Data synchronization and the UMPC

Around the same time as this week’s release of the first public beta of Windows Vista, a ZDNet article reported that the previously-announced features designed to facilitate synchronization between multiple PCs were being removed from the list of included features planned for next year’s initial full release. This strikes me as an important and very disappointing bit of news for UMPC owners, as this promised Vista feature could have filled a fairly glaring hole in the current set of tools provided by Microsoft.

One of the most appealing aspects of a UMPC is that that it is a fully-functional Windows XP (and eventually Vista) PC without the dependency on a tether to a larger desktop or notebook system. Palm or Windows Mobile PDAs typically require such a tether for software installation, data initialization, or other similar tasks, but I think the greater power of the UMPC led Microsoft to the mistaken impression that synchronization tools were not really a requirement.

In reality, though, I strongly suspect that the majority of UMPC owners are going to experience a need to keep a lot of data synchronized between home and/or work systems and the UMPC. I find myself regularly copying documents, application data and settings, music, photos, and video from my home or work PC in order to maximize the mobility of all my core information. Since a UMPC is a more full-featured computer, a peer-to-peer style of synchronization makes more sense than the master-slave type used with PDAs or other similar portable devices (such as music players), but it still is needed.

Out of the box, readily available methods for transferring data between my TabletKiosk eo and other systems include shared drives over the wi-fi connection or the file transfer services that are standard to Bluetooth. The Samsung Q1 does provide a couple other file transfer options via the built-in CompactFlash slot and their inclusion of a USB 2.0 file-transfer cable (and software). Either of those options can also be available on the eo with additional $20-$30 purchases. I already picked up an inexpensive USB CF reader for my eo at the local Staples store and have ordered a file transfer cable as well to simplify transfers with my work PC, which doesn’t have Bluetooth or wi-fi available.

What is missing is software that automates the synchronization of data between the UMPC and the other systems. Without some form of third-party software, you can only manually copy files from one system to the other. I think this was a major omission in the design of the standard set of tools supplied by Microsoft for inclusion in every certified UMPC. Ideally, what is needed is a mechanism where, once appropriate data pairings between the UMPC and another PC have been set up, the synchronization would happen invisibly in the background while the system is idle. There probably would be a need for some kind of a notification mechanism for conflict situations (such as data modified separately on multiple systems), but most of the time it should work in a “set it and forget about it” manner.

Considering the high mobility of a UMPC, one key issue that any synchronization mechanism needs to deal with is that not all remote locations will be available at all times. In my own case, I can only access my home system while actually connected to my home network and can only access my work system after running a VPN client. A lot of the currently available solutions, including Microsoft’s own Foldershare synchronization service, seem to be very focused on overcoming this issue by creating ever-present accessibility via the public internet. This may be through the copying of files to a remote server or though special clients that run on each system and maintain a connection to a central server.

I can see the merit in these types of solutions under some circumstances, but there also need to be options that take into account that security needs very often dictate that data not be accessible outside of the local network. Corporate users, in particular, really are not going to be comfortable with potentially sensitive and confidential data being stored on someone else’s server or otherwise being made accessible out of the direct control of the company’s employees. In fact, the company that I work for has issued some pretty specific policies banning the use of remote data accessibility tools on systems connected to the company network. A complete synchronization solution needs to be able to detect whether or not a remote resource is actually available at any given time and handle either situation appropriately.

For simple directory synchronization, so far I have been using Microsoft’s free SyncToy. It is a pretty basic tool; simply letting you set up directory pairings and manually run synchronizations in the foreground. It probably would be possible to automate it somewhat using Windows Scheduler, but even that is pretty tricky since it isn’t always easy to predict when my UMPC will actually be on, but not being used. It works ok, but the synchronization process can be pretty slow at times and it does require that I actually remember to run it, increasing the potential that I could end up with needed data not present or up-to-date on the UMPC when I need them. I’ve looked at a few other synchronization tools that do provide a bit more automation, but I haven’t yet really found one that impressed me much. I’m certainly open to any suggestions from readers as to ones I should try.

I think another big synchronization need is for better synchronization at the application data level instead of the file directory level. It isn’t all that unusual for applications to have data and settings spread around to multiple and/or esoteric locations, making it tough to figure out what to synchronize. There are also occasions where it could be strongly desirable to be able to pick and choose parts of data to synchronize instead of simply synchronizing everything. An obvious example is that many people may want to synchronize Outlook contacts and/or calendar data between computers, but not stored email messages. Another obvious example would be the wish to keep browser favorites/bookmarks synchronized while keeping saved passwords specific to each individual computer. I use a Firefox extension called Foxmarks to accomplish exactly this type of bookmark synchronization, although once again this is using a central server to store the data while I would really vastly prefer it to just synchronize directly between my own computers.

The best solution would be to include application synchronization wizards as a part of a synchronization solution. Once Microsoft adds synchronization to Vista and/or as a standard part of the UMPC software package (as they should), it would be wise to include wizards for key Microsoft applications such as Outlook, Money, Internet Explorer, etc. as well as publish a publicly accessible API to allow third party software vendors and the general public to create wizards for other applications.

While I do think that a solution closer to what I describe should be a standard feature on UMPCs, and probably ultimately a standard part of the OS, it is possible that a lot of what I am describing can already be found via currently-available software packages. If anyone out there has encountered synchronization tools that work well and might better fit the needs I have described, please post a comment pointing me in their direction. I’d love to test suggested alternatives and eventually post a follow-up to this article describing solutions that work better than what I have found so far.

No Responses to “Data synchronization and the UMPC”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hello Jeffrey,

    I suggest you take a look at Laplink’s PCsync software. Here’s the January 2007 news release: http://www.laplink.com/media/press_releases/pressreleases_0006.html

    If you’re interested in giving the software a try, I’d be happy to send you a download for review. (sarac@laplink.com).

    Cheers!
    Sara

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