I have been saying for a while that Apple will eventually open up MobileMe, making it free.
Synchronization of your personal data in the cloud is the stickiest service imaginable. Once a system has your spouse cell phone (which you do not know, trust me) and the picture of your kids, you are locked in. No chance to move out. They have you.
Look at Flickr, which does picture "sync". I have my entire life there. If they raise the price to $50/year, I will simply pay it. I just cannot conceive the idea of moving out. Too much effort, and too much risk. My pictures are my life. I do not want to mess with my life. I am ready to pay any reasonable price for it.
What I never understood was the price for MobileMe. $99/year is an hefty price. One that prevents the masses to join. One that limits Apple's ability to get sticky-er. A price paid only by few (geeks).
Synchronization does not work like that. It is impossible to find millions of people willing to pay for it. If you are a pure consumer, you just do not see the value in it. It is a nice-to-have, not a must-have. Until you start using it. At that point, you cannot live without it. It is your life on the cloud, moving across your devices. It is you.
Think about losing your phone, with no cloud service where you stored your data. Think about losing all the pictures you took (and you had no way to sync somewhere, or you were just too lazy, because you needed a cable or to click on an icon). Think about losing all your friends contact info. Yes, at that moment you realize the value of transparent synchronization, the value of having your data automatically stored somewhere, the value of getting everything back with one click.
But you would not pay for it, probably. It just sounds like an insurance.
However, once you are using a cloud sync system, you are in for good. It is just like having push email on your mobile phone. "Nah, I do not need it". Then you start using it and you would kill anyone who wants to take it away from you. The famous Crackberry.
No, no, it is not just for business people. It is you, the consumer. Let me take away your SMS, your Facebook. Let me take away your iPhone and move you back to a dumb phone. See... You will kill me.
Think about it. Once you start using synchronization, you are locked in. It is too good. You see your life moving across all your devices. You know someone is taking care to secure it for you. They do the backup you always forget. They will save your friends and your kids.
At that point, you are not going anywhere. And once that happens, there are so many ways to monetize it. From advertising (Facebook is making billions of dollars, you know...), to storage (think Dropbox), to paying for restore (this is a smart one, more once we have launched a few customers on it ;-) There are billions in cloud sync. Billions.
So, cloud sync is sticky. Few want to pay for it. But once they use it, they are locked in. Make it free, you will get everyone in the world to join. And you will make a boatload of money on the premium part of the freemium model.
I am sure Apple knows it. I am sure they realize it. There is a reason why they have built a huge cloud computing center in North Carolina. They want to store your life there. Starting with your music. iTunes on a desktop is going to be replaced by iTunes in the cloud. The cable is going for good. All your data will be synced to the cloud and back to your devices (did you notice that the new Apple TV is just a cloud device? Did you notice that the new MacBook Air does not have a CD? It is all going in the cloud, then synced and streamed back to your devices).
So, what was the missing link? MobileMe becoming free. I have been waiting for it for a long time. Today, the rumor became true. In the new iOS 4.2 builds, there is a message that says: "The maximum number of free accounts have been activated on this iPhone".
Here you have it. Not every aspect of MobileMe will be free. Just the part that will lock you in (let me bet: PIM sync, with a storage premium on rich media, for starters). They know how to make money on the rest, beginning with selling you content (music, books and movies). Maybe, they were just not ready, so they put a high price on MobileMe, to make sure they would have a limited set of "test" users. They now have the cloud computing capacity to make it happen. And they are going for it.
Facebook and Google, be worried, Apple is coming. It all starts with cloud sync.