Having a .Mac attack

So, you've got a Mac running OS X and use it to run your small business. Congratulations. You possess the most reliable, well designed, stable and secure computer system available to the mass consumer market. You laugh at viruses, trojans, spyware and blue screens of death that plague other systems. But as great as Macs are straight out of the box, there is a simple way to make them even more powerful: .Mac.

This Apple service is an affordable way to extend your Mac's abilities in a number of ways that are particularly useful to small business. For an annual fee of $99, Apple provides you with an iDisk, backup and virus-checking software, file sharing capabilities, webmail, data syncing, and a number of other features tailored for your home life. On top of all this, .Mac members also receive a number of promotional offers that often include free or trial software. These offers and goodies seem to be updated every three or four weeks.

The true power of .Mac lies in the iDisk. Essentially, having an iDisk is like having an additional 100MB hard drive in your Mac. (You can purchase additional space from Apple in various increments up to 1000MB.) The great thing about the iDisk, however, is that whatever data you put on it is safely stored offsite on Apple's servers. So, if something were to happen to your computer or office, the data you've stored on your iDisk is protected and available to you from any computer connected to the web. Obviously, this is also handy for those of you who travel, work from a number of locations, or on multiple computers.

After subscribing to .Mac, one of the programs you'll find waiting in your iDisk's software folder is Backup, a utility that works in conjunction with your iDisk, external drives or writeable CDs and DVDs. With Backup, one can automatically back up select files or folders to one's iDisk at a predetermined time and interval. I use Backup once a week to back up all of my files on to CD-RWs, but every day Backup also stores copies of the current projects I'm working on, as well as an assortment of data files that I consider mission critical, on my iDisk. I've configured it to happen automatically every morning before I start work. At the same time, Backup also backs up my contacts, stickies, calendars, Safari settings, and keychains. There's a certain security in having copies of your most important files safely stored away on an offsite server.

An iDisk is also useful for sharing files with clients, particularly when used in conjunction with the .Mac homepage tools. If you're working with data and project files that are too large for email, an iDisk can be the simple solution. For each client I transfer files over the Internet to, I simply drag that client's files to the public folder on my iDisk. Then, I create an individual password protected web page using the "My Downloads" template on .Mac. For each client, this creates an individual URL and password to access the files I've left for them. Even if the files are small enough to send via email, I prefer using .Mac as it allows my clients to pickup files when they're ready for them. That way, I don't have to be the guy who slowed down their email when they were in a rush checking it for some other reason.

Another benefit of subscribing to .Mac is the synchronization between email, address book, calendars and bookmarks. This not only keeps all of these elements the same on the various Macs I work with, but lets me access them anywhere via the web. I have a couple of clients that I work for from their offices. If I need to look something up on my Mac while working there, I can through .Mac. This is, of course, great for those who have to travel, but can also be useful in other circumstances. A few weeks ago my Internet service provider went down unexpectedly for a few hours and it happened that I was waiting for an important file to come in email at that moment. .Mac webmail saved the day as I was able to get online elsewhere, retrieve the file and take it back to my office.

Another useful feature of .Mac is the ability to publish iCal calendars. For example, I have created an iCal calendar in which I keep a schedule of times when I'm working away from my home office. I publish this calendar to .Mac and my wife subscribes to it on her iBook. When I add an event to that calendar in iCal, it automatically appears in her iCal as well. This way, she stays up-to-date on my schedule with no possibility that I'll forget to let her know when I won't be available. Moreover, published calendars can also be viewed as web pages, so you can easily publish schedules for employees -- regardless if they have a Mac, use iCal or are Windows-based. But I've only just scratched the surface of what .Mac can do.

Beyond the extended abilities I've written about already, Apple often provides .Mac users with free or trail versions of software, special promotional offers, and various other odds and ends. (Software Apple puts on your iDisk does not take away from your allotted storage space.) Sometime ago, Apple gave .Mac subscribers a fairly decent photo editor application. More recently, a free copy of Norton's Parental Control appeared in the software folder on everyone's iDisk. There's always something to explore in .Mac, and Apple frequently adds new improvements and features. Moreover, with next year's release of Tiger, the next major OS X upgrade, synchronizing data and preferences with .Mac will be integrated system-wide. This will allow users to not only sync calendars, address books, bookmarks and email, but just about everything and anything between Macs and the various digital devices one can attach to them.

According to Apple, over half a million Mac users subscribe to .Mac. That's a lot of folks who've realized the enormous benefit of the service. If you haven't had the time to investigate .Mac or thought it wasn't worth the additional yearly expense, I hope this article has inspired you to give it a first or second look.