That syncing feeling

How often do you back up the data in your smart phone? And where do you back it up? The promise of systems like Android and iCloud is that you’ll always have a backup copy of your data.

That’s not actually new – sync systems have been around for ages, from the days of the old Palm organisers. In fact, in some ways, I loved the certainty of how that worked; admittedly there was just the Palm Desktop (and later an iCal plugin), but it really did just work every time.

As things have moved on, they seem to have become more complicated. I’m still using my Nokia E72, and use Apple’s own iSync with a Nokia plug-in to sync the calendar to the phone; I don’t sync the contacts from the phone to the Mac because I’ve discovered that when you do that, any change on the Mac end is likely to make you lose all the caller group information on the phone – which as I mentioned in a previous post, is crucial to how I set up my phone to control who gets through to me.

For a while, I flirted with MissingSync for Symbian, from MarkSpace; their enhanced Palm sync for the Mac was great, but the Symbian version was so execrable that if I shat a piece of software that bad, I’d want to see a proctologist, and they quickly seemed to abandon it.

So, now I sync calendar from Mac to phone, and back up the phone to its memory card from time to time.

As a general rule of thumb, I consider the desktop calendar on my Mac to be the authoritative list of what I’m doing, and the contacts on the phone to be the authoritative version of that. Unfortunately, unlike the old Palm days, most modern sync solutions don’t tend to let you specify that sort of thing, short of doing a reset.

Palm Tungsten PDA
Rose tinted specs, or was sync really more painless in the days of the Palm Pilot?

Where’s my data gone?

As well as iSync, I occasionally use a service that used to be known as Mobical, but is now called Everdroid; it provides a free SyncML server, which is a standard way of syncing that’s been supported by many brands of phones for years – so I can sync my Nokia with it and, as happened on one trip, when that broke down, pick up another brand, point it at Mobical, and get back all my contacts and appointments in just a few minutes. All you need to set your phone up is a web browser, and for most they can send a text message, so it’s brilliant if you’re traveling. Or, if your battery goes flat, you can quickly check out contact or appointment info via the website.

That’s great – but what happens when you want to reset all the data? This is where a lot of sync services fall down, and require you to jump through hoops. It’s easy enough on the Mac to say ‘Reset device’ – which I have to do with the calendar on my phone from time to time – but it tends to assume that the Mac is authoritative. You can’t easily reset the data on the Mac and tell it to use the phone contacts – though with the old Mobile Me, you could at least reset data on Mobile Me from the Mac.

Typically, the way round this is to delete all the data on the device you want to reset, and then sync. And hope that that forces a full sync.

Sometimes, it doesn’t; what it does instead is delete all the data from your mobile device as well, leaving you with nothing. With Mobical/Everdroid the trick is to make sure all the databases on the site are completely empty – contacts, calendar, tasks, messages, and so on; only if all are empty will a full sync work, and copy the phone info to the website.

On the Mac – and it’s a long time since I’ve done this, so it may be a little off –it seems you need to delete everything. Then save a copy of the blank phonebook. And then import that blank phoneboook. And cross your fingers, look windward, and hope.

Double vision

Why’s all this bugging me now? Well, I’m writing an article that requires playing with various different phones, and the best way to do that is to make sure they’re my main phone, which means getting all my information onto each one, so it can replace the E72 for a week or so.

I thought this would be straightforward – I reset Mobical/Everdroid and synced everything from the E72. It all looked perfect. Then, taking the Samsung Galaxy Nexus that’s this week’s choice of phone, I installed the Everdroid app, and that pulled everything down on to the phone.

Brilliant, I thought. But there’s a gotcha; the Nexus knows in the contacts app which contacts came from Everdroid, and you can’t edit any of them. Nor will it sync them back to Google Contacts. And since the contact group functions only work on contacts from Google, or that you can edit on the phone, it wasn’t possible to set up the different groups that I wanted.

So, the only way to get the contacts from my E72 to the Nexus turned out to be to set up Google sync on the E72 as well; I tried first with the built in Mail for Exchange client, but that didn’t seem to work, and the instructions on the Google website don’t correspond to the E72 version.

That left SyncML as the method, which fortunately Google understands, and I got all the contacts onto the Google site. Many of them inexplicably split into two. Yes, I know there’s a handy tool to merge and de-dupe, but I’m not sure why 230 contacts turned into 412 in the first place, really.

I’m even less sure of why I ended up with double versions of just about every appointment in the phone, on the E72, the Nexus and Google Calendar, necessitating an extra load of fiddling. Fortunately they hadn’t propagated back to the Mac, so I was able to reset the E72 calendar from iSync, but I’m not pointing it at Google’s SyncML server again any time soon.

Also worth noting is that there seemed to be two versions of some contact groups created, with a version on the phone, and a version on Google, one empty, and one with all the contacts, but not responding to apps that let me set ringtones and other options.

A final point – this is already quite a long post – my Google account doesn’t have gMail, because I don’t like it and I have a perfectly good mail server in my office. I don’t know if that’s the reason, but there’s no link to Contacts when I’m signed in, which is frankly silly (not the first silly thing with Google’s UI of late, of course).

Kitchen sync drama

This latest bunch of sync dramas is just the latest in long line; there are lots of shortcomings in technologies like SyncML, alongside the other flawed methods. I’m not sure if I’m viewing my Palm sync days through rose tinted specs, but I’m pretty sure I can’t be alone in being the only person who, far from viewing sync as a way of ensuring that my phone data is safe, approaches it with trepidation, thinking that the inevitable consequence of syncing is more likely to be lost data or hours spend de-duping, rather than the seamless smooth process that the marketing folk tell us it should be.

One Reply to “That syncing feeling”

  1. I used to use PocketMirror to sync between my Palm and Outlook (I did not use the Palm Desktop). Once I went to Android I struggled to find a replacement that would support Categories, which I use in Outlook (so I have work appointments and contacts and home appointments and contacts). Then I found CompanionLink, which works well with Google. It turns my Outlook calendar categories into separate Google Calendars (so I have a Work calendar, a Travel calendar, a Home calendar, etc) and it manages the whole syncing process well, most of the time.

    I am not sure I trust any of the software as much as I did with my Palm, and I keep regular backups of my Outlook data, just in case, and I sync Outlook between my PC and Laptop using a direct link so I always have one master copy of my Outlook data in case Google decides to delete all my past appointments, for example.

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