I am a simple geek, with simple needs. I need to sync all my really important personal and work data between all the computers I use at home, and at work, on different Operating Systems, behind firewalls and on mobile devices….. simply.
Now intially after getting my mac, I ofcourse had a look at Mobile.me from Apple. If you believe the advertising and brochure-ware on Apples site, then this is what it offers today:
Mail, Contacts and Calendar, always in sync. The Gallery: A better way to share photos. iDisk, your harddrive on the web. And lastly, Find My iPhone. All for NZ$99 per year.
Now for all of this to work, you need to have a software client installed on the machines you are going to be synchronising, so that instantly limits it to Mac and Windows. Even though OS X is unix, again Apple shuns it’s free (libre) cousin Linux. And then the other limits thay dont tell you in the brochure: Mail sync – yes it will work with MS Outlook – but only if you are not connected to an Exchange server, or behind a firewall, or need to use a proxy for internet access. I could not get the mobile me client to work for me at all at my work, so that eliminated it before I went much further. After I cancelled my account, I looked at what I could do for free.
This is where a combination of actual free protocols and some no cost (not free) protocols come to play.
For email – the best way to keep lots of different computers synched with mail is via a protocol called iMAP. This is different to the POP protocol normally supported by most NZ ISPs and mail providors. With iMAP, the mail stays on the host server and is not deleted when you download it. You can also create mail folders that stay on the server, so when you connect, you see the same mail and folders, no mater what client you connect from. Lucily, Google support iMAP access to your mailbox. Here is some information on setting up iMAP access to a GMail account. Clients that support iMap include, Apple Mail, Thunderbird, Outlook, etc. Infact, if your mail client of choice doesn’t support iMAP, then you really should change. For me, I use Thunderbird on Windows at work (as my company doesn’t want me to have my work mail floating out on the cloud, but this is fine for getting my personal mail, and work has webmail access anyway) and on Linux, Apple Mail on my Mac and the Mail client on my iPhone. I use iMap on my phone, and poll my mailbox only once every couple of hours, because to me, if it really urgent, people will call me. If not urgent, I’ll get the mail eventually. For some, this may not be “Real-Time” enough.
What does have to stay current all the time though is my calendar. For this again, thank the big G! Google calendar is pretty good. It has lots of features and supports three access methods. The web page, a protocol known as iCal (not proprietary to Apples Calendar, they just were the first player to use it in a big way) and Microsofts proprietary ActiveSync gateway.
For Windows and Mac, Google provide some agents that automatically can sync GCalendar with Outlook on Windows, and Apple Mail on Mac. These are easy to install from here for Mac, and here for Windows. Of these, the Mac agent is the nicest, as it just adds a new Calendar in iCal, so you can colour code it and keep it separate from other calendars you may use. The Windows one will only synch your primary outlook calendar. I have also found it to be somewhat flakey, occasionally turning full day appointments into 8 hour appointments instead. I have turned mine at work on Outlook 2003 to be a read-only copy. If someone sends me an invite to an appointment, I have a server-side Exchange rule to auto forward this to my Gmail, which ta-da – adds the appointment into Google Calendar (aren’t open standards good like that). And the magic sauce – Activesynch support in the iPhone. You can make your iPhone think it is talking to an exchange server, when it is really talking to GMail instead. Check here for the details on setting up ActiveSynch in iPhone for Google. This is push sync – so eats a little battery and some data, but calendar items are small, and don’t tend to change too much. Activesynch has been designed form the ground up to support synching this stuff over dodgy cell networks, and works pretty well. I’ve only had to clear and re sync once in two years, which is much better than the Blackberries and Windows Mobiles I have to support at work. Your milage may very depending on your handsets implementation of ActiveSync. For Thunderbird, you have to setup the iCal access manually and use the Sunbird calendar extensions or use a separate Sunbird calendar client.
So now my mail, and calendar are in synch, and I can grant access to them to my wife so she knows when I’m going to be working late, and I get everything I need on my iPhone so I know what I am doing when away from my desk, and it looks the same. I pretty much live out of my diary.
Contacts: Now this is tricker. The google synch app above synchs contacts quite nicely with Apple Address Book and Outlook, but not with Thunderbird. For that I still ocaasionally have to export them from GMail, and reimport into Thunderbird. A pain, but I can always brows to GMail on the web and get current up-to-date from anywhere.
Gallery and iDisk
Mobile me gievs you 20GB of storage for your NZ$99, but being a cheapscate, I think that is way over priced. I use Dropbox. This gives you 2GB of online storage for free, a way to publicly share individual files, share whole folders with other Dropbox users, and has clients for Windows, Mac and Linux. The files in the dropbox website synch to a folder called “Dropbox” in your Home (on Mac and Linux) and My Document folder in Windows. Synch is pretty quick, and has worked 100% of the time I have used it. You can create media galleries and share photos easily, and I use it just like an internet based 2G flash drive. Much more than that and I probably wouldn’t want to have to download it all anyway. It’s not like the USA here, we have draconian data caps, and high broadband prices if you blow past them.
Find My iPhone:
This is the one feature I still havn’t found a freebee for. For now, I’ll just have to rely on phone insurance.
So 90% of the features for none of the cost. let me know how you sync in the comments!