Category Archives: Calendar/Contact Syncing

Posts related to trying to get my PDA, phone and Mac to all have the same calendar information.

Another Sync Option

Things seem to be moving on in the calendar synchronisation arena with the release today of an official Google solution to synchronise Outlook calendars to their online Google Calendar.

In reporting the release, whilst he said it seemed good, Scoble suggested that Plaxo was a better option as it synchronised to a whole raft of other platforms too, rather than just a single platform – he is apparently using Plaxo to link Outlook through to his Mac, and keeping his iPhone in sync too – almost the same setup that I am trying to get going. Now if you’ve read my blog recently, you’ll know that I’ve found a pretty big problem with the Plaxo synchronisation of recurring appointments – my assumption is that Scoble doesn’t have any recurring appointments in his calendar, or that he hasn’t noticed the problem…

Anyway, from my point of view using the new Google Outlook Sync on the PC end and Spanning Sync which a Mac owning friend has recommended on the other would accomplish what I need and get my calendar across, so I thought I’d give the new Google option a go.

Unfortunately the first attempt doesn’t look good. I installed the software onto the PC end, and set it going. The software has a nice little tooltip that keeps you informed as to what it is up to. The number of appointments that it was synchronising seemed about right, and it claimed to have synchronised them – unfortunately when you took a look at the result on the online Google Calendar the view for March only had three appointments of any sort – considering that this month includes Easter, there should be nearer to fifty. My first thought is that maybe there was some sort of problem with the appointments – one of the other tools I’ve tried used to run into problems if certain punctuation characters appeared in any of the text fields of an appointment – but the Google Sync didn’t report any problems.

Suffice to say, as with Plaxo I’d recommend backing everything up, and carefully looking at your calendar if you give it a try – as with any synchronisation solution it has the potential to really mess things up! I guess I might take a look once it goes through a couple of revisions, but for my current task, it’s not really up to the job.

Google Calendar – shared calendars originally uploaded by Spinstah

Plaxo Gotcha’s

I’ve had my first nose around the calendar synchronisation between Outlook and Plaxo – unfortunately the news is not good. It seems that although it supports recurring appointments, it totally ignores exceptions. I tend to use these pretty extensively, for example for regular conference calls with customers, or for church services or events like Choir Practice. Like most recurring events, occasionally these things change – the customer may want to reschedule the call. Outlook can handle this easily – Plaxo doesn’t. Even worse, taking a look through after the clock change day, all my recurring events are apparently time-shifted by an hour… I suspect what I may be doing with my calendar will be using Plaxo to get a reasonably good copy, and then rebuild it by hand in iCal.

Wading into the Calendar/Contact Sync Swamp Again

Ever a glutton for punishment, I’m again wading into the calendar/contact synchronisation swamp in an effort to get my address book and calendar details from the Exchange server at work onto the Mac at home. If you’ve followed my previous expeditions into the swamp you’ll remember that the basic problem is that I need to be able to keep track of both a large number of Church appointments, alongside all the work commitments. I’ve been doing that for the past couple of years using a Dell Axim X50v PDA, hooking up with ActiveSync to the Exchange Server.

There are a couple of things that have pre-empted this current attempt to get it all sorted. Firstly, the only thing I now do on the Dell is now my calendar – web browsing, multimedia, everything else is better handled by my iPod Touch which could handle the calendar too if I wanted to reconfigure it to hook up to a PC. Alongside this, the other big driver is that I’m changing jobs, and start at a new company in about a month – as a result I need to get all my contact and calendar details off the corporate Exchange Server.

The tool of choice for the current attempt to scramble my calendar and address book achieve synchronisation nirvana is Plaxo. Now it has to be said that in it’s earlier form, Plaxo achieved a good deal of notoriety by the number of times it spammed people with sign up requests when someone created a profile and added your e-mail address as a contact. However in response to this, they do seem to have one of the most stringent privacy policies I’ve seen – certainly it is an interesting exercise to compare it and the level of control with that offered by Facebook… By way of an example, in both services you’ll quite likely end up with a mix of family, friends and business contacts, with Plaxo you can present a different subset of your profile to each group – key for example if you don’t want your business contacts getting hold of your home phone number. Since Plaxo are also including Facebook like picture and tagging facilities, and FriendFeed like life streaming features, it also allows you to keep business contacts clear of all the embarrassing pictures friends may upload – features sadly lacking from Facebook.

