Daniel Eran Dilger
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Microsoft plays catch up to MobileMe with My Phone


Prince McLean, AppleInsider

Microsoft’s answer to portions of Apple’s MobileMe service was expected to be called SkyBox, but the company is now rebranding the mobile data sync service as My Phone, according to pages posted to the company’s Windows Mobile website.

AppleInsider | Microsoft plays catch up to MobileMe with My Phone

The original SkyBox name was supposed to connect the service with a variety of other planned services the company is getting to roll out, including SkyLine (SkyBox for businesses), SkyMarket (Microsoft’s answer to the iPhone App Store for Windows Mobile), and SkyDrive (an online disk service similar to Google’s GDrive or Apple’s iDisk service in MobileMe). Of those plans, SkyDrive is the only one that is already live (it is the rebranded version of what Microsoft once marketed as LiveDrive).

The rebranding of SkyBox to My Phone (as in “rhymes with iPhone”), as well as the blue globe graphic Microsoft is using for the service (below), certainly call to mind the iPhone and Apple’s .Mac branding. Of course, the My Phone service will work exclusively with modern Windows Mobile 6 devices, just as MobileMe only works with the iPhone/iPod touch. That has many tech sites calling My Phone “Microsoft’s MobileMe,” though the new service isn’t identical to MobileMe in features.

Microsoft My Phone vs Apple MobileMe

While both services offer to sync settings, contacts, and calendar data, as well as present a web interface for accessing and editing the same data, My Phone also serves as an online version of some of the features of iTunes, allowing it to backup the entire phone device to the cloud and then restore that image to a new phone. My Phone also plans to offer to sync photos taken by Windows Mobile phones to its online service, similar to how the iPhone can upload photos to a MobileMe gallery.

In contrast, MobileMe delegates the task of full phone backups to iTunes, and full desktop photo sync to iPhoto, using a USB cable for both. Microsoft warns that “the data plan you have with your mobile operator may require you to pay data-transfer charges when you use the service,” something that iPhone users backing up to iTunes or syncing with iPhoto over USB wouldn’t incur. USB is also several hundred times faster than mobile 3G networks, and is not subject to poor signal problems or dropped service connections.

A future version of My Phone plans to expand the service to also allow users to “change ringtones, backgrounds and manage their mobile apps, music and video all from the cloud,” according to a ZDNet report. That would move even more of the tasks currently performed by iTunes for the iPhone into an online cloud service. Currently, in addition to MobileMe data sync, Apple lets users download and buy mobile software and music and videos via the cloud with the App Store and iTunes icons directly on the phone, but manages other data on the iPhone using desktop apps.

Microsoft My Phone

The sky’s not the limit

Microsoft’s information page also says it “does not charge a fee for the My Phone service at this time,” (the service plans to support itself by running ads on its web pages) while Apple charges $99 per year for MobileMe. However, Apple also gives MobileMe users ad-free web pages and 20 GB of disk space for combined email, file hosting, and data sync, while Microsoft only plans to provide 200 MB in its My Phone service. The company’s separate SkyDrive/LiveDrive service currently offers gigabytes of free disk storage, but it can’t be combined or used together with My Phone.

As the company’s site explains, “Your Microsoft My Phone account gives you 200 MB of free storage on the Microsoft My Phone web site. If a synchronization would result in exceeding this limit, you will receive an error message on your phone and your account on the My Phone web site will only include information received prior to reaching this limit. Any files in excess of this limit will not be saved.”

While 200 MB might be plenty of space for backing up a phone image along with calendars and contacts, it does not represent very much email for the typical user, who can easily have multiple gigabytes of mail. My Drive also syncs data files on Windows Mobile phones, which would quickly eat up disk space on the cloud. However, by default, it will only sync files saved internally to the phone itself, and not any files copied to memory cards, according to Microsoft’s information page. Since most Windows Mobile phones offer very little built in storage, that might limit how much space in the cloud users might think they need. Any way you slice it though, 200 MB isn’t very much space in 2009, even for a mobile device.

