That Syncing Feeling – the Dangers of MobileMe.


Attempting to solve one problem, many new problems are created. For the TL;DR crowd – bought MacBook Air (MBA) on sale, setup MobileMe syncing between MBA and MacBook Pro, decided MBA too limited. Decided to return and in preparing to return to store deleted all of my contacts, calendars and bookmarks, Time Machine saves the day.


Boxing Day Madness

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My idea lately has been to get two new computers, a MacBook Air and a Mac Mini to replace my two-year old MacBook Pro. There is nothing wrong with the MacBook Pro I currently have, aside from being two years old, getting a little slower and the fact that it gets amazingly hot when working on it. It gets so hot that I can’t touch it after it has been running for a while. I use a mouse and a lap pillow to keep cool when working away from my desk. In the summer, even this is not enough, I have to keep my hands off it and have it on a desk to avoid heat stroke and singeing my hands.

I had moved to the MacBook Pro a couple of years ago when I got tired of maintaining two computers, a Mac Pro tower and a MacBook. MacBook Pros had finally come up to the ‘good enough’ level of performance that I thought I could be happy with just one computer. Everything was fine at first, but then I ran out of disk space. A large music collection, lots of apps, my FileMaker work files and a growing love for HD home video pushed me first to a 500 GB internal drive and then later to a Terabyte drive. The MacBook Pro was hot in the first place, (especially when running video) but when I wedged a 1 terabyte Western Digital into it (it just barely fits, making the case bulge a little). That seemed to push it over the edge heat-wise. Apparently a large hard drive, combined with lots of applications running equals a very hot computer. I wanted a cooler solution and the recently announced MacBook Air seemed like it might fit the bill.

On Boxing Day, they had MacBook Air’s on sale and in stock at the local Future Shop. I bought one. I would start my move to two computers with the MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air. If everything worked as planned, the next purchase would have been a Mac Mini for my desktop.

MobileMe Cloud Service

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Partially remembering the hassle of keeping two computers in sync, I thought I would try Apple’s MobileMe service. When the latest iOS came out, Apple had made the ‘Find My iPhone’ portion of their cloud service free. I signed up for the free 60-day trial. In addition to Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Photo Galleries and cloud disk storage, they offer syncing between multiple devices. If you sign up for the full service, it is about $100 a year.

I set up my iPhone and MacBook Pro to sync and instantly had coordinated bookmarks, calendars and address books. This is a very straightforward process on both the Macs and iPhone. All the syncing goes on wirelessly in the background and with no buttons to push to make it happen. It can be set to run automatically.

Everything looks good, except…

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Here is what my setup looked like, a MacBook Pro, a MacBook Air and an iPhone all talking to MobileMe, syncing Addresses, Calendars and Bookmarks. Everything was looking good. It was great, I could make a small change to an address and without doing anything, it would shortly show up on the other devices.

Then I Remembered the Problem with a Two-Computer Setup

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Then I remembered the problem I had had before with my two-computer setup. Maintaining two computers is not as simple as keeping this basic data up-to-date, it is all about the other stuff. If I click on my Applications folder, after a short delay, the system comes back with a total of 252 applications. I don’t use large numbers of them, but probably 40 or so I use fairly regularly and another 40 that I don’t want to let go of just yet. Then there is the music, the videos and all my FileMaker work files. This is exactly why I moved to one computer, to get away from the hassle of not having the file I want close at hand.

The joy of a brand new MacBook Air, light, fast and beautiful as it is, was greatly diminished when I was reminded of this cold hard fact. I wasn’t going to be happy with this new two-computer scheme. So I decided to back out, return the MacBook Air, go back to my mouse and laptop pillow with my trusty, but hot, MacBook Pro for another year or two. The hassle of two computers was just not worth the benefits of the sleek light MacBook Air.

The Trouble Begins

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I thought I should start cleaning off the MacBook Air in anticipation of returning it to the store. I guess I was a little tired, it was late…it is never a good idea to make big moves on your computer when you are in that condition, but I did it anyway.

