Keeping it all in sync

Wouldn’t it be great if, no matter where you went, you always had immediate access to all the email messages, contact and diary information you need? The promise of such constant and easy access to information can finally be fulfilled.

It’s certainly been a long time in coming. I remember when computerised diaries and ‘personal information managers’ (PIMs) first appeared around 20 years ago. They made it really easy to centralise the storage of contacts, appointments and to-do items and were great – as long as you were prepared to lug your computer everywhere you went, which in those pre-laptop days was no mean feat. No surprise, then, that most of us stuck to our paper DayTimers and post-it notes.

Enter, a decade ago now, the PalmPilots and PocketPCs, the Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) which were a quantum leap forward in personal information management in that they not only took that computer-based information and made it easy to carry around in your pocket, but they also created a purpose for storing the information on the computer in the first place.

It still wasn’t ideal: the PDAs could only be updated by bringing them back to the central information store on your main computer, making them difficult to rely on if you travelled a lot and other people were apt to be adding things to your diary while you were away from the office. And keeping up to date with email without ending up with some messages on your PDA, some on the main computer and some goodness only knows where, was not easy!

Of course, today smartphones like Blackberrys and iPhones have taken over from the limited functionality of the PDAs, combining advanced PIM features with those of a mobile phone and media player. And yet for many people, the problems of ‘keeping it all in sync’ haven’t gone away.

So how do we achieve this holy grail of constant access to complete and up to date information? The answer lies in new technologies designed to provide ‘over the air’ (OTA) synchronisation.

Now in a corporate environment, this is relatively easy to achieve. You just ask your IT support people to use the OTA capabilities of Exchange Server and ActiveSync to make your Exchange/Outlook information available remotely to your smartphone, a solution which works well with both Windows Mobiles and iPhones. Support for Blackberry users requires the addition of another server application called Blackberry Enterprise Server, still not a big stretch for medium to larger size organisation.

But what about smaller organisations on limited IT budgets, like the majority of not-for-profits and social economy businesses? Or even busy modern families who would like to keep all their information in sync?

Even if you don’t have your own Exchange Server, you can take advantage of its features by subscribing to a ‘hosted Exchange’ service. Typically around £10 a month per user, this gets you all the same features like centralised email and shared diaries available to Outlook users in a network environment. Mobile phone providers offering Blackberrys provide a similar paid-for service if that’s your smartphone of choice.

For iPhone users, much cheaper, at £87 per year for four accounts, is Apple’s MobileMe service, which keeps in sync all your email, calendars and contacts, as well as providing a fair amount of online storage for documents, photos and videos.

But while these services all work well, why pay for OTA synchronisation if you don’t have to?

I’ve been endorsing Google Apps for Domains for a while now. It’s a free service (though there is also an inexpensive ‘pro’ version) that allows you to set up Exchange-like features for your own domain name, providing email, shared diaries and other groupware function for any number of users. If you don’t already have a network groupware server such Exchange, there is no reason not to use Google Apps.

And now the equally free Google Sync service allows you to keep your Google email and groupware information synchronised over the air with most smartphones, including Windows Mobiles, iPhones and Blackberrys.

With such tools at your disposal, there should be no more fumbling around for that phone number, cursing that you left your to-do list on your PC, or needing to wait until you are back in the office to look up that you email you sent three weeks ago! All of which should hopefully mean more time to get on with our real jobs…