No push synchronization for My Phone

Apple’s MobileMe rollout last fall was marred by complaints over its push messaging services, which users complained only pushed instant updates between the web and the iPhone and down to desktop; updates made on the desktop could initially take as much as 15 minutes to find their way back up to the cloud. However, Microsoft’s My Phone service doesn’t push immediate updates at all. There is no word on how the service will sync to desktop applications at all, but mobile devices will only be updated once a day, at night by default. Users will have to force an update to get updates made on the web to show up on the phone faster than an overnight courier might deliver them.

As the site explains, “Microsoft My Phone will automatically synchronize information between your mobile phone and your Microsoft My Phone web account once per day between 11:00 P.M. and 5:00 A.M., except when you cannot connect to your default data network – for example, when your phone is turned off, out of range, or roaming. You can also back up your data manually at any time by selecting Sync in the Microsoft My Phone application.”

The iPhone also allows users to optionally turn on push sync with email, contacts, calendar, and bookmarks separately, depending on their needs. The more data that is being kept in sync, the more frequently the phone will be updated and therefore the more the battery will be hit. Apple also allows users to change MobileMe’s push sync to manually fetch data every 15 or 30 minutes, hourly, or daily.

No desktop sync details for My Phone

As with MobileMe, phones that sync to My Phone can’t also sync the same data to Exchange Server; in either case, phones configured to sync with Exchange will only sync their Exchange calendar and contact items with Exchange, and not with data on other services. The strangest omission on Microsoft’s site however, is any mention of how the My Phone service will connect to the company’s desktop applications.

Without using its own Exchange Server infrastructure to manage the sync, it appears Microsoft is planning to only provide web access to My Phone users’ data, and provide no conduit to Outlook or Vista’s Windows Mail and Calendar at all. There’s also no mention of using My Phone in conjunction with desktop applications to keep data in sync everywhere, meaning all updates will have to happen over the mobile data network.

Microsoft’s separate SkyMarket mobile software service, which is not expected to open until late this year, is similarly expected handle software purchasing and updates over the air only, with no equivalent to Apple’s iTunes for browsing, purchasing, or backing up mobile applications from the desktop.

With MobileMe, Apple uses Sync Services on Mac OS X to sync updates to its own apps (as well as any third party Mac apps that plug into Sync Services), and it also installs sync support on Windows as part of iTunes, which updates synced MobileMe data with both any mobile devices used on the PC as well as Windows applications such as Outlook, Outlook Express, and Windows Contacts.

No connection to existing email accounts for My Phone

Apple’s smaller teams working on MobileMe, iTunes, and the iPhone work with closer contact and within a central strategy managed by a smaller executive team, compared to Microsoft’s wider focus and broader strategies in parallel development within the company’s various divisions, as well as in incorporating some of the company’s many acquisitions.

Apple’s MobileMe originated as .Mac, an email, web hosting, and online disk space account combined with a way to sync information between multiple Macs via Apple’s servers. With the name change to MobileMe, Apple added the ability to push updates to mobile devices (the iPhone and iPod touch), made it easier to sync data to Windows PC applications, and enhanced the web applications than provide online email, calendar, contacts, file management, and photo and video sharing on the web. Along the way, Apple upgraded existing users and provided them with a fairly seamless upgrade plan (although many users did run into problems during the transition).

In contrast, My Phone is just one of many overlapping services being promoted by different divisions of Microsoft. The My Phone/SkyBox service didn’t originate within Microsoft, but is based on MobileKeeper Backup & Restore, MobileKeeper Sharing & Communities, and Active mTicker software the company acquired in buying up Portuguese developer MobiCorp last summer.

My Phone has no apparent connection to Microsoft’s Live Mesh and Windows Azure, the cloud computing platform Microsoft is gearing up to provide to third party developers. It also has no integration with Live Hotmail, so users with a Microsoft email account won’t be able to sync their contact data with My Phone. “If you have Windows Live installed on your phone,” the company’s site notes, “it will synchronize your Windows Live contacts with the Windows Live web site, and My Phone will synchronize your other contacts to your account on the My Phone web site.”

