Simple and automatic services

Concept count is a useful metric when you’re trying to figure out which technologies will or won’t be adopted. I mentioned this idea in a discussion of calendar cross-publishing, where I enumerated the numbingly long list of concepts I had to understand in order to achieve bidirectional synchronization of my Outlook (business) and Google (family) calendars.

Yesterday, when my Jurassic-era (i.e., 2003) LG cellphone died, I went out and bought a Motorola KRZR. Then, despite my best intentions, I stayed up way too late figuring out all the things it can do. Talk about concept count! MP3 player, still camera, video camera, USB drive, calendar, voice recognition and dialing, speakerphone, voice recorder, wired and wireless file transfer, assorted Bluetooth services, assorted data services, installable applications (email, news, weather), text messaging, multimedia messaging, GPS…oh, and by the way, it makes phone calls too.

One thing missing from this cornucupia, though, was contact and calendar synchronization. The old LG lasted long enough to surrender this data to U.S. Cellular’s all-purpose synchronizer, which squirted it into the new phone, but I lacked an ongoing solution. The salesman, of course, knew nothing about the available synchronization options. I guess most people don’t even expect that the data they accumulate on their phones will get backed up anywhere.

That is my expectation, though. So immediately I descended into the circle of hell where random postings on web forums lead you to obscure applications, strange device drivers, and contradictory advice.

Because I’d been down this road before, I had a clue where I was going. My first stop was BitPim which almost worked on my Mac but in the end didn’t, and sort of worked on my Vista laptop once I installed the Motorola driver that makes the phone’s USB port look like a COM port.

Next I tried Sync Cell on Vista and got better results. It seems to connect to the emulated COM port more reliably than BitPim, and can perform the full range of transfers: contacts, calendar events, files.

But wait a second, this is a Bluetooth phone, can’t the synchronization go wireless? Yes, no, it depends what you mean. Both computers can pair with the phone, and both operating systems can natively see the phone’s file system and transfer its files back and forth. But contact (and calendar) synchronization requires third-party software. In the end I got Synch Cell to work on Vista, but achieving that result required a number of steps, the last of which was to enable a Bluetooth service called Dial-Up Networking to make the Bluetooth connection look like a COM port.

Let’s add up some of the key concepts involved in just the single activity of backing up your contacts:

  1. Device drivers
  2. File systems
  3. Network services
  4. Wired networks
  5. Wireless networks
  6. Pairing
  7. Port emulation

This is clearly unsustainable, which is why the salesfolk don’t even discuss the possibility of backing up your contacts.

There’s an obvious right answer: Provide a service that just works. On a recent episode of the Technometria podcast David Platt gave a nice example. Like most people he was backup-challenged. Then he found a service that quietly, in the background, squirts his data into the cloud.

Why can’t there be something like that for my phone?

Heh. As it turns out, there is. Simple and automatic services. That’s a concept people will be able to wrap their heads around.

18 Comments

  1. I have also used my motorolas ‘sync’ feature. It uses GPRS to sync the data using syncML. Yahoo allows syncing of calendar and contacts, and it works pretty well (free). Also, GooSync will sync the google calendar (free and pay for versions). Data charges apply but they are a what I use to back up my contacts and sync my google calendar to my phone. Google sms integration is pretty good for appointment reminders and daily agenda as well.

  2. I’ve had some success with backing up my contacts using zyb.com on the Nokia N70. Although migrating to a new phone proved problematic to it, I still was able to get all my contacts into a vcard file which I was able to import into Google mail’s contacts.

  3. Jon, come on, even though you work for Microsoft, you absolutely know that Steve Jobs will get sync right with iPhone (Apple has almost no choice because iPhone is going to be put under the microscope and knowing Steve he will want iPhone to be leaps and bounds better than today’s junk, at least an order of magnitude better in just about every dimension). I’d be willing to bet iPhone gets this right and SIMPLIFIES in the process!

