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Thursday, August 07, 2008, 07:00 am PT (10:00 am ET)

Inside iPhone 2.0: MobileMe Push Messaging


Things go awry

Apple's stage rehearsal for the MobileMe launch occurred last fall with the rollout of the .Mac Web Gallery. That launch went smoothly, as it only added new features for the existing couple million .Mac users without causing any impact on their existing services. There were likely only a minority of .Mac users who even gave Web Gallery a cursory examination, and the media didn't focus much attention on the new product offering. However, it would serve as Apple's first public web app based on SproutCore, which was later used to develop the companion apps that make up MobileMe.

Unlike the Web Gallery introduction, the new MobileMe apps entirely replaced the existing .Mac web mail, the Address Book online contacts, online Bookmarks, and the file download site. It also introduced a new web calendar and upgraded the Web Gallery. 

Additionally, MobileMe was advertised in conjunction with the iPhone 3G launch and sold as a companion product to provide push messaging for the new phone. The new web apps, new iPhone 2.0 software, new demand, and the monumental transition were all hit by a series of problems that resulted in a spectacular launch crisis overshadowed only by the activation meltdown of the iPhone 3G itself. 

Failure at launch

Apple shut down its web mail services on .Mac before the new MobileMe apps were accessible, failed to accommodate the rush of traffic from users curious about the new apps, and even lost some users' emails during the transition. Other users experienced sync issues ranging from minor to serious, and even a couple weeks after the MobileMe launch, Apple's new online apps were still often sluggish to access. 

Push messaging


The tech media gleefully jumped on the offensive, accusing Apple of lying about its push messaging after deciding that "push messaging" required desktop client apps to also push up updates instantly. Push messaging usually refers to updates being sent from the server to a mobile device, but Apple's marketing suggested that MobileMe would also push messages to desktop clients in real time (rather than just regularly syncing them). Apple apologized for overstating the service's new features and said it would stop referring to the service as push until data could be pushed in both directions to and from desktop apps.

A big part of the launch problem was that Apple advertised the service too effectively, informing Joe Sixpack as to why he'd want push. That in turn created a mob that demanded the new service act as flawlessly as it appeared to in Apple's marketing materials. Had Apple launched the service like Google might, as an ad-supported product with a conspicuous beta tag reminding users that all bets were off, or as Microsoft might, as an unfinished Enterprise product that companies needed to roll out themselves with the help of an army of consultants, the launch problems Apple faced probably wouldn't have even been noticed. 

But they were, and in great detail. Some pundits demanded Apple shut down the new service, echoing their previous advice to shut down .Mac because they didn't see any purpose for it. By any account, the MobileMe launch was seriously botched. Earlier this week, Steve Jobs emailed Apple employees with a rundown on the launch problems, along with a hindsight plan for how MobileMe features could have been rolled out incrementally, and separately from the introduction of the iPhone 3G, iPhone 2.0, and App Store. Jobs also noted that MobileMe should have been given "more time and testing" to meet Apple's standards.

While the launch of MobileMe certainly didn't go smoothly, the service itself is brilliantly well designed, both usable and attractive (despite some remaining flaws), and demonstrates the real potential of the future of web apps and web services. The next segment, which will kick off an entirely new series dedicated to MobileMe, will look closer at how Apple service works, and how it compares to competing services.

In the meantime, readers can find all six segments of AppleInsider's now completed "Inside iPhone 2.0" series on its own topics page.