  • http://www.systematicabstraction.com/ KA

    I stopped reading at 200 MB.

  • pa

    All this confusion about how My Phone integrates with other Microsoft offerings such as Live Hotmail, Windows Live, or Outlook and Exchange provides excellent incentives for one to become an expert. Think of all those work-from-home jobs that can be created to help sort all this out for consumers. A new Microsoft Certification: Microsoft Certified Neighborhood Engineer.

  • gus2000

    This article made me think of the “Get a Mac” commercial about iMovie. On the one hand, you have Gisele Bündchen. On the other, you have some dude in a wig and a dress.

  • John E

    it’s inevitable that everyone will compare MyPhone with MobileMe as Dan does here. but that misses a bigger picture.

    bear in mind, as Dan has described many times, that WinMobile is a different OS than Windows, dating back to its beginnings in the 1990’s as Win CE.

    Thus what MS has to do now to compete with the iPhone and Android is develop a suite of extensions for WinMobile that matches their functions. so we will have MyPhone, separate from the “sky” or “live” programs that are part of Windows proper. we will also have the Zune store, similarly separate from Windows. and an app store too. presumably these will all be part of the WinMobile 6.5 package coming out later this year, just so MS can seem to keep up with its smartphone competition for now.

    but MobileMe of course is much more. it unites the iPhone/Touch – both running a version of OS X – directly with Mac computer desktop synch services. Just as iTunes and its Store unifies all media handling among everything. Apple is far ahead here. but i’ll bet very few of the hundreds of web posts we will read next week about WinMobile will connect these dots.

    so MS is continuing its legacy of two different OS’ ecosystems, one desktop, one mobile. the consumer gets a confusing setup as a result, with limited capabilities.

    MS apparently hopes to functionally finally unify WinMobile and Windows sevices (not the OS’s) in 2010 via Windows 7 and WinMobile 7, at least via “cloud” services if not software. we’ll see.

  • http://home.comcast.net/~daguy daGUY

    I get the feeling there’s a big disconnect between different teams at Microsoft. They frequently promote multiple products that overlap each other in features, adding an unnecessary layer of confusion where there shouldn’t be any. As an added bonus, their duplicate products are often incompatible with each other, even though they share the same set of features!

    My Phone vs. Windows Live is one example (both can manage and sync your phone contacts, but they’re not interoperable). PlaysForSure vs. Zune is another (Microsoft created PFS purposefully to guarantee that music will play on any portable device, and then their own player doesn’t work with it). There’s the Windows Live apps (Mail, etc.) that don’t replace their built-in Windows counterparts. Windows itself comes with Notepad and Wordpad! Why do you need two different basic text editors?!

    They need to learn the concept of “less is more,” I think.

  • plasticsyntax

    The disconnect and overlap you see are by design. Many of the groups within Microsoft are now being run more like autonomous start-ups instead of managed in a top-down fashion. Integration of the most successful applications is probably (hopefully) planned for the future. This is how Google has operated and they’ve gotten away with it – integration between gmail and google calendar, for example, is still pretty weak.

  • ftack

    Hi Daniel,

    I work for http://www.nomadesk.com, which offers easy and secure file sharing, wherever you are. I read your post on Cloud Storage, My Phone and Google’s GDrive with great interest and just wanted to add NomaDesk to the mix.

    NomaDesk, trusted by mobile (“nomadic”) businesses for several years now both in Europe and the U.S., has similar features such as the ones you mention. We are convinced that the more data gets synchronized, the more likely it gets compromised. Therefore, NomaDesk includes an encrypted virtual drive that keeps your files securely available off-line and remote file shredding and IP-tracking with TheftGuard. Of course, we impose no limits on storage and bandwidth.A Mac version is on its way.

