One of the things that I like most about being a Mac user is HomePage – a wonderfully easy and stylish photo-sharing tool in Apple’s .Mac suite of Web services. It kept me subscribing to Apple's .Mac for six years. Now I'm looking into how I can get a refund for the remaining 11 months of a year it no longer does what I need it to do.

HomePage started life as Claris Home Page – one of the first user-friendly WYSIWYG HTML editors, which launched in 1996. Creating your own web pages required no knowledge of HTML. Version 3 included a bunch of good-looking web page templates. In 2000 it became HomePage in Apple’s online iTools suite.

iTools and Apple’s later versions are examples of so-called “cloud computing,” using the internet to allow users to access technology-enabled services and applications.

HomePage in iTools was free, and included a small number of cool templates, and some rather naff ones. Another part of iTools was iDisk, which gave us 20MB (yes, a full 20MB!) of online storage space for our photos and movies.

And it was free… until July 2002, when – faced with increasingly huge bills for hosting all these free iDisk accounts and multiple email addresses – Apple changed iTools to .Mac, and started charging £69/year. The fallout for Apple was immense. The company was even denounced by one Macworld reader at the time as acting like a drug dealer: “Dealers give out free drugs then charge once you need it. Sounds very like .Mac email addresses to me”.

The free iTools had 2.2 million members. Despite offering a concessionary discount to iTools users for their first year as .Mac subscribers, the conversion rate after a couple of weeks was under 5 per cent, with just 100,000 users remaining. By October 2002 that number had doubled, but the paid-for subscription model hurt the service badly. Two years later the number of .Mac subscribers had risen to half a million. Six long years later it is only now back to two million.

By this time Apple had added a bunch of new templates to HomePage, but such theme additions soon trickled to none. Despite it being such a great service – and well worth the yearly fee on its own in my opinion – HomePage and .Mac appeared to be low down Apple’s list of priorities.

Apple’s HomePage themes were largely examples of America’s kitcshy bad taste: seasonal templates “Spring” and “Fall” looked like grandma’s table placemats you might find in a charity shop; “School Bus” didn’t translate anywhere outside of the US; “Birthday” was all candles and ribbons; and “Gen Y” was simply indescribable.

But a handful were pretty good: “Modern” ironically looked like old-style slide transparencies but was neat and understated; “Pushpin” was graphite cool; and you could always opt for “Frameless”. Themes aside, the attraction of HomePage was its rapid, painless creation and delivery of professional-looking picture galleries.

That suited me and the hundreds of thousands of .Mac users, and we created millions of pages to share with friends and families. Many .Mac users also used their pages for small businesses.

In 2007, Apple added Web Gallery – which more closely resembled Yahoo’s Flickr photo-sharing service, and capacity was increased to 10GB. Fast forward a year to July 2008, and .Mac was gone – replaced with MobileMe and 20GB of online storage. Elsewhere in Macworld you can read all about the horror show that was/is the launch of MobileMe – with tens of thousands of users cut off from their email and basic services, with data lost and business communications destroyed. Apple appears to have released a very buggy beta.

I only ever really used my .Mac address to log into Apple Support pages and manage my iTunes account, so I wasn’t too badly affected by the MobileMe outages. What irks me is the loss of my beloved HomePage. Apple is, of course, within its rights to dump parts of its service, but is treating its paying .Mac customers as though they were still freebee-taking iTools users.

In a support document outlining the changes from .Mac to MobileMe, Apple states that “As part of the transition, some features were discontinued: Web access to bookmarks, iCards, .Mac slides, and support for OS X 10.3 Panther sync.” There’s no mention that HomePage is being dumped.

Another Apple Support document stated: ”At the launch of MobileMe … you will still be able to edit and delete your HomePage until October 10, 2008. Your published pages will stay live on the web for as long as you remain a MobileMe member.”

Mysteriously, this page was edited by Apple immediately after an online article I wrote pointed out this new information that HomePage users would not be able to edit or delete their pages after October 10.

While it’s clear that HomePage has been neglected by Apple for a couple of years now and MobileMe Gallery – the renamed Web Gallery – is seen as its successor, there’s something rather underhand and secretive about its removal that bugs the hell out of me.

MobileMe Gallery looks nice, but it doesn’t offer simple functions such as a view-counter button. Part of the joy of creating web pages is seeing how many people have viewed them. .Mac even had a little chart showing which of your pages was the most viewed. And, as naff as many of the themes were, HomePage allowed a lot more customization than Gallery does.

Worse still, MobileMe Gallery is incompatible with the most popular web browsers, notably Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE). Apple suggests that everyone instead upgrade to its own Safari or Mozilla’s Firefox. While that might be OK for MobileMe users it most certainly isn’t for all our friends and family who want to view our photos. Want to see my photos? Change your browser, buddy!

Yes, IE is another Microsoft product that stamps all over web standards and is buggy and horrible and evil, etc, but it’s used by 78.3% of the browsing public. Safari is used by 3.41%, and Firefox by 16.36%. So Apple might be technically correct in demanding non-IE use, but it is rendering its photo-sharing capability useless to most people. And many – especially those behind corporate firewalls and strict IT rules – can’t simply change for my or Apple’s benefit.

This also affects MobileMe users’ ability to read and send emails from their office or, say, an Internet café while on holiday.

Apple is slowly mopping up its MobileMess, but for many of its users it has wiped out one of its key features (photo sharing) and knackered many people’s email. It means I’m going to have to laboriously swap all my photo pages from .Mac to a free service such as Flickr, and dump MobileMe and my email address.

Throughout this PR disaster Apple has remained secretive and obstructive, refusing to answer any of my questions. It finally apologised about the problems and offered 30 days free service, but what’s the point of 30 extra free days of incompatibility with the real world? Kissing things better doesn’t really work, you know…

So Apple faces another mass exodus of people from its web services. It has somehow managed to simultaneously have its head stuck in the clouds (or rather its own Cloud) as well as Ostrich-like firmly in the ground.

Me, I’ll be mobile somewhere else.

Apple axes .Mac applications

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