  4. Calendar (and address book) syncing is easy with iSync on OS X.

    On a related note, am I right in thinking that Outlook and Entourage can’t subscribe to .ics calendars?

  5. “I’d be willing to bet iPhone gets this right and SIMPLIFIES in the process!”

    I hope so. We need to raise expectations.

    It’s interesting to speculate on what “get it right” should mean, given the trio of: phone, computer, cloud. I’m thinking that the essential contact data should just automatically get backed up to the cloud, no questions asked. Your service plan should come with an URL from which you could securely restore that data if need be.

    Synchronization of other data, between the phone and the computer, and between the computer and the cloud, is more complicated and more likely to require interactivity.

  6. “immediately I descended into the circle of hell where random postings on web forums lead you to obscure applications, strange device drivers, and contradictory advice.”

    That’s a wonderful description.. What I can’t figure out is how people without technical backgrounds ever get their stuff working.

  7. “On a related note, am I right in thinking that Outlook and Entourage can’t subscribe to .ics calendars?”

    Outlook 2007 can, that’s how I’m synching my Google calendar to it.

  8. “What I can’t figure out is how people without technical backgrounds ever get their stuff working.”

    That’s the dirty big secret of the tech biz. Mostly they don’t.

  9. I am going to risk being labelled a heretic, but the problem of wireless sync of contact and calendar is solved. It’s call “Blackberry”. Such a pity that solution cannot be applied eslewhere.

  10. Another vote for iSync on MacOS X. Not necessarily as an conduit ending in Apple’s tools but as part of a toolchain leading to (semi)standard material like vCards & LDIF files on a capable platform.

    And while it appears the current version of iSync does support the KRZR (gack–“KRZR”, reads like line noise!) it is helpful to know it is usually possible to twiddle iSync phone settings to accommodate new, as yet unsupported, phone models. The settings files are nothing more the XML plist files so often copying the entry for a predecessor phone and changing the id string will enable the newer revision.

    For example my Nokia 6103 phone is unsupported by iSync, but other ‘old-style Nokia 40 series’ phones are. With 30 seconds edit and a downloaded N6103 icon (pretty!) I’ve had a year of flawless import & export service. Not something I’d ask most folks to do, but it is possible.

    I’ll also point out that carrier-based synchronization is rolling out across the industry. My T-Mobile buddy tells me they’ll have it across their system within weeks. Yes, even though they’re a SIM card-based service the customers rarely understand how to use their SIMs, or don’t like the data-type limitations, or have multiple phones and don’t like having separate ‘islands’.

    The goal is that when a customer walks in they can get a new phone & have it fully loaded with their old, or other, phone, address book automagically before they leave the shop. All phones are kept backed up & syncronized via the T-Mobile mothership within minutes, making replacement phones & multiple phones frictionless.

    Now if T-Mobile just not lock down the Bluetooth access from the Java stack on their cheapest-with-Bluetooth model. I love using Bluetooth phones as a handy remote control but T-Mobile, on the 6103, intentionally disables this, the only carrier/model to do so.

  11. “The settings files are nothing more the XML plist files so often copying the entry for a predecessor phone and changing the id string will enable the newer revision.”

    Good idea. As there was no predecessor in my case, there is no info.plist in ~/Library/Phones (if that’s where it would be) to use as a template. I’ll look around, though.

  12. “I’ll also point out that carrier-based synchronization is rolling out across the industry. My T-Mobile buddy tells me they’ll have it across their system within weeks.”

    Cool! It’s about time.

  13. If sync was important, why not get a phone that supports it? I’m sure I’m missing something, but a Windows Mobile phone with ActiveSync has no problems syncing with Windows, and I’ve heard that The Missing Sync works just great with Mac. I’ve got an old Audiovox SMT5600, but something like the Cingular 3125 has a similar form factor to the KRZROMGPWN and doesn’t require all kinds of crazy hacking about behavior just to sync your contacts.

  14. Thank you for the information. It was very helpful to a moderate user like myself. I sync’d my Krazr to my outlook contacts, and now I will not lose any information I need.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s