I've recently started a new job, and one of the things which comes along with a job in the mobile industry is a mobile phone. I've always felt uneasy about the need to install "special software" onto my laptop in order to share data between it and my mobile device. It's a symptom of the modern world, I believe, that my heart drops whenever I open a package containing any new piece of technology and find a CD with software which is vital in order for me to use the product fully. And I'm no different when I open the box of my shiny new mobile phone.
But, of course, the world has changed and these days it’s not so much a question as having your data shared between computer and mobile device, but of having your data accessible wherever you are and from whatever device you happen to be using. The actual location of the data is largely unimportant these days. My contacts list and email archives live somewhere on the internet. I know the URLs to find them, but I would have to do some research in order to find out on which continent sits the disk drive containing the data itself. But it doesn’t matter to me. As long as I can get at the data, and I can stop other people getting at the data I don’t really care where it resides.
So, with this in mind, I have set myself a challenge that I want to use my phone fully, accessing all my data in ways which is convenient to me, but without having to connect it to anything other than the mobile network. If my data is on a device connected to the internet, and my phone is connected to the internet, then why should I need to use any other device (be it a computer, a USB cable or even a Bluetooth dongle) to access the data from my device?
In the box along with my new phone came a CD of software to install onto my computer, and a USB cable to use to plug the phone into the computer. I don’t intend to use either.
I have to admit, to my surprise, that the experiment is going rather well so far.
Email was the first challenge - and quite an easy one, as I've done this many times before. It wasn't a difficult job at all to get both personal and work email accessible on my device. There are many ways to get GMail onto a mobile device - you can use the built-in mail client, or you can install the GMail application onto your phone, or you can simply use the web browser on your device to access the mobile site. I decided to use the pre-installed messaging app on the phone for several reasons.
I like to have my data in one place. If I receive a message from someone, whether it’s a text message or an email, I want to see that in one place. To have some email messages on the device somewhere other than the messaging application seems illogical to me. The clue is in the name.
So, a bit of IMAP wizardry later and I have both my personal and work email happily accessible on my device. Regular automated polling of the servers can get the message to me quickly enough and was a doddle to set up on the device. It was an easy opener, but I think that’s one nil to me in my quest.
This is a challenge I've never undertaken before. Contacts information is, to me, more precious than messages. Messages are an ephemeral piece of someone's thoughts dropped into your inbox. Anything in the message which is more long lived, you can take out of the message and put somewhere else (I'm not an advocate as using ones inbox as a document library, as you can tell). Your address book is not ephemeral, it is a collection of the people you know and the information is not easily replaced – how do you call someone to ask them for their phone number?
In the past I've treated my contact information with extreme respect, and the closest I've got to allowing software access to it has been to plug my old mobile phone into my PC with a USB cable and sync that way. So it was with some trepidation that I configured OTA contacts sync in the contacts app on my new phone. It's a sign of my nervousness that I tried to set the sync profile to "one way" so that it could not do anything to the contacts on the device. But sadly, the server I am using only supports "two way" sync. But still – with a gulp - I trusted the technology and let it sync.
Duplication of some data is unavoidable when first reconciling two address books. If I have "firstname.lastname@example.org" in my internet-based address book and I have "Joe Bloggs: 07770 555 123" in my phone and the software has no way to tell that they are the same person. However, it took me under ten minutes to sort out all such duplicates thanks to Google's ability to merge contacts by selecting multiple contacts and clicking a single button. With my new-found confidence in the process I sync’d the resulting database back to the phone.
So there we have it – the same contacts list accessible on my phone and my computer. Result!
The calendar information may be as important to respect as contact information, but it also has an element of time criticality which is missing from contacts data. If I want to find "Joe Bloggs" in my phone to call him, and he's not there, then I can initiate a sync and then call him when he appears. If there is no 10am meeting with Joe Bloggs in the calendar on my phone then there no way for me to know that I should've sync'd my calendar at 9.55am to know that I should be meeting him.
Of course, there is a latency associated with any sync solution but with calendar, the delay can be critically important. But the fact that it’s a calendar can help us out here.
Being a calendar, the data has some in-built time. You don't need to get a calendar update as soon as it happens; you only need to know that the update will be there in time for you to act upon it. In some ways, calendar information is less time critical than messaging information. It’s no coincidence that future meetings are arranged in a calendar, but the closer to the time you get, the more likely people will start texting you to sort out the details!
So, if I have a 10am meeting, it's probably enough for me to know at the beginning of the working day where I need to be that day and when. I’m happy for the moment to rely on having my mobile calendar updated at the start of every day, and then handling any changes to that day’s schedule via messages during the. It’s just a shame that the solution I have doesn’t allow for automated sync (unlike messaging where I can easily configure the device to check for updates regularly) but I still have my calendar on my device without using a USB cable.
The other stuff
Initially, I had thought that was all I needed to set up on my device. I don't think I had realised just how much I relied on the USB cable which came with my previous device to get stuff from my phone. There are two other ways in which I use my phone extensively - to take photos and to listen to music. Both require the transfer of data to and from the phone and both have relied on the USB cable in the past.
The only reason I get the pictures onto my computer is to share them with the world. In effect, I'm transferring them from one internet-connected device to another internet-connected device just to publish them on the internet. Why would I do that?
Well one reason is cost and the other is speed. My computer at home is connected to a high-speed, fixed cost internet connection whereas my phone is connected at a fairly fast speed to a relatively low cost internet connection. Whilst that's nearly the same, it's enough of a difference that I've been driven in the past to use my computer as a gateway to the internet.
I don't take many photos using my phone and each resulting file is relatively small. So I should be able to use the fact that my phone is connected to the internet to simply publish photos directly from my phone. So, this morning, I created myself a Flickr account through which to share my mobile pictures and used the built-in software on the phone to upload directly to that Flickr account.
Finally, my collection of mp3 files poses a larger problem. There are tens of thousands of files, and I want to change which selection of those files are on my phone regularly. Each file is of the order of a few megabytes and the files don’t live anywhere freely accessibly on the internet.
I would love the ability to upload all of my music to a server somewhere which I can then access from my device. I could play the tracks I want instantly, and wouldn’t have to incur large data charges for the privilege. I would want to control which tracks I listen to when and to add new music to the library as and when I wish.
So, in essence, until there’s a service which hosts a copy of every version of every track ever recorded and has a user database recording which tracks you have access to and which you don’t. Or a service which would give me instant access to my music library at home from my mobile device without unacceptable delay in retrieving tracks and without incurring unacceptable data usage charges, I think I’m stuck with using my computer as the information gateway for this one.
But, I’ve bought myself a memory card to use to store the tracks and move them from the computer to the phone – the only other would be to use the USB cable, and we can’t have that, can we