Anyway, my primary interest is in the synchronisation facilities. The list of supported platforms is pretty extensive, in terms of the ones I need it includes support for Outlook, and also an equivalent MacOS X plug-in for the synchronisation on that end. If you’ve currently been using systems such as Hotmail/Windows Live or Google Mail/Google Calendar it can link in to those services too – although at time of writing the Google Mail/Google Calendar connection is not bi-directional. In terms of other devices, Plaxo does have some support for these, but I’m sticking with synchronising those through Outlook and iSync respectively.

I did the basic set up yesterday, and I’m now going through the inevitable process of ironing out the bumps with duplicated data where I had different copies of the same contact in both Outlook and Address Book. The most common problem is having phone numbers in different slots so the synchronisation produces multiple phone number fields all holding the same information – this is usually made worse by there being variations in how a particular phone number is formatted including international formatting, brackets around area codes, and all sorts of stuff like that. Alongside this, there is a bit of time getting used to how e-mail addresses map between platforms. On the Address Book end, addresses are marked as either ‘Work’, ‘Home’ or ‘Other’, and you can have several of these – Plaxo also identifies addresses in a similar way. Outlook on the other hand just has three numbered slots for e-mail addresses. Plaxo has to map these fields to suitable slots in the Address Book structure, and tends to go for ‘Work’ if there is only one. I’m slowly working through getting those sorted using the address book in Plaxo – hopefully once that is all cleared up, the synchronised systems should fall into place.

Calendars I haven’t done that much with so far, which is basically because it is a big job and I wanted to get the contacts sorted first. The fundamental problem is the significant differences between the operational model used by Outlook, and the model used by iCal and Google Calendar amongst others. The intention with Outlook is that the user will operate on a single calendar, and use categories to distinguish different sorts of appointments. iCal on the other hand positively encourages you to work with multiple calendars, so for example I have a work calendar, a home calendar, a Church service calendar, a choir calendar and so on. What this does is allow people to share calendars, so for example the choir schedule could be kept on a single shared calendar and distributed to all members. The different calendars roughly correspond with my Outlook categories, and this is what most synchronisation solutions tend to map. However, it is incorrect to say that Outlook doesn’t support multiple calendars – it does, however the support has always been obstructive. For example until the 2007 release you couldn’t overlay the different calendars – only side by side views were available. When it comes to synchronisation with a PDA, only a single calendar is synchronised, so effectively you can’t operate with multiple calendars using Outlook if you’re synchronising on from there. The idea of multiple calendar support seems to very much be to allow you to look at other peoples calendars, but then the implication is that you’re going to put relevant events into your own calendar.

The issue is that Plaxo doesn’t synchronise categories with calendars. The Plaxo model supports multiple calendars, so your multiple iCal calendars map to multiple Plaxo calendars, and thereby onto multiple Outlook calendars. Whilst this works fine if you’re synchronising something like an iPod Touch or an iPhone using iSync as they all understand and can deal with multiple calendars – even if the devices appear to work on a single calendar model. Doing the same from Outlook, and especially with a Windows Mobile device, you’re back into single calendar world, and you’ll have chunks of your schedule missing. Since Outlook can cope with multiple calendars, albeit badly, I could probably move to syncing the mobile devices with iSync and use Outlook 2007 at the PC end – but I’ll have to stop trying to keep the Dell Axim in sync. I’ll also have to go through a process of splitting my calendar out, as it’s currently all rolled up into a single categorised calendar, rather than the multiple calendars that iCal would support.

So, it’s so far, so good – Plaxo seems to be working okay, and I haven’t come across any of the annoying time and date shifting problems that beset any attempt to use Entourage hooked up to an Exchange Server. The real challenge though is still to come – when I try to pick apart my calendars…

Thank Heavens for Sprite Backup

This morning I had one of those real sinking feeling moments. I got to work, pulled out my Dell Axim PDA and plugged it into it’s cradle hooked up to my PC and rather than the usual screen was greeted with a big error message stating that there was memory corruption and asking me to press one of the buttons to continue. Pressing this caused the PDA to reboot, and then go through the first start-up screen calibration routine before dumping me at an empty today screen.

Now this isn’t the first time this has happened. The first time I had to reinstall all my applications, fix all the configuration – basically it was a long job. After that experience I looked around and bought a copy of Sprite Backup a bit of software that does a significantly better job of backing up a Pocket PC device than the included option. Every morning when I plug in my PDA it automatically takes a backup of the contents of the device – this morning I was very grateful that it did.

The only thing I had to install back onto my PDA was the Sprite Backup software, and then I just had to configure that to use the ActiveSync connection to talk to the other part of Sprite Backup on the PC. Then I just had to select my last daily backup and click the start button. Twenty minutes later after replacing all the missing files and putting back on all my settings the PDA rebooted and everything looked as it should. Then you only have to wait a few minutes whilst ActiveSync, which unfortunately decides that all the replaced contacts and calendar entries are new sorts itself out (just a question of letting it replace the data – the stuff in Outlook is probably more up to date than the backup anyway), and then everything is back to normal.

