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In Sync to Pierce the Cloud

“Cloud computing” is a white-hot buzzword these days. It basically means working with files and programs that reside on the Internet, beyond your company’s walls — out there in the “cloud.”

With the MobileMe service, photos can be uploaded to a gallery site, where visitors can download them for printing.

Everyday consumers are doing cloud computing, too, maybe without even realizing it. When you use an Internet-based backup service, or Google’s online word processor or spreadsheet, or a Gmail or Yahoo mail account, you’re working with data on a secure Internet server somewhere — not on your hard drive.

Apple is the latest company to find a silver lining in the cloud. Its new MobileMe service ($100 a year) is an overhaul of a suite of Internet features that used to be called .Mac.

Over the years, two million people signed up for .Mac, according to Apple , even though it was a sort of motley, unfocused service.

MobileMe, however, has a much clearer mission that solves a much clearer problem. It’s meant to keep the e-mail, calendars, address books and Web bookmarks on all of your computers — Macs, Windows PCs, iPhones and iPod Touches — synchronized in real time.

Apple.com

It works by storing the master copy of all this information in the cloud. Whenever your machines are online, they connect to the mother ship and update themselves. When you edit an address on your iPhone, you’ll find the same change in Address Book (on your Mac) and Outlook (on your PC). If you send an e-mail reply from your PC at the office, you’ll find it in your Sent Mail folder on the Mac at home.

MobileMe can be very helpful to families with busy calendars; now everybody can refer to the same, always-current datebook. You also escape the “two mailbox problem,” where your cellphone and computer have different e-mail addresses, so you can never remember where you read something. And you’ll never have to call home to ask someone to look up a phone number for you.

All of this should sound familiar to corporate employees; the BlackBerry works much the same way, and so do computers and phones that connect to corporate Exchange servers. Indeed, Apple’s tag line for MobileMe is “Exchange for the rest of us.” (Which is an odd slogan, since the target audience — “the rest of us” — is people who have no idea what Exchange is.)

So how is MobileMe? Well, let’s get the ugliness out of the way first: Its debut last week was a disaster that persisted for days. Existing .Mac members were supposed to be upgraded automatically, but many wound up having no e-mail at all for a day or two. There were bugs, glitches and error messages for days, making it one of the most ham-handed launches in Apple history.

Maybe it wasn’t such a hot idea to introduce MobileMe and the iPhone 3G simultaneously. (Apple has since apologized to its customers and extended their subscriptions by 30 days.)

All right, then: how is MobileMe now?

Allow a couple of hours to set it up. There’s a lot of stuff to download and prepare, and Apple’s instructions aren’t always complete.

You also have to set up your e-mail program to recognize your new MobileMe e-mail address, which ends with the conveniently short “me.com.” Mine, for example, is pogue@me.com; one perk of this fledgling service is that all the good addresses aren’t yet taken, as they are on Yahoo and Gmail.

(Apple won’t say how much it paid to get the juicy domain name me.com. “Let’s just say it wasn’t sitting for $9.95 in the domain registry,” cracked a product manager.)

Once everything’s ready, the magic is impressive. Make a change on your Mac, watch it appear on your iPhone and your PC. Add a new friend to the address book in Outlook Express on your Windows XP machine, and watch it appear in Windows Contacts on your Vista PC. Change an appointment in iCal on the kitchen Mac, and know that it will wirelessly sprout onto your traveling spouse’s iPhone four states away. And your Web bookmarks are the same everywhere.

If a change is made on two machines simultaneously, you’re presented with the conflict — you see both versions — and with one click, you choose which one “wins.”

On Macs, MobileMe can keep even more stuff synched, including your passwords and preference settings.

Actually, there’s a fourth place where you can work with your data: on the Web. At Me.com, Apple has built attractive, ad-free, online versions of your address book, calendar, e-mail program and photo-organizing programs. Unlike most Web programs, these have the fluidity and shortcuts of desktop software. For example, you can drag and drop messages into e-mail folders, flip through photos with the mouse, drag vertically to create appointments on your calendar’s timeline, hit the Enter key instead of clicking O.K. in a dialog box, and so on.

The beauty of the Web is, of course, that you can get to it from almost any computer. Beware, though: you need the latest version of Firefox or Apple’s Safari Web browser to exploit all the features. (After all those years of being treated like an oppressed minority, it must give Apple some satisfaction to exclude Internet Explorer because it “has known compatibility issues with modern Web standards.”)

There’s actually a lot more to MobileMe than sync, since it also retains most of the features of the old .Mac service.

For all the quality, some hitches

For example, you can upload pictures and movies to one of the best gallery sites on the Web. Stunning, animated slide shows greet your visitors, who can, at your option, download your photo files at full resolution for printing. People can even submit their own photos to your gallery by e-mail or cellphone, if you like.

You also get an iDisk: a virtual hard drive where you can park, back up or transfer files that are too big to send by e-mail.

(Not all of the old .Mac features survive, however. E-greeting cards are gone; discussion groups, homemade Web pages and the Backup program are buried and played down.)

MobileMe is the usual Apple value proposition: you might be able to find less expensive versions of its features online — various sync, backup and file-transfer sites — but none have the integration, polish and automation of Apple’s offering. Besides, the MobileMe price isn’t bad: for $100 a year, you get 20 gigabytes of online storage; the family pack costs $150 and gives you five accounts (40 gigabytes of storage total).

Now, not to rain on Apple’s cloud parade, but there are some hitches. For example, all that crowing about “push” and “Exchange for the rest of us” is slightly exaggerated. Changes you make on the Web or on your iPhone are indeed transmitted back and forth instantly. But Windows PCs and Macs send and receive changes only once every 15 minutes, or whenever you use the Sync Now command on your menu bar or system tray. Apple says it’s working to make the sync more immediate and will stop advertising the phrase “push” until it does.

Also, your to-do list is kept in perfect sync among Web, Mac and PC — but not the iPhone or iPod Touch. Bizarrely, they have no To-Do list at all, so there’s nothing to sync.

Even so, and despite its rocky start, MobileMe stands to solve a messy problem for a lot of people; anyone who owns more than one computer or Smartphone is already familiar with the dread of having out-of-sync data. It’s also great to know that the very latest versions of your life’s most important databases (mail, appointments, address book) are always backed up in a place that’s safe from fire, flood or thieves.

Put another way, you might really enjoy having your head in the cloud.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.

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