By far the most controversial announcement during Steve Jobs's Macworld Expo keynote was Apple's move to turn its free iTools service into the fee-based .Mac (pronounced "dot-Mac"). Although iTools has amassed 2.2 million users since its launch at the start of 2000 (see "iSay, Apple's iStrategy Is iMpressive" in TidBITS-512), Apple has struggled slightly to find the right mix of features, dropping the iReview Web site reviews and the KidSafe service that selected sites appropriate for children, and most recently, surreptitiously implementing bandwidth limits on HomePage-based Web sites (see "iTools HomePage Bandwidth Limitations" in TidBITS-634). Nonetheless, the free Mac.com email addresses, 20 MB of iDisk space, and HomePage Web page hosting have proven extremely popular.
If you visit Apple's Web site now, though, you'll see no trace of iTools. It has been replaced with .Mac, a new service from Apple that offers some of the same features as iTools for a $100 annual fee; a one-year discount of $50 is available for current users who sign up before 30-Sep-02. (Apple also offers a 60-day free .Mac trial, which includes the same features of iTools plus Apple's Backup software, mentioned below.) The name change was undoubtedly done partly to help Apple distinguish the fee-based .Mac from the free iTools; it's also a play on Microsoft's .Net Web services initiative because .Mac is delivering a set of consumer-oriented Web services today.
If you do nothing, your iTools account will be deactivated on 30-Sep-02, and any data you have stored in your iDisk or on your Mac.com email account will be deleted (so make sure to download anything you don't want to lose to your hard disk).
What's New in .Mac -- Apple realized that just charging for the features available in iTools wouldn't be popular, so they attempted to sweeten the deal by extending what .Mac can do. Changes include the following; make sure to read the .Mac FAQ as well.
Mac.com email now offers 15 MB of storage space (up from 5 MB) and provides access via the Web as well as POP and IMAP. It also includes photo signatures. You can purchase additional storage, and if you want more than one email address you can buy up to 10 more Mac.com addresses for $10 per year each (though these addresses can't use photo signatures).
iDisks now come with 100 MB of disk space (up from 20 MB), and you can purchase additional storage. Apple also has a new iDisk Utility application (Mac OS X only) that helps you access and manage multiple iDisks and Public Folders.
HomePage now lets you send iCards with your own pictures to announce new Web pages, adds a "Send me a message" button that lets visitors send you iCards with feedback, offers more layouts for photos, runs slide shows full screen, makes instant site menus, and offers improved performance.
iCards remains available to everyone, but only .Mac members can send iCards using their own photos now.
.Mac members can download a new Backup program that works only with Mac OS X. It's a simple backup application that can save files to CD-R/CD-RW, DVD-R, and to your iDisk (though if you have a slow Internet connection you won't be able to back up much data to your iDisk). I strongly recommend that you adhere to a solid backup strategy as much as is possible with Backup - see "Have You Backed Up Today? Part 1" in TidBITS-432 for full details.
Along with Backup, .Mac members can download a copy of McAfee's Virex for either Mac OS 9 or Mac OS X, and your .Mac membership includes free virus definition updates. On the plus side, Virex can identify and eliminate Windows and Unix viruses as well as Mac viruses; on the downside, you must download and install new virus definitions manually, which runs counter to the entire .Mac concept.
You can now sign up for and use the iDisk and Mac.com email aspects of .Mac from a Windows machine, though Backup and Virex don't work on Windows, nor does the HomePage Web application.
Apple claims that .Mac members will receive technical support, saying, "Members have access to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), instant system/network status, the AppleCare Knowledge Base, and private discussion boards moderated by Apple technical support representatives to ensure that questions are answered within one business day." Frankly, it sounds lame - how are you going to use these tools if, for instance, your problem is that .Mac won't let you log in? Worse, support for Backup and Virex is limited to installation, launch, and removal of the software - too bad if you need help using the programs.
What's Coming in .Mac -- Although some people will likely find the selection of features in .Mac compelling right now, Apple has also announced additional features that should make the deal even better once Mac OS X 10.2 comes out on 24-Aug-02. With the new iCal, you'll be able to publish your calendars to .Mac and subscribe to other people's calendars, which will be helpful; you'll also be able to publish calendars to any WebDAV server.
More interesting will be shared screen saver slide shows - publish your photos to your iDisk and your friends and family can subscribe to your photos within their Mac OS X Screen Saver. This feature will go a long way toward providing the basic functionality of the Ceiva stand-alone picture frame - a neat device that requires a regular subscription fee and has one of the least usable Web interfaces I've ever had the misfortune to use.
Consternation and Controversy -- Many Mac users are furious about the switch from the free iTools to the fee-based .Mac. Many people simply didn't use iTools heavily enough to justify the added expense - the Mac.com email address was nice, but not worth $100 per year. Others are bothered by the fact that much of the value of .Mac seems to be in Backup and Virex, but people who are at all serious about backup and anti-virus software probably already own equivalent software that may be significantly more capable, as certainly is the case with Dantz's Retrospect backup applications. Plus, .Mac doesn't come with any Internet access, whereas most Internet connections from standard ISPs like EarthLink already include multiple email addresses and Web space, making the decision to pay yet again for these features more difficult. And finally, people feel let down because Apple initially made a big deal about how iTools was free and was intended to be a part of the overall Macintosh experience. Discussions on this topic have been raging on TidBITS Talk.
As with Apple's recent bandwidth limitations on HomePage-based Web sites, most people appear to agree that it's reasonable for Apple to want to recoup the costs of running the iTools service and even turn a profit. Steve Jobs even did well at introducing the unpopular news - he basically just pointed out that many of the other free Internet services are now either charging or have gone out of business because they didn't have viable business models. But Apple may have picked the wrong inducements to the 2.2 million existing customers. A 60-day grace period and a half-price discount for the first year are better than nothing, but a better move would have been to keep the Mac.com forwarding addresses available for free for current users. That would ensure that Mac.com email addresses would continue to help promote the advantages of the Macintosh out on the Internet at large while significantly reducing the bandwidth and disk space requirements of the service.
Another concern is that .Mac features are built into Mac OS X itself and into applications like iPhoto. It doesn't look good if high-profile functionality like having the iDisk be available from a Finder menu or HomePage publishing of Web photo albums simply doesn't work if you're not a .Mac member. It's poor user interface, and a poor user experience.
But what's your opinion? We're running a poll on our home page that asks about your plans regarding .Mac usage - let us know what you think. Also, since Apple has 60 days to reconsider these policies, I strongly encourage everyone who has an opinion on this topic to send Apple feedback. Keep it reasonable and acknowledge that Apple must run a viable business in your feedback (whining about how everything should always be free won't do any good at all). If we're lucky, Apple will moderate their position and at least keep free email forwarding for existing users.