Seriously, if you’re running a Pocket PC PDA, something like Sprite Backup is an absolute life saver. True if you’re syncing your calendar and contacts to a desktop your information is relatively safe, but even then it still does take a lot longer to rebuild if you have to manually reinstall all your applications – Sprite Backup does the lot. The backup each morning is a bit annoying at times, but I’ll happily take that instead of the frustration when invariably the Pocket PC crashes.

iPod Touch – A MacOS X Based PDA?

Yesterday I had a slightly strange experience -after being decidedly unenthusiastic at recent Apple Keynotes, I found myself getting decidedly excited at the new range of iPod’s that Steve Jobs announced yesterday – even finding the whole Starbucks thing exciting (until I realised that it was US only… 🙁 ).

The revamp of the existing range was pretty impressive, with more video support and a revamped user interface, and increased capacities across the board. The ringtones for the iPhone seemed pretty cool, but of course totally irrelevant for anybody outside the USA. Even if we did have it here, I’m not sure I’d be using it as a phone anyway as I much prefer a separate phone sized and shaped phone and PDA.

However, in the search for the ideal PDA, the iPod Touch did seem to be ticking a lot of boxes.

In simple terms, this device is an iPhone without the phone bit, so it retains the high quality touch screen, and also has the same software for playing songs and videos. This means that unlike any of my other portable devices it should play all my music. It also retains the Wi-Fi, and includes the same version of Safari found on the iPhone so web browsing should be an experience comparable to the N770 rather than being the usual cramped screen mobile experience. We won’t even mention the woeful excuse for a browser on my PocketPC device…

Looking at the icons in the demo the suite includes both the contact and calendar applications from the iPhone – although the big unanswered question is whether these are the full applications or read-only as on the other iPod’s.

The most notable absence is the e-mail application, although you can get around this using webmail applications. The reason for e-mail being missing is obviously to steer carefully around upsetting the phone networks, so in that vein there is no mention of the ability to hook up to a phone with Bluetooth.

So a real possibility as a PDA? I guess the jury is still out – will just have to wait and see, and head down to an Apple Store when they get released next month.

iPod touch originally uploaded by bvalium

It’s Not Rocket Science Is It?

So this morning I forgot my laptop – my excuse is that it’s normally at the office anyway on a Tuesday – but anyway, since I usually run my e-mail on the laptop, the PDA usually syncs with that. No problem I thought, I have ActiveSync and Outlook on my main desktop machine too, so I just plugged the cradle into that. Bad move all round. Although the PDA is the same, the Exchange server on the back is the same, and there weren’t any appointment changes to make, ActiveSync managed to duplicate a random selection of about 400 appointments. It is it unreasonable to expect a calendar application that can cope with syncing?

How Difficult Can It Be?

As you may well know, Office 2007 and Vista will shortly be available to businesses. Thanks to the Microsoft Developers Network, at work we’ve had copies since last week.

Whilst I was away in the USA, two of the other developers on my team parallel installed Office 2007 – although Vista is still limited to non-production machines. Feeling slightly left out, I thought I’d take a look at the new version of Office.

Having said that, I didn’t get far before I hit a snag, my version of ActiveSync. Until now I’ve been quite happily working with version 3.8. Although it was updated to version 4 – indeed I have a copy of version 4 on a machine here, it didn’t give any particular benefit going through the hassle of upgrading. However, looking through the requirements for Office 2007, it needed ActiveSync version 4.

So I went and grabbed the install of the latest version, and set it going. Aside from changing ActiveSync, nothing else was being changed at this point – same version of Outlook on the desktop, same PocketPC with Windows Mobile 2003 SE. The install detected that I was upgrading, no problem I thought…

Seems that it isn’t only MarkSpace that has trouble with synchronising. By the end of the process it had managed to duplicate over 400 entries in my diary, and created a stack of duplicate phone numbers in the contacts. If a system using Microsoft software throughout the process doesn’t work with just upgrading one element, I’m not surprised that third-party solutions struggle. Really, how difficult can it be to get a PDA/Desktop combination that works?

Anyway, based on that experience, plus the somewhat negative feedback from my colleagues about how the new Office interface, whilst being faster with a mouse is a pain to drive with the keyboard, I suspect I’ll be sticking with Office 2003 for the moment, despite some tempting new features. Thankfully using the compatibility tools I can read documents from the new suite as needed.