Running the Small Mobile Office…Almost

The only thing missing is easy synchronization

In my business, I travel a lot, and particularly miserable travel it is—plenty of 2-weeks-straight-on-the-road trips. And do you know the worst part? Oh, you’re all techies; of course you know the worst part. It isn't missing the family. It isn't the hotels or the airlines. Nope, the killer is finding a way to maintain email access and share my ever-changing schedule with my indispensable assistant, Jean, while I'm on the road.

I find it nothing short of amazing that in 2004 we still have a better-than-even chance of getting a hotel room that lacks high-speed Internet access. (A place in Reno, Nevada recently promised me a high-speed Internet-access room, but when I checked in, I found only a modem jack. According to the management, this qualified the room as "high-speed" because most of the other rooms had only a dataport on the side of the phone.) Getting into a hotel room late at night, then spending 20 minutes finding and connecting to an EarthLink number just to get on the Internet and download email gets a bit old. I thought, “I’ve got to find me something portable and wireless that will get my email.”

I run a pretty small operation—basically just Jean and me—so I maintain a simple MailEnable POP3/SMTP mail server. A Research In Motion (RIM) BlackBerry, then, was out. Sure, some interesting General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) options exist, but GPRS isn’t all that fast and besides, I live in the boonies and don't have GPRS access yet. So I was pretty excited to hear that Verizon Wireless, my cell-phone provider, was offering the Samsung SPH-i700 Pocket PC phone, which supports data transfer through 1XRTT, a communications technology that in theory can transmit data over a cell phone at 144Kbps (in actuality, the transfer rate is about 64Kbps). Better yet, the phone includes a built-in POP client. I'd be able to get email wirelessly from almost anywhere in the United States. Cool. I decided to pick one up. The phone does a decent job getting my email. It isn't perfect—it’s huge, runs Pocket PC rather than Palm OS (my PDA runs Palm OS, and I'd hoped to find a compatible solution, but few Palm OS phones can retrieve POP email and the transfer speeds are terrible), and needs a recharge pretty much every day—but it’s definitely an improvement over praying for a Wi-Fi site while on the road. Only now, I have another problem. Call it techno-greed, but wouldn't it be great if I could put my Palm PDA on ice and use the i700 for email, phone calls, and calendaring?

So what's the problem? Well, I need to share my calendar with Jean. I also like to make my calendar available on my Web site so that my business partners can figure out when I’ll be in town. And because up to now I've needed to synchronize my calendar with my Palm OS PDA, I've set everything up to use IBM's Lotus Organizer, which syncs with my Palm device and lets Jean and me share calendars and export calendars to the Web. I like the product, which lets me avoid the necessity of synchronizing through a vendor's Web site (that method strikes me as being fraught with peril and besides, I’m sure that I'd become dependent on the vendor and it would then go out of business or start charging a few thousand bucks a year), and I'm not prepared to scrap it. Unfortunately, no one makes software that permits full Pocket PC/Lotus Organizer synchronization. (Several vendors offer Pocket PC/Lotus Organizer sync software, but those products don't provide complete synchronization).

We have Internet Requests for Comments (RFCs) that define standards for sending email. These RFCs have revolutionized email. Years ago, every email system was an island: Email-address formats varied from system to system and vendors had to cook up their own gateways. But the Internet simplified the process of getting email from one vendor’s system to another’s. Both systems almost certainly spoke “Internet email,” and with that, email compatibility was largely solved. But what about other personal data, such as schedules, address books, to-do lists, and memo pads? The problem of reconciling two small databases (such as the memo-pad notes on my phone and in my Lotus Organizer file) must be a common one. Once again we find ourselves in a many-to-many situation when trying to synchronize data between vendors' products. You've no guarantee that you can synchronize Vendor A's product to Vendor B's product, and you might just find that you “can’t get there from here.” Creating and supporting standard formats for calendars, address books, to-do lists and memo pads would solve that problem, but an even better answer would be a standard protocol for synchronizing similar databases. RFC, anyone?

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