The .Mac Tax

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Chuck Toporek
Jan. 20, 2006 09:27 AM

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Okay, let's get one thing straight here: I am a paid .Mac member, so I have every right to bitch and complain. In fact, I've been a .Mac member so long that I remember when it used to be called iTools. And like most .Mac members (and long-time Mac users), I remember that fateful day in 2002 when Steve Jobs announced at Macworld New York that the iTools service would be renamed .Mac, and that it would no longer be free. But, hey, you'd be getting all this great stuff to go along with it.

That was then, this is now.

According to Macworld magazine, there were roughly 2.4 million iTools users when Apple made the switch to .Mac. Granted, a lot of those 2.4 million "people" were probably like me, folks who registered multiple iTools accounts for various reasons. (I'll admit, I had three iTools accounts, one each for my wife and I, and another that I used strictly for extra iDisk storage.) And according to Steve Jobs' keynote address at Macworld San Francisco last week, there are now over 1 million paid .Mac members. (Keep in mind that Apple switched iTools to .Mac back in July 2002, and they're just now up to 1 million paid .Mac members. Even if half of the iTools members had two accounts, that still means it's taken Apple 3.5 years to get to the million-member mark.)

So the question of "Why has it taken Apple so long to reach 1 million paid .Mac members?" comes to mind. Well, the first reason would be the cost of the service; $99 per year. When you take a free service and suddenly put a price tag on it, people will jump ship, and in this case, people jumped ship in droves.

Before I wrote Inside .Mac, I asked a lot of paid .Mac members what they were using the service for, and the majority of those people said email and iDisk storage. So, at the time, they were paying $99/year for 15 MB of IMAP email space (with a 3 MB/message maximum size), and 100 MB of iDisk storage space. That's a lot to cough up annually for just a couple things you would normally get for free with your ISP. One obvious way around the email storage issue was to set your client to use POP instead of IMAP, but that takes away the "email anywhere" feature.

As I tried to point out in my .Mac book, there's a lot more to .Mac than meets the eye. At the time the book was printed, email and iDisk space were the same, but you also got Virex for virus protection, Apple's own Backup application for backing up your data, the online HomePage tools, and the iLife applications iMovie and iPhoto just started to have built-in integration with .Mac.

Also, if you looked in the folders on your iDisk, you'd find a folder called FreePlay Music, which included hundreds of music tracks which you could use, for free, in your iMovies. To me, the FreePlay Music tracks alone were worth the price of the .Mac membership. But now they're gone, and so is Virex. In fact, Virex 7.5 was so brutal on the system that Apple quickly withdrew it as a benefit application, and now when you look at what you get with .Mac, you won't even see Virex listed anymore.

So, just what am I getting for my hundred-bucks-a-year? According to Apple's site, this is what you get with a .Mac membership:

  • Publishing with iWeb (requires iLife '06).
  • iDisk storage of up to 1 GB of space that's shared between your iDisk and .Mac email account.
  • Groups (and each .Mac Group you create takes up a minimum of 30 MB of storage space from your iDisk!)
  • Sync (built into Mac OS X Tiger's System Preferences)
  • Member Benefits, such as discounts on select software and free samples from the GarageBand Jam Packs.
  • Access to Apple's online Learning Center, some of which is available without a .Mac membership, and some just for members.
  • Photocasting (requires iPhoto 6, found in iLife '06)
  • Backup 3, Apple's own backup application which you can use to backup data to your iDisk, to your hard drive or an external disk, or to CD or DVD.
  • Mail, available as IMAP or POP (default is IMAP), and shares storage space with your iDisk.

There's also a .Mac Family Pack, which lets you set up and manage up to five .Mac accounts, but we won't cover that here. Instead, I'm choosing to focus on the single-user .Mac membership.

When you think about it, .Mac costs you more than just the seemingly $99/year membership fee. Let's see, I paid $2000 for hardware, $99/year for .Mac, $79/year for "upgrades" to iLife so I can use the .Mac features, and now .Mac has been bound into the OS, so I'm paying, on average, about $129/year for OS upgrades as well. Forgetting the price of the hardware, at the base level, .Mac is costing me -- roughly -- $300 per year! Now, American Express has a trademarked slogan, "Membership Has Its Privileges," but so far with my .Mac membership, I'm not really seeing those "privileges."

When things like the FreePlay Music get unceremoniously dropped, when Virex starts uncontrollably running processes on my system and brings it to its knees, and when the online HomePage tools suck so much that Apple realizes they need to come up with another solution (iWeb), and then charges you for that solution, there's a problem!

I already have a Google Gmail account that gives me, what, 2.5 GB(!) of email storage space for free, and there are lots of online storage sites that offer way more storage for less or free (if you don't mind bloated ads being served up in your face).

So what's the .Mac Advantage?

From what I can tell, the only .Mac Advantage (and granted, this is a big one) is tighter integration with iLife and the OS. And while that integration with Mac OS X is nice to have, it makes me more dependent upon the OS and the iLife applications (iMovie, iPhoto, and now GarageBand and iWeb) than ever before. And at the very base level of just the cost of a .Mac membership and yearly "upgrades" to iLife, I really find myself asking if it's worth paying $179 a year for.

If .Mac is going to be so tightly bound into the iLife apps and the OS, then a .Mac membership should be bundled in with one of them. Well, at least that's my opinion. Right now, iLife costs $79 per year with no incremental upgrade cost (which really chaps my hide, but I'll complain about that one later). Why can't Apple charge $129/year for a version of iLife that includes a .Mac membership? Or why can't Apple charge $159 for an OS upgrade (the last two system upgrades for Panther and Tiger were $129 each) that includes a .Mac membership? Doing either one of those would greatly increase member retention and add a bunch of new members to the service.

Granted, I can see where this might be an accounting nightmare for someone at Apple if they have to split hairs to push funds over to the .Mac team, but still, it's simple enough math that my 9-year-old nephew could figure it out and make it happen.

The way I look at it, I'm being taxed to the tune of $100/year by Apple to have a .Mac account, and that's not really fair. I've been a faithful Mac user for years, and I believe in supporting and evangelizing the platform just as much as many of the other Mac faithful out there, but this to me just seems wrong. .Mac offered more in the way of services and "freebies" to its members in the early days than it does now. If things like "Publishing to the Web" and "Photocasting" are listed as member benefits -- and are only available by purchasing the latest copy of iLife -- then those really aren't "benefits"; they're add-ons that cost me a fee.

Do I feel like I'm getting my $99.95/year out of .Mac? Nope, I don't. Will I renew again next Fall? Most likely; mainly because all of my friends have been reaching me at my email address since I registered the account name with my iTools account long ago. I don't want to give up that address, but I don't think I should have to pay $100/year for it when I'm already buying a new copy of the OS and iLife annually.

Apple should put an end to the .Mac Tax and just roll it into the OS or iLife. It makes more sense that way. Well, at least that's my opinion; what say you?

Chuck Toporek is a Mac technology geek and a senior acquisitions editor with Addison-Wesley, a division of Pearson Education. He is the author of three Mac books and one medical book, and he has written for MacAddict and Macworld magazines.