Windows Phone Thoughts: Windows Phone (Almost) Document Sync, (or “I Just Want to Work, Not Workaround…”)

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Friday, July 8, 2011

Windows Phone (Almost) Document Sync, (or “I Just Want to Work, Not Workaround…”)

Posted by Todd Allcock in "Windows Phone Talk" @ 09:00 AM

Back when the iPhone was introduced to the world to the sort of fanfare and adulation not seen since the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, I was one of the few scratching my head trying to figure out what I was missing that everyone else was seeing. Here was a slick looking smartphone with a brilliant user interface; I got that - it just didn't seem all that, well, smart. The only way to get your office documents on it (at least originally) was via email, and I didn't relish the idea of frantically emailing myself every document I might possibly need to reference on a business trip before leaving.

So, I smugly stuck by my old-school Windows Mobile phones; you know, the ugly beasts with the styluses, file managers, and actual PC document sync capabilities, figuring the the iPhone would cater to the iPod generation, and the business people would stick with devices that actually worked like miniature computers, and paid little attention to the hassles of managing files on an iPhone. However, when my wife finally dumped her Windows Mobile phones and started using an iPhone, suddenly I was forced to become an expert in the "iPhone Workaround" field, kludging and cajoling the iPhone into bending to my will.

As it turned out, most of the things the iPhone "couldn't do," could eventually be done with a variety of bizarre workarounds using cloud servers, WiFi, and/or ingenious apps designed to bypass the iPhone's limitations. Unbeknownst to me at the time, most of these tricks would become useful again much later, when I found myself with a Windows Phone 7 device, which, like the iPhone, offered an improved user interface, but chose simplicity over the full computer-like functionality offered by prior Windows-based smartphone OSes.

One of the (many) challenges I've faced with WP7 is the absence of an easy way to sync documents with my PC. Sure, WP7 syncs with SharePoint servers, and when the Mango update for WP7 arrives sometime in the fall I'll be able to sync with Skydrive. Unfortunately, like many of us, I don't run a SharePoint server on my home or small business PCs, and as many in the USA watching their thermometers rushing past the angry end of the 100-degree Fahrenheit mark can tell you, it ain't exactly fall yet!

So, how can we get a reliable, cheap or no-cost PC to WP7 sync today, with just the tools consumers and small/home business users might have access to? Well, the answer for me was SugarSync, a cloud based sync/backup service that offers both free and subscription services similar to those offered by DropBox or Box.net, but that offers a unique feature its competitors do not: "Upload by Email."

Sure, I can email documents back and forth to myself already; that's the "solution" Microsoft offered us lowly non-enterprise users without SharePoint servers from the outset, but SugarSync's Upload by Email feature makes this much simpler. Rather than email the document to your phone so you can access and edit it on the go, then email the edited document back to yourself so you can re-save on your PC, then lather, rinse, and repeat as needed, SugarSync assigns you a unique email address, and any documents emailed to it are automagically deposited into your SugarSync account and will instantly sync to your PC. So, for example, if your SugarSync username is JohnDoe, SugarSync will issue you an address like JohnDoe.789412564@e2f.sugarsync.com that you (or anyone else) can send files to as email attachments.

Now, instead of saving documents I'll need on the go in my PC's Documents folder and emailing them to myself, I save them in a "Magic Briefcase" subfolder on my PC, created by the SugarSync software you install on your PC to use the service. Since there is, as of yet, currently no SugarSync app for WP7, (though SugarSync says they're working on it) I simply logged in at m.sugarsync.com and browsed to the matching folder at m.sugarsync.com with my device browser, and pinned that page to my Start screen for quick access. I can tap on the pinned tile when connected, grab whatever files I need and save them to the device to view and edit locally at my leisure. When I want to "sync" an edited file with my PC, I send it from the device to the aforementioned SugarSync email address (which, for ease of use, I've saved as a Contact called "SugarSync" on my device) and the file is deposited in my SugarSync online storage, which continually syncs with my PC, without the need to open email from myself at home and save the attachments manually.

Figure 1: There's no "App For That" yet, so I just pin the Sugarsync mobile website to my start screen for quick access.

This, at least for me, is a huge step up from continually emailing myself and dealing with the changed files at both ends. It certainly isn't perfect, nor is it a true file "sync." First, it isn't automated on both ends. Changes made to files on the PC will sync to the SugarSync cloud, but everything is still manual on the phone; you need to manually download files to the phone from the SugarSync website, and upload modified files manually by email. Also, probably in an attempt to safeguard your data, files uploaded via email will not overwrite previous versions. Instead, you get a new copy with a number appended. That "Q3 Sales Report.xlsx" spreadsheet you downloaded, edited on the phone, and uploaded by email becomes "Q3 Sales Report(1).xlsx," requiring you to go in and prune out the older versions of oft-edited files occasionally.

For what it's worth, SugarSync didn't invent this "upload by email" idea; it used to be a little-known (and even littler-used) feature of Google Docs. In fact, when I first started using my WP7 phone, I dug up my old unique Google Docs-assigned email upload address, thinking that would be my sync method. After the first couple of email uploads bounced back to me as undeliverable, I did a little searching to discover Google discontinued the feature nearly a little over a year ago. After a quick web search to find if anyone else offered this feature, I discovered SugarSync did.

So, if you want to give this a try, signup for a free SugarSync account, install the software on your PC, and enjoy a slightly better document management experience on your Windows Phone, at least until Mango brings us a fully-integrated one via Skydrive.

Todd Allcock is a small business owner (small business, that is! At 6' 3" and 300 lbs., I hardly qualify as "small") who has been using Windows-based PDAs and mobile phones since the days they were powered by steam. These tiny, powerful devices have allowed me to get out from behind the desk, operate a business on the go, and spend more time with family.


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