I have been covering the Palm Treo 700w phone running Windows Mobile 5.0 since picking one up during the CES in Las Vegas. The phone has been everything I expected and it is filling my needs wonderfully. So what is the one (big) thing I don’t like about using the Treo? ActiveSync. Yes, the weak link in the Windows Mobile experience is still ActiveSync. Now, don’t get me wrong, ActiveSync is a sophisticated application that is designed to allow synchronization between Exchange Servers, desktops and mobile devices and as such it must be able to handle a myriad of hardware configurations and conditions. The problem with ActiveSync 4.1, the current version that must be used with devices running Windows Mobile 5.0 like the 700w, is that when something goes wrong it is often without warning and with so little information that correcting the problem is very difficult.
When I first set up the Treo in Vegas I did not have my Exchange Server information readily available so since I needed a quick sync to the Tablet PC I configured syncing to go directly to the Tablet. This worked fine, it took about 45 minutes which I figured was due to the number of contacts in Outlook (over 4,000). Once it finished the initial sync it worked flawlessly and subsequent syncs took a couple of minutes. All was happy in the Windows Mobile world. Upon return to my home I decided to set up syncing so contacts, calendar and email would sync directly (and wirelessly) to my Exchange Server. ActiveSync makes it easy to configure this and in a couple of minutes the first sync attempt to the Exchange Server fired off automatically. This initial sync took 9 hours! No indication why it was taking so long but since it was late I just left it running all night. Shortly after waking the next day I checked it and it had completed successfully. I should have known that such a long sync time would be a forebear of things to come.
Subsequent syncs worked fine, with the three data types mentioned above syncing with the Server and Notes, Favorites, and Tasks syncing to the Tablet PC. I don’t know why ActiveSync will not sync Tasks with the Server (it won’t let you) but it worked and I was happy. Until last night. At the end of the day I connected the Treo to my Tablet via USB and ActiveSync started giving me an error and cancelling as soon as it tried to sync the Favorites to the Tablet. I received a vague error message directing me to the ActiveSync Troubleshooter in the help file. This directed me to a link on the Microsoft site that produced a “web page not found”. Dead end.
Over the next two hours I tried everything imaginable, I deleted the partnership and started over from scratch. I rebooted the Tablet and Treo numerous times. I finally was able to get the settings menu for Favorites in ActiveSync (unless I deleted the partnership it was always grayed out) so I could turn off the syncing of them to see if that got past the problem. Sure enough this worked and it got past this point when it started erroring out with Notes. Same “delete the partnership” process and I turned off syncing Notes. Next was tasks, which syncs Ok.
So my configuration now works fine as long as I don’t try to sync my Notes (there’s only one note in Outlook) or my Favorites to the Treo. Although for some strange reason this morning when I connected the Treo to the Tablet via USB Windows XP gave me the “new hardware detected” and reinstalled the drivers, even though it’s been recognizing the Treo for weeks. Wireless syncing with the Server, which has been the one area of the syncing process that has always worked rock solid, this morning is aborting with a message that the security certificate on the server is invalid. So now even that won’t work. The certificate was apparently good a few hours ago but I guess now I will have to track down my host for the server and make sure that’s not it. So now I’m not able to sync anything but Tasks on the Tablet. No scratch that, after waiting a few minutes wireless ActiveSync works fine so the server certificate is really OK.
The sad part of all these ActiveSync woes is that they are the same problems that have plagued Windows Mobile (and previously Windows CE) users for years. The process is still the same, intermittent but totally fatal errors “just happen”, and the usual result is to hard reset the mobile device, which wipes everything back to a factory state. So you start over, constantly in fear that at some point it will all happen again, and the vicious cycle continues. This problem is even worse in ActiveSync 4.x with Windows Mobile 5.0 devices because the backup and restore option has been removed in this latest version. There is no provided way to properly back up the device. It’s like a sync treadmill you can never get off.