Mac Musings

On Beyond iSync

Dan Knight - 2004.12.15 - Tip Jar

Apple is really on to something with iSync. Since I use three different Macs, it's nice to have the same iCal calendars, Address Book entries, and Safari bookmarks on all three machines. With the right USB cable, I can even put select calendars on my cell phone using iSync.

That said, I believe Apple - or some savvy developer - needs to extend and enhance the Mac's synchronization capabilities.

I use two very nice pieces of software that sync things between hard drives. SuperDuper synchronizes any changes on my primary hard drive to my backup drive, and File Synchronization lets me synchronize select files and folders between two drives or two networked Macs.

The problem arises when you want to synchronize more than just a file or folder. What if you want to sync iTunes on two different Macs, each of which has had some different tracks added? Or what if you want to clone GyazMail (a nice email app I'm becoming very fond of) to another Mac, preferences and messages and all?

Sorry, but there's no simple way to do it. There is a way to sync your iTunes to your iPod and then back to your Mac, but to my knowledge there isn't a tool for synchronizing iTunes on two different Macs.

With many apps, a big part of the problem is that files are spread all over the place. Preferences. Data files. Whatever. And you don't always know which files they are or where they're placed, a problem I've run into when trying to manually sync GyazMail from one eMac to the other.

PhoneValet takes a step in the right direction. Although it doesn't go as far as synching, it does allow you to archive all the important files, open that archive on your second Mac, and have everything set up just like on your original. Then all you have to do is copy the voice messages from the correct Library folder - and PhoneValet tells you exactly which folder to copy.

That's not quite synching, but it's a great way to clone things if you want to move PhoneValet from one Mac to another, as I did last weekend. Kudos to Parliant Software for creating such a user-friendly mechanism.

It would be nice if every application included the ability to archive all the important setup files so you could restore after a crash or clone your configuration to a second machine. It would be even nicer if every application included a sync command that would compare records between two different drives and make sure that every record on each matches what's on the other.

One reason I've become a huge fan of Web-based email (Yahoo and Gmail) is that I don't have to worry about synching messages between three computers. Shoot, I can even log in from a Windows machine and read my email.

But whether I'm using Apple Mail app or GyazMail, there's no easy way to synchronize the divergent data on two different Macs or drives. That's where Mac users would really benefit from a synchronization tool that goes well beyond what iSync offers.

iSync has the right model, and for the limited range of applications it covers, it works just fine with iDisk. I'd love to see it extended to cover Firefox bookmarks, but it's unlikely Apple will support any non-Apple software.

A powerful sync tool would have to scan two different drives or Macs to see where things diverge and flow the information on both into a single comprehensive set of settings that wouldn't lose any data from either source. I think a lot of Mac users who have a desktop and a 'Book - or use a Mac at home and at work or school - would love it.

The program would have to have some intelligence, knowing where the various iTunes files are and how to merge the data together, knowing where GyazMail stores everything and being sure nothing is missed, and so forth.

It would be nice if this program made it easy to get WebDAV up and running on each Mac, making it possible to remotely log into one Mac from another and allowing synchronization to take place directly between Macs in remote locations.

It would also be nice if it worked easily with external drives, such as the backup clones created with SuperDuper. And it would be nice if it could archive settings to a writable CD or DVD drive for those who don't have an external hard drive or a fast Internet connection on both Macs.

This program would have to be extensible so it could accept plugins for new apps, and it should come with a basic set for some of the more popular Mac wares, such as Firefox, Thunderbird, and other mail and Web clients.

Finally, the format for plugins should be an open standard, making it easier for software publishers and individual users to create plugins for programs that haven't yet been supported.

I think a lot of Mac users would pay money for a tool like this - and also pay for plugins for their favorite programs. Plugins could also be considered a marketing advantage if one email app supported synchronization and another didn't.

Apple has shown the way with iSync and iDisk. Now it's time for others to take that path to its conclusion and create easy, user-friendly synchronization for other apps.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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