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Dissecting .Mac

by Michael Brewer
07/30/2002

Editor's Note--Current iTools users have reacted both positively and negatively to Apple's Macworld N.Y. announcement of .Mac. Most of the negative response has centered around the $49 to $99 annual fee. We'll let Apple defend its own pricing decisions (although Michael does have a few personal comments about that in this article). What we're interested in is the technology that Apple has added to its new suite of Internet services. And that's the focus of this piece.

To really experience .Mac as designed by Apple, you'll need Jaguar. The performance enhancements that Steve Jobs alluded to during the keynote are enabled by changes on both the client- and server-side of the equation. For example, Jaguar's improved Finder, along with server-side changes, will greatly improve iDisk performance.

When we have the final version of Jaguar, we'll test these variables. For now, let's start with a preview of .Mac's core features.

One last note: The O'Reilly Mac OS X conference will feature a session on .Mac and how to leverage its capabilities.

Preannouncement Rumors

Like many of you, I heard a few rumors about .Mac before Steve's keynote speech at Macworld New York. Rumor was that iTools was being replaced by something called .Mac. Essentially, it was going to be a fee-based iTools with a new name and maybe even larger quotas for mail and iDisk. The rumored fee was $100.

$100? For iTools? That doesn't sound quite fair. After all, I'd become used to my Mac.com email account and I wasn't looking forward to paying $100 a year for 5MB or even 10MB of email space. iDisk? I can do that by myself, thank you very much, Apple. And if they were going to start charging for the service, they'd need to add something else more compelling than iCards.

Then there's the name: .Mac is an obvious ploy to ride in on the coattails of .NET's Internet services. Apple is doing a lot of innovation in the market today (FireWire, MPEG4, Rendezvous, Quartz Extreme). I didn't understand why Apple would do something that made it seem like they were imitating rather than innovating. If they had to rename iTools, couldn't they rename it something cool like iNetwork?

Post-Announcement First Impressions

Related Reading

iPhoto: The Missing Manual
By David Pogue, Joseph Schorr, Derrick Story

Yes, I hated the name .Mac when I heard it was to replace iTools. But, Steve Jobs did an excellent job of explaining Apple's reasoning behind it when he said "Internet services ... is exactly what iTools has done all along. We're actually delivering stuff, we actually know what it means, and so we're going to call it .Mac." So, now I can handle the .Mac moniker. But, I still like iNetwork better.

Email Improvements

Mac.com email is awesome! My ISP doesn't provide IMAP access. I need an account that I can check from other computers as well as through the Web, while keeping track of what I've read, sorted, and deleted. I switched to Mac.com email as my main account a while back, and had looked forward to a larger quota. With .Mac I get 15MB for email, which should be plenty considering 5MB has served me well most of the time. Apple's Web mail is also by far the best Web-accessible email interface out there--easily beating Yahoo and Hotmail. There is a graduated set of upgrade plans that top out at 200MB of email for $90 more per year. Since I only exceeded my 5MB quota twice in the three quarters of a year that I've owned my Mac, I doubt I'll get the 25MB storage option any time soon.

iDisk Gets More Elbow Room

As I said earlier, I can do iDisk by myself. I already have an account with DynDNS.org, so all I need to do is get WebDAV working with Apache and I'm in business. However, 100MB is more space than I was expecting from Apple. In fact, it's enough for them to get my attention. It's sufficient room for publishing my pictures to the Web with iPhoto--I'll probably want to remove the pictures due to age before I hit the 100MB quota. And having Apple manage it means I won't have to deal with downtime due to lightning (my router and two NICs were recently toasted) or worms (my Windows 2000 server was taken down by Code Red).

Apple has released an iDisk Utility that is installed in the Applications/Utilities folder. You can set your public folder to allow read-only or read-write access with the utility. You can also password-protect your iDisk's public folder. iDisk Utility has a fill graph displaying your iDisk usage and a button to click when you feel the need to buy more space (you can buy anywhere from an additional 100MB for $60 per year to an extra 900MB for $350 per year). It also gives you an interface for connecting to other .Mac subscribers' public folders.

Screen shot.
Backup's main window.

I would like to see Apple offer 10MB of free iDisk space. It's taken over duties that a floppy disk drive would have served on a very few occasions, and I think it would be a great show of good will for Apple to still provide this service to Mac users. Instead of having vanity account names like "steve" or "rwiggum11," they could use numerical identifiers to simplify management on Apple's end. They would need to build a method that would allow them to restrict non-member iDisk usage to Apple customers instead of the many, many leeches they've taken on over time. Perhaps Mac OS X could lease a monthly identifier before acquiring a new identifier (the iDisk of the old identifier would be wiped clean). This would prevent Mac users from creating accounts for non-customers that use the iDisk simply as a repository for content linked from another site.

