applications that would be stopped would be ones that it considered “harmful to the customer”. However, the spokesperson also could not confirm whether an alternative e-mail client or web browser, such as — hypothetically — Firefox for the iPhone, would or would not be stopped.

By taking on the role of gatekeeper to the App Store, and making the App Store the only way for the common folk like you and me to get applications onto our iPhones, Apple has given itself great power — Apple could, if it so chose, stop anyone developing an alternative web browser or e-mail client for the iPhone. With great power comes great responsibility — it really shouldn’t stop people developing alternative web browsers and e-mail clients for the iPhone.

For one thing, choosing to be the sole controller of the distribution channel for iPhone apps puts Apple in an undeniably monopolistic position and surely must have raised the eyebrows of a regulator or two in Washington. Sure, the current administration is unlikely to do anything anti-corporate, but there will be a new bunch of people running the USA in a few months.

More immediately than that, though, the impression that Apple would stifle competition on the iPhone platform is bad for developers, bad for users, bad for the platform, and ultimately bad for Apple.

Right now, not knowing whether or not Apple would stop an alternative e-mail client appearing on the iPhone, I can say that the default e-mail client kinda sucks. If it is the case that there can be no other, then I have to say that e-mail on the iPhone kinda sucks. That’s a different thing entirely. And it kinda sucks.

Apple needs to clarify its position on this asap: is it going to stop developers competing with its own applications for iPhone or not. If it’s not, tell them so in big loud letters so they can set about creating fantastic — functional, even — e-mail clients.

And if it is, it needs to change its mind really soon.

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