Apple yanks MobileMe storage service from retail

Hints at switch to tiered offer, with free intro and paid premium subs, says analyst

Apple today pulled the retail version of its MobileMe sync and storage service from its online store, and dropped the service from the list of optional factory-installed software for its Macs.

The service caters to Windows PC, Mac, iPhone and iPad owners, who use it to synchronize address books, calendars and e-mail between devices. The service also offers 20GB of online storage space, as well as Web-based e-mail, calendar and contact applications.

MobileMe, which was priced at $99 for a single user membership and $149 for a five-user family pack, has disappeared from Apple's e-store. Search results from, say, Google, now lead to invalid pages on Apple's site.

Users can still sign up for a free 60-day trial of MobileMe, however.

Some have connected MobileMe's vanishing act with news yesterday from Apple's annual stockholders meeting, where COO Tim Cook said that the company's $1 billion data center would open this spring.

"I think they indicate changes ahead, which would be good," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "MobileMe has been a fairly lackluster service, and never offered the bang for the buck that people wanted," he added, noting that many of the same services are available from Google and others on the Web for free.

The North Carolina data center, which reports last fall said was ready then to go online "any day," will instead open on an unspecified date this spring, said Cook yesterday.

He also confirmed that the data center would support iTunes and MobileMe accounts, but did not elaborate or spell out changes to either service. Speculation has centered on the center providing the necessary storage for cloud-based music streaming, or online storage of consumers' files, photos and music. Or both.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous sources, said that Apple would revamp MobileMe to offer a free cloud-based storage service to users, perhaps to owners of a new smaller iPhone that would forgo the massive amounts of RAM storage space in its current smartphone.

Gottheil seconded that, but believed that Apple won't leave all the MobileMe money on the table.

"I think they'll offer a free intro version of MobileMe, but also a tiered version," Gottheil said. "They want that subscription revenue stream."

The data center, which is located near Maiden, a town of about 3,300 in western North Carolina northwest of Charlotte, is a 500,000-square-foot facility, about five times the size of Apple's current data center in Newark, Calif.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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