Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Sync without trace

Syncing my most important data to my Android phone is as easy as breathing. The data is stored in free Google (and other) cloud services which my smartphone, my work computer and my home computer all access automatically. I don't even have to think about it. I could stumble into an internet cafĂ© in any country in the world and retrieve exactly the same data. All of it.

I shudder to recall the pain and distress that data synchronisation used to involve:
  • special Sync software on my PC, which often needed to be updated
  • the annoying ritual of connecting the phone to the PC (and the guilt when I didn't do it)
  • wondering which was correct - the number on my phone or the number on my PC
  • finding that I had booked conflicting appointments because my office diary was not on my phone
  • the agony of having to reenter all my contacts every time I changed phones
If you still have these headaches, or anything like them, I have good news for you. Very good news.
Abolition of slavery - William Wilberforce, the Google of his day
It's a fundamental principle of computer science that any data should be stored and maintained in a single location only. In the old days, that meant defining one computer as the 'master device'. The phone and the laptop were 'slaves'. Their versions of the data was updated from the master. But what happened if new data became available when the master was not present? Things got tricky.

Today, the single location is Google's servers. Whatever computer or smartphone I am using accesses the same data, stored 'in the cloud'. If I make a new diary appointment or change a friend's contact details using my phone, those changes are instantly available on my work computer and my home computer, too.

Of course, I'm too mean to pay the insane mobile data rates demanded by Belgacom, Belgium's equivalent of BT or AT&T, so my phone is only connected to the internet where I can get free WiFi. But with WiFi at home as well as most of my friends' houses and in many restaurants, this has never been a problem. As soon as the phone finds an open WiFi connection, data is synchronised automatically, in the background, in my pocket.
William's contact details on my computer and my phone. Not sure he'll call me, though.
This totally seamless syncing applies to all my most important stuff. My email and contacts are managed in Gmail. My diary and to-do list are handled by Google Calendar. Important documents are accessible, and editable, everywhere via Google Docs. Dropbox provides data storage in the cloud. Evernote offers specific note taking and management tools. All these services are completely free. And if I ever lose my phone, all I have to do is to log in from a new one and - Prest-O, Change-O! - like magic, all my data will be right there.

("But your apps", you may say. "If you lose your phone, your apps will be gone, too." Not so! Incredibly, even my Android apps exist in the cloud. Simply by logging into the Android Market, I can immediately download all my previously installed apps to the new phone.)

Of course, setting up seamless syncing has not been 100% plain sailing. The default Android calendar app is not  up to much, and Google doesn't produce its own to-do list (task management) app at all, so I've had to find the best third-party apps by trial and error. And then there's the problem of syncing my office Outlook calendar to my personal Google Calendar. I've found a way to do that, too.

I'll be helping you to smooth out these rough spots in future posts. But for now my main message is overwhelmingly positive: People of the world, embrace the cloud. You have nothing to lose but your USB leads.

Next post: Music to your ears