On the MacBook Air, I started by deleting all the addresses in Apple’s Address book, wiping out the Calendars, resetting Safari to clear the bookmarks and my surfing history. I then went into Keychain Access and cleared out any saved settings there. Only then, did I remember to delete the MobileMe account. It was too late. The damage had been done. In the background MobileMe was processing the requested sync. It was clearing out those addresses, calendars and bookmarks on all the other devices.

It wasn’t until later that evening when I went to use the Bookmarks on my MacBook Pro that I noticed they were all missing. In a panic, I checked my Address book. Over 500 addresses were gone. I faced a blank Address book. Most of my local iCal calendars, somehow survived, but were all gone from MobileMe’s records. We were on holiday for another few days and my backup was at home, so there was no short term solution. Being stripped of the security of my data was surprisingly upsetting. I had a rough night sleep that first night. It shouldn’t have been such a big deal, but it shook me up how easily it could all vanish. We have become so dependent on our electronic brains.

No Warnings?

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Surprisingly, Apple’s software gives you no warning of the problem either from MobileMe, or from the local applications. Usually Apple is quite good at preventing you from shooting yourself in the foot the way I did. In Mail for example, if you select a large number of emails and accidentally hit the Open button, the program will ask you: ‘Are you sure you want to open ALL those messages?’ With MobileMe, there were no questions asked. Want to wipe out all your data? Go for it.

Saved by Time Machine

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The good news is I was able to restore everything from my Time Machine backups when I got home, with a minimal loss of data, but it was a disconcerting few days until I got back.

I am now convinced that the Apocalypse will be caused not by nuclear war, environmental catastrophe or some other large disaster, but by a cascading delete caused by syncing servers. Some weary engineer will start it rolling by selecting the wrong setting on some complicated software.

P.S. Where to Look to Recover Your Files

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If this happens to you and you need to recover from your backup, here are the places to look for your lost files. Start at your home folder, which is the one with the small house icon:

Address Book: /Library/Application Support/AddressBook
iCal Files: /Library/Calendars/
Safari Bookmarks: /Library/Safari/Bookmarks.plist

P.S.S – There is a Setting to Prevent all this

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Turns out Apple has thoughtfully provided a setting to prevent all this. Unfortunately, it seems to have been turned off by default, or perhaps I turned it off at some point, but I don’t recall going into these settings. It is in the Advanced settings of MobileMe’s setup in the System Preferences.

Related Articles:
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Getting FileMaker Go databases onto an iOS device using Dropbox
MailChimp Integration with FileMaker Pro – Part 1 of 3

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4 Responses to “That Syncing Feeling – the Dangers of MobileMe.”

  1. Two very “simple” solutions – 1) turn off MobileMe sync’ing prior to beginning the process of removing items and 2) just delete your account outright (you may need to add a dummy administrator account first if you only have one account set up on the machine)

    • homebasesoftware January 9, 2011 at 11:36 am

      Good point, I didn’t get to the logical and obvious preventative measures to take. My complaint though is really about MobileMe’s leaving the door open to perform these steps in the wrong order. If the programmers had set the default setting to warn users if more than 5% of the addresses changed, I would not have had the problem. I consider myself a relatively advanced user of technology. If I can make this mistake when tired, imagine the kind of trouble a new user can get into.

  2. Nunuvyer Bizniz January 9, 2011 at 11:30 am

    This seems more like The Dangers of Late Night Stupidity than The Dangers of MobileMe. I’m surprised you wanted to publicly admit to such lameness. And you could have had all your documents on 2 Macs if you had been willing to pay for cloud storage, such as DropBox. You can even get all your logins, passwords, etc to sync across multiple Macs using 1Password.

    • homebasesoftware January 9, 2011 at 11:44 am

      I make mistakes all the time, often of the lamest kind. I try to learn from them. If I can see a way to benefit others, or effect change by admitting them, I am willing to share.

      I agree DropBox, even in its free form is awesome.

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