After converting its free iTools Internet-based set of services into the $100-per-year .Mac a little more than a year ago, Apple Computer Inc. offered users an assortment of carrots to lure them into signing up.
Besides cutting the first-year price in half, Apple also dangled an offer of 100 free photos via the Eastman Kodak Co. print service built into its iPhoto software. The combination of offers meant that iTools members effectively could get their first year of .Mac for nothing.
Even so, the move stirred discontent among Mac users who felt betrayed by the loss of the free service. Many complained that .Mac wasn't worth $100 a year, despite an increase in the storage space allotment to 100 megabytes, from 20 megabytes, and such free software as McAfee's Virex anti-virus software and the Backup utility.
But this year, the enticements aren't as sweet. Those renewing now may choose from two popular games, The Sims and EverQuest, or may opt for a $20 credit at the online Apple Store.
You also can shave more off your renewal fee by persuading friends to sign up for .Mac; you get $20 off for every reference. So, theoretically, you could get your next year of .Mac for free by signing up five Mac-using friends.
Most former iTools members that signed up for .Mac last year have until the end of the month or early October to renew. Should a member choose not to renew, all of the user's files stored on Apple's .Mac servers -- documents, photos, Web pages and movies -- will be deleted. The member also will lose his or her mac.com e-mail address.
When I wrote about .Mac last year, I noted that while it had some compelling features, the service was not worth $100 every year -- and that it would attract few renewals unless Apple enhanced it significantly.
On the surface, it would seem that the .Mac of September 2003 doesn't offer much more than the .Mac of September 2002. For your $100, you still get just one e-mail address with 15 megabytes of mail storage and 100 megabytes of iDisk storage for other files.
You can add more storage, but it's pricey: doubling your space costs $60 more; tripling your storage to 300 megabytes will add $100 to your subscription fee.
Increasing e-mail storage space to 25 megabytes costs an extra $10, while 50 megs, an extra $30. Additional mailboxes are $10 each and don't include more iDisk space.
The flagship software included with .Mac a year ago remains more or less the same, although a beta version of Backup now allows users to back up to external drives, one frequent source of complaints.
Virex, developed by a unit of Network Associates Inc., remains agonizingly slow compared with such competing anti-virus programs such as Norton Antivirus; otherwise, it does the job.
One thing .Mac does not provide is Internet access; to use it, you need to subscribe separately to either a dial-up or broadband service such as America Online Inc., Verizon Communications Corp. DSL service or Comcast Corp.'s cable service -- an expense on top of your .Mac fee.
On the positive side, Apple periodically has added more software goodies to .Mac, some for free -- Sticky Brain2, a file-organization program -- and some at a discount, including the current $5 off promotion for GameHouse's Super Mah Jong.
Over the past two months, Mac users have been weighing the merits of .Mac in numerous forums. The majority said they planned to renew despite the service's flaws.
An unscientific, voluntary poll of 941 site visitors taken by Macworld UK last month reflected the sentiment in the forums. More than half, 57 percent, said they would renew, versus 22 percent who would not and 21 percent who said they were undecided.
The forum's critics repeatedly pointed to problems with .Mac's e-mail and the sluggishness of accessing iDisk files over the Internet, even on broadband connections.
"When I was an iTools customer, I was constantly frustrated by the mac.com e-mail outages, the unbelievably slow iDisk service, and Apple's failure to keep their customers informed about hiccups in the services" wrote a user on a QuickTopic.com forum. "But it was free at the time, so I didn't feel I had a right to expect more."
(Apple will address iDisk's slow performance in Mac OS X 10.3 "Panther" by creating a mirror file of the data on the user's hard drive. Accessing iDisk data will be as fast as opening a local file.)
Others complained about the limitations of the service, pointing out that they can get a package that includes Internet service, several e-mail addresses and more Web storage space elsewhere for less money -- if not for free.
While it may be true that .Mac isn't well-suited for high-end professional uses like Web hosting, neither was it intended to be. Apple structured the service as an easy way to create Web sites (with tools such as HomePage), synching data and storing important files remotely for backup and/or accessibility from multiple computers.
What the other services don't have, and cannot hope to have, is .Mac's seamless integration with Mac OS X and Apple's numerous Internet-enhanced applications.
That integration, which makes many tasks as easy as clicking on a button or selecting an item from a menu, was by far the reason mentioned most often for renewing the .Mac service.
"Apple is betting that once you use .Mac, you will begin to see that it is far more than an e-mail service -- it is a tool for system-wide integration of your personal data," wrote one user in a forum at O'Reilly Network.
Consider what .Mac makes possible: