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.Mac: Future of a sleeping giant?

TUAW Interviews Merlin Mann

My tall, new friend Scott McNulty interviewed me yesterday for TUAW's Macworld coverage -- unintentionally providing me a fine bully pulpit from which to perpetuate my baseless theories and half-baked forecasts about how Apple might eat the lunches of about three different industries over the next couple years.

If they can pull it off, if they can fix .Mac, and if they have the vision to re-imagine themselves as the company who makes your entire digital world safe, fun, ubiquitous, and flawlessly integrated.

Anyhow, on with the motley, but stay tuned after the jump for value-added hand-waving.

So, exactly what the hell nonsense am I talking about here?

[Admission: This is a super-fast first draft of an admittedly far-fetched idea that's still taking shape, but I really wanted to get it out of my head while it's still fresh-ish]

Gulliver is tall

As the record shows, I'm practically useless as a technology forecaster, but I can't help feeling that Apple is slow-broasting some really interesting changes over the next year or two, centering around the currently enfeebled .Mac service (cough, cough, cough).

In a nutshell, based on products and services -- both released and announced -- as well as opportunities presented in the marketplace, I wouldn't be surprised to see any or all of the following changes from Apple (roughly in order).

  • Basic .Mac services will not only become free, but they may be required in order to take full advantage of future functionalities.
  • For the majority of .Mac power users who want more of whatever the offerings are at a given time, modest to crazy-expensive upgrades will be available.
  • .Mac will expand in several directions over time, to include:
    • Order of magnitude more storage on pay accounts
    • Automated backups (via something like Mozy)
    • "in-the-cloud" hosting of all your Mac stuff, including "~/Library/" contents; music, photos, and videos; plus every document you ever make.
  • The Preference syncing in .Mac now will be taken to the next level, to a point where a tweaked window view here is also reflected there (ala Migration Assistant?)
  • In sum, .Mac will become your secure Home directory. Or, more properly, it becomes the master copy from which all your hardware, hard drives, and flash media will in some fashion be synced.

But, why?

Well, in essence, your Mac Pro, your MacBook Air, your iPhone, your iPods nano and shuffle, and your Apple TV would all become agents for using the stuff you've stored on .Mac. Heavy (invisible, background) use of rsync-like diffs-syncing (ala Time Capsule?) will ensure that all your devices have the stuff they need, and in the appropriate size and format; e.g., 720p version of Weekend at Bernie's 2 goes to the TV; more modest size goes to the iPhone, etc. The value and attraction to consumers strikes me as obvious; on the same day, your electronic world becomes ubiquitous, backed-up, and very easy to maintain or access from anyplace.

If this is anywhere near do-able, Apple would be taking the concepts behind Spotlight, Time Machine, iTunes, and Smart Folders to their logical conclusion, creating an environment where Apple sits at the center of all your electronic needs, contextually syncing and serving what you need, when you need it, in a totally seamless fashion.

In conjunction, I'll bet we're going to see an explosion in alliances with companies like Google (for online apps), plus a heavy push for companies like Amazon and Disney to build iPhone apps that will leverage access to both the cloud and your increasingly PayPal-like .Mac account. ("Buy the song I just heard on this Disneyland ride, deliver four sets of Mickey Mouse ears to our hotel room, plus show me the best vegan snack within 5 minutes' walk of where I'm standing").

Think about it: a new lightweight laptop with a small hard drive; an iPhone that's getting dangerously close to becoming a remote for your home and life; an Apple TV that doesn't even require a computer; an iPod Touch that (rather mysteriously) now needs your credit card info and a login to get new apps onto the device. Then, fold in a couple big spoonfuls of the company's clearly increasing interest in becoming the people who sell or rent you the entertainment media that goes on all the machines you bought from them. I dunno.

I suppose it's my (still congealing) contention that right now, Apple deliberately keeps .Mac a dim-witted, sleeping giant. It's so unsexy, broken, and behind-the-times right now as to seem like a product out of a less forward-thinking company.

But what happens when that giant wakes up, stretches, and then starts standing in the middle of every single product Apple (and its partners) have to sell? It's so mind-boggling to consider the implications, especially given that it stands as one of the few persuasive explanations for why such a smart company would stay so quiet for so long about allowing a premium pay service go to seed this badly.

I think something is up. Big time.

But, what do you think?

Am I high? Will Apple make .Mac the center of their consumer offering? Or will it just continue to frustrate its paying customers until Google replicates all its services for free? What did you see in the tea leaves after the keynote?

Remiss63's picture

the problem(s) with .Mac, etc.

I agree with the above criticism of .Mac as an expensive service that doesn't perform adequately. The model Google is implementing (providing an increasingly wide range of online services without charge based primarily upon advertising income) doesn't seem to be one that Apple will follow.

There's no question .Mac needs to be revamped entirely. However, a great place to start would be to provide one year of .Mac free (or for a nominal fee) to anyone purchasing any Mac computer, iPhone or iPod Touch. Then they need to develop online apps that will rival Google's. They do not need to be free to the public, probably better if they are not.

However, an integrated suite of apps that work seamlessly with Mac computers, iPhones, and iPod Touches would provide the kid of private, exclusive club atmosphere that attract many people to purchase their incredibly well-designed products.

Apple's success with iTunes needs to be followed up quickly or they might end up one of multiple online music sellers. Simply by undercutting price, offering special features, packages, etc., Amazon and others can eat away at their near monopoly. Apple knows it needs to do with video what they've done with music.

It seems to me that Google has diluted itself to some extent, trying to do many many things. As long as they are done well and function properly, that's great.

To compete, Apple needs special features and programs that will accomplish things that cannot be done via Google. The ultimate goal of allowing iPhone users to easily purchase and download information to any of their Macs seems like a very logical step. Somehow the iPhone needs to work completely wirelessly (except for power recharging). Perhaps they need to purchase a highly secure Bluetooth-like communication system.

The only explanation I have for the lack of Bluetooth on iPhones is a concern with security and hacking. If Apple had a wireless method that automatically included hard encryption, that would ease many minds (consumers and media companies alike).

The MacBook Air is absolutely the latest, coolest version of the Cube. If Apple is serious about pushing everything in the wireless direction, it needs to deal with integrating their multiplicity of devices so they all work together cooperatively (at a minimum). Purchasing a movie using your iPhone to download to your computer (or AppleTV) so you can watch it when you get back home over the weekend would be just one example of such integration.

If designed and implemented properly .Mac has the potential to pull these disparate functions and appliances together as an integrated suite of "lifestyle devices".

I believe a key factor in making .Mac a dynamic, rapidly expanding service is to provide an API platform for users to develop applications to perform magical feats of integration that no one on earth can presently imagine. Like? Well ordering custom paint colors to be mixed and ready for you to pick up that you found surfing Flickr groups, composing and sending cards and matching flowers, ordering food to be ready at a particular restaurant at the time you will be arriving (based on a cooking podcast you just watched or a scene in a movie you viewed on your iPod Touch, etc.)

The combinations of functions are not predictable because they will be based upon instinct, emotion, appetite, and the general desire for instant gratification. Apple needs to find the way to speed people to all of the things they want in life: a bison burger, Japanese rice paper, a Fellini movie, a sitcom theme-song, French Fries hand delivered to their apartment, custom-made pizza delivered to your car, etc., etc.

No one can predict these sorts of things in advance. If Apple can use .Mac to become THE cool lifestyle implementation connection, they will have found manna from Jobs.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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