    NomaDesk works with a local client and allows access to your files from anywhere on the web. We have very good reasons to work with a local client, next to the already “traditional” web interface (e.g., box.net, the late Xdrive, etc.):

    (1) 100% availability of the data, regardless of network quality
    (2) 100% performance when editing files, using any type of program
    (3) 100% simplicity; just drag-n-drop files to synchronize and share them
    (4) 100% security on the PC also: the virtual drives that NomaDesk creates on the PC are encrypted and can be shred remotely via our online TheftGuard service.

    The bulk of our users, which are SOHO and SMB teams, appreciate the straightforward and secure file sharing they get through using the NomaDesk client software. You should know that in most cases NomaDesk replaces the traditional file server, FTP and VPN – with success!

    Please let me know your thoughts.

    Kind regards,

  • counterproductive

    That might very well be what some people are telling themselves; but “by design” sure seems to mean one thing to Apple (and most people), and quite another thing to MS. Most people fail to see how embracing the reality they have to live with and touting it as a feature equals “by design.”

    Google already has it’s unifying structure/OS in one sense — the internet, with standards. Each Google group is at least working in the same solar system as the others.

  • plasticsyntax

    You’re absolutely right that the term “by design” is being applied in a different way. I meant “by design” in that this is how they have designed their strategy, not in the “Apple makes a well-designed ec0system of products” sense. Perhaps it would be more clear to say it’s something they have planned and executed as a response to their innovation-stifling way of doing business in the past.

    Your second comment is confusing; both MS (the Live teams) and Google are working on the same platform (the world wide web) in a seemingly haphazard fashion to allow their employees to innovate with less top-down dictatorial management. I’m not saying that this is a good or bad strategy.

    I also never said that MS is good at following Internet standards – they’re not; I’m just not surprised there’s no integration between their offerings, as Google didn’t have very much integration until recently. I owe this to the fact that Google let their product offerings appear organically and then works at integrating the best ones; the integration is also well done when it does appear, such as gmail automatically detecting that I’ve been invited to something via email just by interpreting the text.

  • http://home.comcast.net/~daguy daGUY

    @Plasticsyntax: “The disconnect and overlap you see are by design. Many of the groups within Microsoft are now being run more like autonomous start-ups instead of managed in a top-down fashion. Integration of the most successful applications is probably (hopefully) planned for the future.”

    But what business sense does it make to simultaneously release multiple products that all accomplish the same thing? That doesn’t seem like an intentional strategy to me – more like an artifact of the lack of communication between people within the same company.

    The fact that these parallel services aren’t interoperable is just an added frustration; the real question is, why are different groups independently releasing different tools that both serve the same purpose? It creates user confusion and it makes it difficult for any one in particular to establish itself. Instead of having two different services that both sync your phone contacts – and then having to spend time getting them to work together – just have ONE and eliminate the redundancy. Problem solved.

    Microsoft treats every product it releases like its own little platform. Look at Office and Windows – the two have never looked or worked the same. Even standard UI elements like buttons and menus in Office don’t match those in Windows. They completely reinvent the wheel for no apparent reason.

    They need to learn how to build ONE platform that covers everything they want to do, and then build other products on top of it.

  • plasticsyntax

    I’m not going to respond to every point in your comment because, as I said previously, I don’t necessarily support the strategy MS is pursuing, but I assure you it is on purpose, it is similar to what Google has done in the past (though by fortune or design there’s less overlap in Google’s offerings), and it is Ray Ozzie’s doing:


    I also agree that there is a lot of inconsistency across MS products such as Windows and Office, but I’m referring to the Live teams specifically as they are where MS is pioneering these changes in their corporate culture.

    [Ozzie’s cloud ideas led up to Live Mesh. SkyBox/My Phone is an unrelated, unconnected, acquisition. The only connection is the Microsoft branding. – Dan]

  • plasticsyntax

    This is true. This is similar to Google Video vs Youtube, the main difference being that YouTube doesn’t have a whole lot of Google branding on the YouTube site to confuse people.

    I think my original response to DaGuy was misinterpreted; I am not defending what MS is doing, just pointing out that their actions are being done with intent, even if they seem wasteful and misguided.

