Sizing up the .Mac Internet service

When Steve Jobs said at the Macworld

New York

show in July that the formerly free iTools Internet service would be upgraded, renamed .Mac and would cost $99.95 a year, my first thought was, "No, thanks."

Apple Computer Inc.

introduced iTools in January 2000 as a customer perk. One needed only to sign up to get a free e-mail address, 20 megabytes of online storage space, a simple way to create and post personal Web pages and a few lesser services.

As of July, approximately 2.2 million iTools accounts had been created, most just for the e-mail address. But finding out this privilege now would cost $100 a year -- discounted to $49.95 for iTools members as of July 17 who sign up by Sept. 30 -- was, to say the least, a shock.

In fact, Apple said last week that only 100,000 Mac users had signed up for the new service. This isn't quite as bad as it sounds when you consider that:

  • Conversion rates from free-to-paid services on the Internet typically hover around 10 percent;

  • Many iTools accounts were created and forgotten when folks set up their new Macs for the first time;

  • Many heavy users of the service had multiple accounts.

    Apple, based in Cupertino, Calif., now says it just can't afford to give away services anymore. The company claims the suite of .Mac services, which boosts storage space to 100 megabytes and adds backup and virus software, is worth $260 if purchased individually.

    Indeed, commercial backup and virus software each cost about $45 (Apple's calculates $50 for each). The going price for 100 megabytes of online storage space is about $50 a year; Apple figures $60. So Apple's numbers aren't far off the mark. The issue is that most Mac users feel they already have the bulk of what .Mac offers, or they don't need it.

    If you're already paying an Internet service provider $20 to $25 -- or, in the case of broadband, $40 or $50 -- a month, paying for an extra e-mail address and more Web space from Apple holds little appeal.

    The included backup and anti-virus software is of limited use. Mac viruses are extremely rare. Backing up over the Internet to the .Mac storage space is very slow, although you can use the software to back up to a recordable CD, known as a CD-R, or a DVD. And you must have an active .Mac account to use the program to backup to a CD-R. Even still, how many computer users ever back up their data?

    A .Mac account also includes access to "private" Apple tech-support discussion boards, but you can usually find the answer to your problem either on Apple's free online Knowledge Base or among the mass of information publicly available on Mac Web sites.

    Like many Mac users, I originally signed up -- mostly for the e-mail account -- and I used the other services infrequently. I had no intention of handing over $50 just for an e-mail address.

    But after waffling for a month and a half, I subscribed to .Mac, anyway. What changed my mind?

    Basically, Apple made the first year of .Mac risk-free, at least for me. In the first week of September, Apple threw in 100 free digital prints. The freebies show up as credits in the Kodak print service available via iPhoto.

    For a guy with nearly 900 images in his iPhoto library -- and who is way behind on getting them converted to prints -- this was a juicy inducement.

    With digital cameras, you don't automatically get prints. You either have to print the images out on your inkjet, upload them to an Web-based printing service or take your memory card to a brick-and-mortar photo developer.

    Regardless of which option you choose, the 4x6 prints will cost you 40 cents to 50 cents apiece, excluding shipping.

    True, the Apple offer does not include shipping, but I could order all 100 at once for $6.99, which normally would cost me, with tax, $58.44. So even if I decide that .Mac itself is of marginal value, my first year essentially will cost me nothing.

    Another thing that pushed me toward .Mac was the compulsion "power users" have to possess the latest and the greatest. Apple has indicated that it will keep enhancing the .Mac service -- and I couldn't bear to be locked out of some droolworthy future feature.

    And despite its generally weak services, .Mac provides something no other software can: integration with the Mac operating system and Apple's collection of freeware, like iPhoto.

    For example, Mac OS X has a menu item that connects you to your online storage space, called iDisk. Once connected, the iDisk icon appears on your desktop and functions just like a hard disk, although much slower.

    In iPhoto, however, a .Mac account lets you easily create Web pages of your images. Apple's new iCal application can save your personal schedules to your .Mac space, where other iCal users can subscribe to them.

    As currently offered, .Mac is probably worth about $50 a year if you plan to take advantage of most of the features and appreciate the reduction in headaches you'll get by having such features integrated with your Mac. The free Kodak prints makes signing up for .Mac a no-brainer for digital-camera owners who had an old iTools account.

    For Mac users who never had an iTools account, .Mac is not worth the $99.95 regular price -- yet.

    So while Apple may succeed in luring a respectable number of subscribers into .Mac with its tempting introductory offers, the clock is ticking. Unless the company adds enough compelling new features over the next 12 months to convince Mac users that the service is worth $100 a year, a lot of them won't renew come September 2003.
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