Apple's MobileMe: Mobile life without Exchange

BlackBerry Internet Service works, with catches, for professionals. Will MobileMe work for iPhone pros?

Like the presidential seal that vanished without comment from a politician's press podium, the competitive marketing brickbat that Apple flung at BlackBerry -- that BlackBerry's push e-mail works only with Microsoft Exchange, as if Exchange were an onerous burden -- quietly vanished from Apple's campaign.

Exchange Server turns out to be the only customer-hosted messaging back end supported by iPhone 3G and first-gen iPhones running 2.0 software. It's true that BlackBerry requires BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), but BES integrates with Domino and Groupwise as well as Exchange, and BES works transparently with non-BlackBerry devices through BlackBerry Connect. I'll always be here to set the record straight.

If you balk at the extra $3,000 to $10,000 it takes to strap BES onto Exchange, then your needs are more basic. You may be best served by a third-party hosting provider, but even that can be overkill for individual professionals and small businesses. RIM's solution for individuals is BlackBerry Internet Services (BIS), its own hosted push messaging. BIS is bundled free with T-Mobile's BlackBerry coverage plans (I can't speak for other carriers), and it replaces an earlier consumer-targeted service that included a Web-based mail reader and server-side message filters.

I liked that service, but it carried a stringent limit on mailbox size, which BIS does away with, in addition to the Web interface. On T-Mobile's network, messages aren't stored where you can get at them using anything but your BlackBerry, but BIS can keep an unlimited number of messages in flight until they're either fully delivered or they bounce to the sender after several days of failed delivery. BIS can maintain multiple mailboxes for each subscriber, with separate folders on the device's home menu and dedicated client-side filters (for example, vibrate for VIP messages even when the phone is in quiet mode). You can gateway POP3 mail through BIS, and although POP isn't inherently push-capable, once BIS picks up a message, it follows the same assured delivery path as any other BlackBerry missive.

[ Get the scoop on how to make the iPhone fit in the enterprise in InfoWorld's special report. ]

Anything that's free comes with a catch, and in the case of BIS, it only handles e-mail. You can send and receive appointments and individual contacts packaged as standard e-mail attachments, but they don't hit your calendar or address book until you open the attachment. Also, unless you're running BES, your calendar and address book live only on your device until you manually back them up on your desktop. BIS affords users no gateway to the sort of live collaboration, shared folders, and instant messaging offered by Exchange and BES. That's why "enterprise" is BES's middle name.

Apple didn't frame .Mac, its subscription-based online service for Mac clients, as a solution for professionals. However, Steve Jobs touts .Mac's evolved form, MobileMe, as "Exchange for the rest of us" -- quite a boast indeed. MobileMe, which costs $99 per year or $149 for a five-user pack, is the only way non-Exchange users can get push e-mail to their iPhones. MobileMe has that in common with BIS, but the similarities end there.

I am a longtime .Mac subscriber, so I'm familiar with MobileMe's features: 10GB of sharable online storage, slick AJAX mail, address book and calendar clients with sweet touches like recipient completion, the requisite personal Web site/blog, and photo gallery.

Fairly recently, .Mac took on a couple of new roles custom tailored for professional users. It provides manual or scheduled synchronization of contacts, bookmarks, appointments, mail rules, and mailboxes (not messages) across multiple Mac clients. Everything synced with your Mac is reflected immediately in MobileMe's Web interface. Back to My Mac, also relatively new, is a secure screen-sharing gateway that burrows through residential Internet providers' NAT and router firewalls. For those of us who have more than one Mac, .Mac is our sanity's savior. MobileMe is at least that.

A simple characterization of MobileMe is that it's .Mac with iPhone support. That would be enough to recommend it, but there's much more to it. MobileMe adds push capabilities for e-mail, calendar, and address book so that the clients and devices you enroll for synchronization with your MobileMe account are updated within seconds of any change made by a client or via MobileMe's Web interface. The update delay, as demonstrated by Apple, is minor -- short enough to allay my suspicions that iPhone is just polling MobileMe at close intervals.

Based on Apple's claims, which I can't prove out until my iPhone 3G arrives tomorrow, MobileMe has the power to elevate iPhone to lead consideration among smartphones for mobile professionals. If MobileMe doesn't already read too good to be true, consider the grace note: Windows Outlook clients can now be joined to MobileMe's pool of push-synced clients. If calling MobileMe "Exchange for the rest of us" doesn't target MobileMe at individual professionals, then support for Outlook, which is hardly the mail client of choice for home users, makes a clearer case; $99 per year for push e-mail plus over-the-air, cross-platform desktop/device sync is an absolute no-brainer.

I've contemplated, but not tested, the notion that Apple might have used ActiveSync or a protocol enough like it to fool Outlook, to push MobileMe messages and updates. Why not? We know that Apple licensed ActiveSync for its iPhone 2.0 software. I'm getting ahead of myself by imagining MobileMe as a premier individual messaging and sync service for Windows and Windows Mobile smartphones, but that'd be a kick in the head.

BIS may end up looking pretty anemic compared to MobileMe from a features perspective, but it executes its limited feature set flawlessly. There's no need to qualify my recommendation of BIS to a professional user that only needs push e-mail with guaranteed intact delivery in both directions. I have used BIS in that role, on and off, for years. The problems I've had with it have been of my own making. MobileMe has to prove itself to be a bulletproof individual push messaging solution above all else, and I'll be taking regular and ruthless shots at it as I give iPhone 3G a chance to serve where BlackBerry has gone before it.

Enterprises don't need a stand-in for Exchange Server. Neither BIS nor MobileMe permit the building of workgroups, and they don't enforce policies or otherwise enable central management of devices. Organizations with these needs that have even a few handsets in their fleet will find Exchange, Groupwise, or Domino a necessity. iPhone will have to earn its reputation as an enterprise device by mating with Exchange Server as seamlessly as my BlackBerry and Windows Mobile devices do. But iPhone also has to satisfy the needs of one, two, or five users. MobileMe puts Apple on an ambitious path toward that goal.

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