  • http://home.comcast.net/~daguy daGUY

    @Plasticsyntax: I understand that you’re not defending Microsoft’s strategy. What I don’t understand is what their intent is. What advantage does it give them to simultaneously develop multiple products that all accomplish the same task and can’t talk to each other?

    To me, that just seems like a waste of time, with the same work being duplicated from scratch unnecessarily. It also creates confusion with end users, who can’t decide which implementation of the same idea is best for them. Finally, it becomes difficult for any single product to take hold, because you can’t easily move from one to another.

    So what is the purpose? I’m not saying this to argue with you – I genuinely want to know. I don’t understand why this approach would be a good thing to practice intentionally.

  • plasticsyntax

    I don’t have a good answer for these questions. Perhaps they want these products to compete in the market rather than just for internal mind share.

    The best I can do is quote from this article (also quoted in the article I linked above): http://www.wired.com/techbiz/people/magazine/16-12/ff_ozzie?currentPage=6

    “Ozzie spent a lot of time crafting a different kind of work environment at Microsoft. “He was very intentional about getting stuff done quickly, focusing on the end customer,” Treadwell says. Previously, a big part of any development team at Microsoft was making sure its new product worked in lockstep with everything else the company produced. This “unification” criterion was something that Gates had always hammered on. But Ozzie saw that while that approach avoided annoying conflicts, it also tended to smother innovation in the cradle. “This philosophy of independent innovation—really making progress before you pursue serious integration, is something Ray pushed very strongly,” Treadwell says. Ozzie’s approach was to encourage people to rush ahead and build things. Then he’d have a team of what he calls the spacklers fill in the gaps and get things ready for release.”

    [Working without an overall strategy and then “spackling” together the results explains pretty much Microsoft’s entire product lineup, from Zune vs Xbox to Office vs Exchange. The company’s arms work at cross purposes and deliver products that overlap and compete and don’t integrate.

    Add in meaningless phrases such as “independent innovation” “getting stuff done quickly, focusing on the end customer” and “lockstep … unification,” and it becomes clear that the people running company aren’t even aware of the problem – or aware that it is a problem. – Dan ]

  • http://home.comcast.net/~daguy daGUY

    @Dan: couldn’t have said it better myself. “Spackling” is exactly what it feels like.

    “This ‘unification’ criterion was something that Gates had always hammered on. But Ozzie saw that while that approach avoided annoying conflicts, it also tended to smother innovation in the cradle.”

    How does that smother innovation? Apple follows the “unification” philosophy extremely closely, and they’ve been able to “innovate” at a much faster pace than MS.

    I’d argue that the opposite is true – by keeping every product in “lockstep” with every other one, you set up a strong foundation that makes it easier to launch successful new products in the future.

    Case in point – look at the iPhone. Apple already had a strong foundation with the iPod and iTunes, so they used that to their advantage. The iPhone drops right in on top of that system – it works with the same software that millions of people already had installed. It runs a variant of the same OS as Apple’s computers, so people familiar with Mac development could jump right in and start writing iPhone software. And Apple already operated a music store, so they took that and adapted it to sell software. Now they’re selling billions of apps, while Microsoft’s still stuck at square one.

    Now look at the Zune. It uses its own software, has its own music store, and works with its own DRM. Microsoft already had these things in place on millions and millions of Windows PCs with WMP – just like Apple did with iTunes – but the Zune starts over from scratch instead. That doesn’t help innovation, it hampers it.

  • Pingback: Boycott Novell » IRC: #boycottnovell @ FreeNode: February 10th, 2009 - Part 2()

  • qka

    When I was a kid, and heard the weatherman refer to Miami, I heard “my ammi”, and I wondered if anyone besides the weatherman had an “ammy”, as I had no clue as to what an “ammy” was.

    Hearing about “My Phone” brought all those memories back.

  • Pingback: IRC: #boycottnovell @ FreeNode: April 1st, 2009 - Part 3 | Boycott Novell()