Best from Apple: Staying In-Sync

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Best from Apple: About this Feature

The Mac platform provides an impressive array of powerful features that keep me productive in both personal and professional lives. What’s touted on Apple’s web site, mainstream media, and press releases typically barely covers the tip of a very large iceberg. With today’s and upcoming “Best from Apple” features, I’m hoping to embark with you on a journey exploring the finer features that keep some of us beleaguered fools excited about the Apple platform.

People I Know, Things I do: Where Art Thou?

Raise your hand if you’ve ever struggled managing contacts and calendaring information on your computer, across various programs, handheld devices, and remote systems? I have.

In the olden days of my perusing Windows NT and Windows 2000, the Palm V was a faithful companion to a Dell laptop. Vital personal data could only live in two places: the Palm Desktop Application or the Palm V device. Another alternative for a more connected lifestyle was to make full use of My Yahoo and its Internet Explorer Toolbar. Purchasing a third party synchronization platform for windows such as Intellisync would bridge a few gaps and give customers extended interoperability within a given snapshot of supported systems. None of these solutions were ever fit to support evolving needs arising from new devices, new applications, new systems:

Bits and pieces of information about people I knew and things I did were spread out in disparate applications and remote systems.

Not much has changed in the Windows World since then.

A Few Good Apps …

Apple appears to be addressing these issues head-on.

Mac OS X has been progressively released with a number of regularly improving applications aimed at achieving very specific, insular tasks: Mail. Address Book. iCal. iChat. Their autonomy, simplicity and ease-of-use were at first nearly disconcerting to me: They weren’t part of some monolithic Office or Desktop PDA Suite. The tremendous potential these little applications yield, hit me on the head the first time I used Apple’s Mail application, after migrating from Microsoft’s Entourage.

Upon opening an e-mail, each recipient appeared as a clickable object, offering me the ability to add said recipient to Address Book. If the recipient was already in Address Book, Mail showed me alternative e-mail addresses for this person. If a person had an AOL Instant Messaging “Screen Name” in their Address Book entry, their iChat online status would also show-up in Mail. Instead of replying with “OK Cool” to an email asking me out to lunch, I could simply click to notify the person on AIM. Any desktop or web picture could be dragged onto a given Address Book entry and instantly saved after having zoomed-in-or-out, positioned, and cropped it within Address Book. That same picture could be used for someone’s AIM buddy icon, and would be displayed in an e-mail from them. Safari, Apple’s web browser, reserves a specific bookmark category dedicated to websites from Address Book contacts. We could spend hours reviewing examples of interoperability between the various Apple applications.

… Play Well with 3rd-Party Apps …

It doesn’t stop here. Apple has exposed their frameworks to 3rd-party developers so applications they build may easily offer similar levels of integration with personal data. Many popular Instant Messaging programs interact with the Mac OS X Address Book. My favorite Internet Relay Chat program, Colloquy also does. Search applications such as Quicksilver also do. Possibilities are nearly endless, developers are every day finding creative ways to leverage these synergies.

… and Other Systems

Apple iSyncThe next step is to make this information available to devices and systems beyond the desktop or laptop. Enters iSync. iSync is big, very big, and to me, a most significant reason a business networking mobile professional would be wise to seriously consider the Mac platform over a Microsoft Windows PC.

It’s about protecting the investment you’ve made in the relationships you’ve worked so hard to build. It’s about keeping information ubiquitous, always at your fingertips, where and when it is needed, on a wide array of systems and devices. No-longer is it required to confine ourselves to closed ecosystems of “one desktop PDA suite” that shipped with a given device. We can simply buy a device, connect it to a Mac, synchronize everything without having installed a single piece of software. Everything needed ships with the Mac. iSync, in conjunction with .Mac, also enables multiple Macs to share Bookmarks, Calendar and Address Book data. Imagine being at work, saving bookmarks, adding address book entries, going home, and finding it all there.

I have 606 entries in my Address Book. 346 belong to a “mobilephone” group which I’ve configured to synchronize with a Sony Ericsson t610 GSM phone. All 606 entries are also mirrored on my old iPod, my .Mac web-based account, and my EarthLink address book, via EarthLink’s Total Access sofware. Incidentally, EarthLink offers an optional level of spam blocking which uses a challenge-response system to enable users who have not contacted me before to be added to my address book, so subsequent e-mails from them always go directly to my Inbox. Integration between EarthLink’s address book and the Mac OS X Address Book allows for near-transparent, near-automated white-list creation. Information I enter into the Mac OS X calendar application, iCal, is also synchronized on the t610, .Mac, and iPod. Modifying information on any device or system in the iSync chain, spreads those changes to all other devices upon synchronization.

Making Life Easier, for Everyone

Manufacturers of handheld devices face a sizable headache when attempting to support synchronization for their Windows customers. They’ll typically resort to providing their own “Desktop Suite” that works specifically with their device. They might also seek to integrate with Outlook … But will this Outlook data be available to a Nokia or Ericsson mobile phone? Not without installing yet another piece of software and/or resorting to kludgy hacks. T-Mobile SideKick users benefit from two-way synchronization between a T-Mobile server and their SideKick device, over GPRS, and may subsequently access their information through a web browser from a desktop machine. Despite a few drawbacks, I find the SideKick approach to be the most elegant for Windows and Linux PC users.

Currently, in the PC world, it is somewhat difficult to imagine interoperability between a desktop, laptop or Tablet PC and more than one handheld device. Once a given device synchronizes with a Windows machine, the transition to a different handheld platform is typically challenging.

The Mac platform allows mobile users to easily, nearly transparently evolve to next generation devices, without constantly reevaluating where they should store their information, while reducing risks of permanent data loss by facilitating its replication on disparate devices and networked systems. This entire process is kept transparent to the user who only needs to interact with small, simple applications with highly intuitive interfaces.

Operating system vendors should seek to follow in Apple’s footsteps, by building and maintaining a similar set of insular, user-friendly and interoperable applications, for the benefit of end-users, application developers, and device vendors. Consumers will benefit from greater choice, greater flexibility, resulting from an even more vibrant developer community eager to further facilitate humans’ visceral need to “stay in touch”.

Dear Microsoft, how about a “Windows Address Book” for Christmas? :)