HomePage Gets a Few Improvements

The HomePage functionality in .Mac has slightly improved. Obviously, it benefits a lot from the now 100MB iDisk because that is where your HomePage is stored. However, Apple has also added a few HomePage features.

They've made it checkbox-easy for you to receive comments on your site by providing a "Send me a Message" button that visitors can click to send feedback via iCards. They've added a few new frames for photos, and improved slide-show functionality. You can password-protect your site, which comes with a new feature to add another site to your HomePage. Additional sites are added as a subfolder to the Sites folder in your iDisk. They've also improved the HomePage interface for creating content. They've given bits of it a more Finder-ish feel. It still doesn't work in my browser of choice, OmniWeb, but it's more the browser's fault than Apple's. I use Mozilla to maintain my HomePage through Apple's Web interface, but you can use whatever application you like to edit the files in your iDisk's Sites folder.

Backup Not Bad for First Version

One of the coolest things Apple has added is Backup. Backup is installed in your Applications folder, although it should be installed under Applications/Utilities.

It lets you backup files on your computer to your iDisk, CD writer, or DVD writer. Unfortunately, you cannot back up to disk yet. I think Apple dropped the ball on this one. It makes perfect sense to be able to back up your Home folder to your iPod--I hope this makes it into Backup 1.1.

Backup comes with ten back-up jobs (called QuickPicks) already configured. There are a few among them that I consider useful (Address Book contacts, Keychain, Files on desktop), but most of them aren't what I need. Unfortunately, Backup doesn't let you remove any of the QuickPicks from the list, but you are able to deselect them. There's currently only one preference in Backup: whether or not you wish to mirror backups on your iDisk. Mirroring will delete files from your iDisk during a backup when they've been deleted from your source disk.

Screen shot.
The main backup window.

Antivirus

McAfee Virex 7.1 provides .Mac's antivirus software. Virex installs to Applications/Virex 7. In the Virex 7 folder you'll find ReadMe, Virex 7.1, and Virex 7.1 Product Guide. In the future, I hope Apple will install Virex to Applications/Utilities and will not install a readme and product documentation along with it. I had to type sudo mv .VirexLogin.app /Applications/Utilities/ and sudo rm -R "Virex 7" to move the VirexLogin application and delete the Virex 7 folder after I had copied Virex to Applications/Utilities. If you're not familiar with the sudo and rm commands, I would recommend typing man sudo and man rm first. I then had to re-add .VirexLogin.app to my Login Items.

Screen shot.
The Virex interface.

.Mac also includes a command-line version of Virex; type man vscanx to learn more about it. Virex has preferences for scanning inside compressed and archived files, scanning automatically at login, as well as showing detailed results of the scan. You can set it to automatically clean infected files or to delete them. There is also a preference for inspecting applications and macros for virus-like characteristics. It would be nice if Virex had an animated Dock icon to represent the scan status.

Screen shot.
Virex preferences.

One glaring problem with Virex is that virus-definition updates are not automated. The user must go to the Virex Web site and download monthly virus definitions. They are provided as an installer package that the user must run as an administrator. Virex should have its own update mechanism and should be able to update more frequently than once a month through its GUI. (If you're familiar with the command line Virex's documentation tells you how to download its weekly definitions and update them.) The lack of a built-in update and the fact that the easy updates are only once a month strikes a couple of big blows to .Mac's antivirus capabilities. I hope these issues are resolved in future releases.

iCal

iCal is actually what helped turn me around from a .Mac hater to a .Mac subscriber (yes, I've already ponied up the annual fee). With iCal you'll be able to publish your calendar to the Web to allow friends, family, and co-workers to view it. You can publish your calendar to your iDisk (or possibly another WebDAV resource) and allow other iCal users to subscribe to it and vice versa. You'll be able to invite people to events through standards-based email. And iCal will be able to notify you of upcoming events through your computer or via a variety of mobile devices that it can synchronize with using iSync.

Speaking of iSync, it's a great new plumbing technology that Apple will pioneer in the personal computing industry. It uses the open standard SyncML, which is itself an XML application, to talk to a wide range of mobile devices from cell phones to Palms--iSync will even control synchronization of data between your Mac and iPod.

Sadly, iCal isn't available yet; it will debut with Jaguar. I expect that it will usher in a lot of other great Internet services from Apple.

Final Thoughts

As the iApps evolve, so will their interaction with .Mac. In a sense Apple seems to realize the vision that Sun Microsystems figured out years ago: the network is better for data management than the local client. If you look closely at the early stages of .Mac, you can see a trend taking shape where you exchange and store data via the network instead of local transactions.

How will users react to this? Hard to say right now. Most of them are still in sticker shock over the annual fee. But as .Mac's functionality and feature set improves and becomes truly valuable to everyday tasks, consumers will probably take a second look and decide if they want to pay for those services.

Michael Brewer is a developer based near Charlotte, North Carolina. His interests include web development of various flavors, databases, and Java. One of the off-shoots of these activities is his website Brewed Thoughts.


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