Ah, Push It

september 18, 2008

Let me qualify this posting with this:  Sometimes, I'm a cheap bastard. So, I have been doing most of my computing now on my HP dv2910us.  Because of this, I wanted to get my iPhone working with the HP.  Right now, my iPhone is being synced on my PowerBook G4 through iTunes using iCal and AddressBook.  Not a bad combo, but it really means that I have to fire up the PowerBook and get out the white iPod sync cable every time I want to make changes to my calendar via a computer keyboard (or update a contact). In all their infinite wisdom, Apple forces Windows users to pickup a copy of Outlook in order to do any calendaring.  This sucks because buying Outlook means shelling out $90 -- and I have already made it clear, I am cheap.  I wanted something different and I wanted something that really did not need a cable.  And while instant push is nice, I don't need it.  I don't care if my updated or new appointment shows up in a millisecond or in a few minutes.  I just want to be able to calendar and manage contacts from any computer without having to install iTunes or any other software.  I found three options, two are free and one is paid.  The paid one would be OK if it worked, but lets go over the details. MobileMe(ss) - The last time I tried MobileMe, it lasted two hours -- mainly because I was futzing around trying to get it to work.  The straw that broke the camel's back was the inability for me to set an alert via the web interface for a calendar event.  That was a huge oversight by whoever designed the MobileMe web interface.  I signed up for another trial yesterday and it lasted about as long as the previous try.  Yes, you still can't add an alert via the web interface.  Yes, the web interface is delicious.  And yes, it still costs $99 a year for this service. Granted, MobileMe tries to do a lot more than just being a remote version of the Apple iApps.  They give you an iDisk to keep files remotely (which can be had for free with something like Xdrive or Dropbox).  They provide a way to sync up your bookmarks, settings, mail, and other doohickeys between Macs.  They provide a way for you to take control of your Mac remotely.  And they provide easy to use web page and photo gallerry tools. But, it seems that with all of Steve Job's huffing and puffing about how MobileMe is not fixed, it's not.  Contacts still continue to disappear for no reason, webmail continues to have issues, and other assorted issues continue to crop up.  And Apple still wants to charge $99 a year for this stuff.  Yay.  Well, Apple is not the only game in town that has web-based apps that can push information out to iPhones.  This is because Apple implemented ActiveSync into iPhone 2.0 firmware.  MobileMe:  Still Fail. NuevaSync + Gmail Contacts + Google Calendar - So, this combo is actually very nice.  Basically, NuevaSync is a service that emulates an Exchange server.  What it does is act as an intermediary between an iPhone and the two Google services.  When anything changes, the changes get pushed back to the other side.  I found that changes usually push within five minutes and that is fine with me.  I will admit that I like the Google Contacts and Calendar interfaces a lot.  They are clean and well thought out.  In general, they just work and are intuitive (unlike the Gmail interface).  They both act like their Apple iApp counterparts, so people who choose this route will feel right at home. But, I couldn't overlook some stuff.  First, I have this strange paranoia about Google and their fetish for information.  I don't like leaving a lot of information with them.  In order to use this combo, I would have to let Google know what I am doing and when; and I would have to let them keep track of all my contacts and their information too.  Maybe I'm Lone Gunmen paranoid, but I don't like giving Google so much of my information. If you can overlook the whole Google paranoia thing (and lots of people can), there is one other thing that bugged me:  NuevaSync.  NuevaSync is a new company and their product is a beta product.  In their FAQ, they are very clear about the support you'll get for the product:

It means that while we take every precaution to ensure correct sync, and make every effort to ensure reliable service, we're still working on the software. We might restart the service to deploy new code or additional hardware, for example. We don't maintain 24 hour support for our machines either. So if something very bad happens to a machine when we are asleep, we won't know about it until we wake up. We do recognize that many people have come to depend on our service and we keep that very much in mind.

And, apparently the company has no business plan or revenue stream at all.  That means that tomorrow, they could just turn off their servers and leave if their current funding runs dry.  Again from their FAQ:

How are you guys going to make money?

We're not certain, but probably by introducing some form of premium paid service.

So, while I really liked the NuevaSync + Google combination, there are some issues that I could not overlook.  The whole thing is currently free and that makes my cheap-bastard heart warm.  NuevaSync + Google: Possible Win. Mail2Web - While stumbling around the web yesterday afternoon, I discovered a very helpful article from Lifehacker.  The article talks about setting up just what I wanted.  They used a service named Mail2Web Live.  Mail2Web is a Microsoft Exchange Hosting company (they also host other stuff like web, chat and blogs).  And the main benefit of Mail2Web is that they offer free, somewhat limited Exchange accounts that are ad-supported.  The limit on these free Exchange accounts is that you cannot use the desktop version of Exchange to connect and manage your data.  That means that you are stuck using the Outlook Web Access version, which for me is fine -- and gives my IE a second task (the first task is being a viewer for Netflix Watch Instantly movies).  The Firefox version of OWA works, but the IE version looks and functions just like the desktop version of Outlook.  If I want to go ad-free and get POP/IMAP access, I can pay $5 a month.  If I want to use Outlook on the desktop, I can go with the $14 a month plan.  For me, the free plan is just fine. ActiveSync is offered free with all the accounts and there are simple instructions on how to get it setup with an iPhone.  The setup is not as easy as setting up MobileMe, but it is not difficult either -- one just has to read and follow the instuctions.  So far, the service has performed flawlessly.  Although not very important to me, the push services from Mail2Web are instantaneous -- mail (which I don't use outside of testing), calendar and contacts.  Mail2Web, unlike NuevaSync does have a business plan and a revenue stream.  The more expensive plan from Mail2Web includes a copy of Outlook or Entourage also.  But, from the standpoint of a normal user, Mail2Web Live (free service) is enough to let anyone manage their calendars and contacts from any computer without any additional software. What makes this so ironic is that a service based on a Microsoft product (Exchange Server) performs so much better than an Apple product (MobileMe).  Not only does Exchange + ActiveSync push out information near instantaneously, the web-based interface provides better functionality.  Sure, the OWA interface is not as shiny as the MobileMe interface.  And yes, there's not a lot of "extras" like remote storage or syncing of bookmarks (which I use delicious for) or any other "features".  But, Mail2Web seems to work well.  It does exactly what I need and the price is right -- even if I hopped on the ad-free plan, it would be cheaper than MobileMe.  Mail2Web:  Win. I did look at hosted Zimbra accounts also, but they all cost money and so far Mail2Web seems to be doing what I need.  I have 59 days of MobileMe trial left, I'll leave that account open just in case something happens in the next 59 days which will rock the MobileMe world.  Otherwise, MobileMe will not be my choice for pushing information over to my iPhone.  People have had good experience with Mail2Web and the only complaints I found were from a week long outage in early 2007 -- which seemed to be more the fault of a bug in Exchange than Mail2Web.  I will update as I keep on using Mail2Web.  For now, my iPhone can be managed from any computer without having to whip out my iPod sync cable, or installing iTunes, or installing Outlook.  Yay!