The problems of getting in sync

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When file synchronising software first appeared, it was hoped to liberate people from the rigmarole of laboriously copying data from one piece of paper to another. But few, if any, currently sync with mobile devices, such as phones and PDAs.

The increasing sophistication of software organisers has only heightened this problem. There are now web-based calendars and organisation tools, such as Google’s calendar, Ta-Da List, Remember the Milk, and Vood2do, which will convert e-mails about appointments into calendar items, give RSS feeds of task lists, allow sharing of calendars and configure browser displays. But try synchronising such applications with mobile devices and you will often hit a brick wall.

The web 2.0 world is dependent on open standards, which are thin on the ground in the proprietary-based world of mobile devices. To take full advantage of the new web-based calendar tools, even when away from a computer, users should think carefully about compatibility before investing money and time on a new device or online service.

First, a lesson for the jargon-averse: there are two ways of updating a mobile device with calendar information.

The first is “push”, which sends the data wirelessly to a device, the way a BlackBerry retrieves e-mail. The second is “syncing” – in which information is updated manually from a desktop and/or online calendar.

Ideally, both methods should be two-way – ie the mobile device can update the desktop or web-based calendar as well, although this is often not the case. Mac users are relatively well-catered for with iCal and iSync, which together provide web-based organisation tools and sync to a wide variety of phones and PDAs.

For Windows users, Yahoo!’s well-established calendar has some of the best syncing support, particularly for those who use Palm-based PDAs, smartphones running Symbian or Microsoft’s Pocket PC (although Outlook is required for the latter). Yahoo! also recently launched a push service called Yahoo! Go, although it so far only works with a few phones.

Those who prefer Google’s Calendar will find their options even more limited, as it does not yet support either syncing to the PC or push-style updates. There are, however, several third-party tools to get round this: one is by CompanionLink, which costs $29.95. CompanionLink notes that there are several known issues with the software, but you can try it out free for 14 days. A free alternative – though with its own list of potential problems – is GCalSync.

If the phone, BlackBerry or PDA proves too difficult, another option is the not-so-humble iPod. The key problem with this is that users cannot add appointments while out and about. However, Johnny Matthews, a community-minded programmer, has produced getCals to sync iPods with Google Calendar, and getFolks for syncing with Google Mail contacts (johnnygizmo.blogspot.com).

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