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Dot Mac Reloaded

by Michael Brewer
07/08/2003

Dot Mac has been through some changes since it went live, autumn of last year. It's getting ready to go through some more changes along with Mac OS X 10.3 (Panther). However, the release of Panther isn't all that's happening towards the end of the year.

A lot of Dot Mac subscriber's are also about to come up on the end of their subscriptions. Most of them either received the introductory price of $49 for iTools users or got Dot Mac with a new Mac purchase for $69. So, the question is, are the new features enough to get users to renew at the full $99 subscription fee?

Look What the Panther Has Dragged In

Panther has many exciting new features. One that has been called for consistently is a faster Finder. Instead of speeding Finder up, Apple decided to create a new one. The new Finder has an entirely new way of dealing with your iDisk. The old Finder simply connected to iDisk like any other WebDAV resource. Unfortunately, Apple's WebDAV performance was subpar, which resulted in a lot of complaints against the iDisk's speed when the fault really fell on Finder. Instead of (or perhaps in addition to) optimizing their WebDAV code, Apple chose to employ iDisk caching. The Finder now stores all of your iDisk files on your local drive in addition to Apple's servers. This speeds up access to your iDisk significantly, because you're really just accessing a local mirror of your iDisk.

Panther's finder is now a brushed metal application. Screenshot courtesy of Apple.
Panther's finder is now a brushed metal application. Screenshot courtesy of Apple.

The Finder handles synchronization between the local and remote copies of your iDisk. This is one of those "it just works" things. As long as you have a connection to the Internet, you'll always have a fresh copy of your files. This is a major advantage for Dot Mac users with a laptop. Now you won't have to think about whether your file is on your desktop or your laptop as long as it is in your iDisk.

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However, storing your files on your iDisk involves a leap of faith. Are Apple's servers secure enough to store sensitive documents? Can Apple be trusted with your data? Hopefully Apple's new FileVault feature can extend to iDisk. I'd feel a lot better storing some of my files on their server if they were encrypted during transmission through an HTTPS connection and on the file system once they got there.

But I don't anticipate FileVault being compatible with iDisk, at least not in Mac OS X 10.3. Maybe it'll show up in later revisions. There is a way to encrypt the files yourself. You can use Disk Copy to create an encrypted disk image. Do this by running Disk Copy from the Utilities folder in your Applications folder. Choose New and Blank Image from the File menu. Type a name for the file in the Save as text box, and give the volume a name as well. Set a size anywhere under 100MB or whatever your iDisk limit is. Set the Encryption list box to AES-128 and click create. If you didn't create the disk image in your iDisk, move it there now. You can now mount this image using Disk Copy or by simply opening it. Store any sensitive files inside of it. One problem with this method is that you'll have to manage synchronization of files inside of the disk image because the Finder can't see what is inside of it.

It's easy to create an encrypted disk image.
It's easy to create an encrypted disk image.

Is That All?

There have been other additions to Dot Mac aside from the freebies and discounts the membership buys you. Having a good email address available via IMAP is what makes Dot Mac worth it to me. I love being able to manage my messages on the server without worrying whether they're on my PowerMac, iBook, Red Hat box, or in some Web mail client.

Apple added Address Book for Dot Mac shortly after iSync went 1.0. This does for addresses what IMAP does for email. I don't need to worry about whether or not I've entered an address from my laptop onto my desktop or my Address Book on the Web. Entering an address in one of those places makes it show up in all of them.

Let's say you've never used Address Book on your Mac before. So, you sit down with all of your business cards along with a few messages sitting in your inbox and add each address along with other information into Address Book. Then you're at a luncheon with your PowerBook and you enter someone else's information there. Finally, when you get back to work, you go to http://addressbook.mac.com/ and enter in a few other people's email addresses so you can send them a couple of messages without retyping their address. But now you need someone's address that you already entered at home in your Webmail client.

All you have to do to get all of that information from those three separate sources together is to turn on Dot Mac syncing in each location. Then you never need to worry about where you entered the address. It's always there. Enter an address for a coworker into the Dot Mac Address Book while you're slaving away on a Windows box at work and when you get home and logon to your Mac you'll have it there too.

Keeping it all in sync.
Keeping it all in sync.

Apple very recently added bookmark syncing for Safari users in version 1.1 of iSync. This allows you to synchronize your Safari bookmarks across different Macintoshes through the use of your iDisk. Sadly, this isn't an option for users of other Web browsers like OmniWeb. There also isn't a Web interface for the bookmarks. I'd like to be able to add a bookmark while I'm at work and have it show up in Safari the next time I use one of my Macs.

Automated backup, even though it's been around for a while, is also worth mentioning. Derrick Story published an article about how he uses the backup feature of Dot Mac for incremental saving of important documents while on the road. Since wireless connectivity is becoming more common, this feature of Dot Mac can be quite valuable for laptop users who travel frequently.

And finally, Apple also improved the display of iCal calendars on Dot Mac. I'm still waiting for the iCal pages on Dot Mac to be interactive so that I can manage events and to do items from anywhere.

Reload?

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Will existing customers reload Dot Mac? I'm not sure. There's an awful lot of talk on various Macintosh oriented message boards about not renewing the service. It seems like everyone you run into has a different reason for their decision. Some say the price is too high, others cite downtime issues (which I rarely encounter, by the way). Some hate the iDisk because it is too slow or too small. Many people feel there are simply better deals to be had.

I haven't absolutely decided whether or not I will renew my subscription. I think it is tough to beat the convenience of always being able to get at your email and address information, and I don't see anyone else providing that in a seamless fashion. I enjoy using my iDisk to store simple Web pages to show digital photographs to friends and family. Having a faster iDisk in Panther and being able to use it while offline will certainly be a plus. However, having an interactive calendar available on Dot Mac--and hosting free/busy data for it in a consistent location for all Dot Mac users--would hold more sway with me.

I'm leaning towards entering the door on the right and reloading. Right after I ask the Architect why the hell they made the Finder metal.

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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