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Keep your stuff in sync: A guide to online data syncing services

July 17, 2009 06:00 AM ET

Hosted Exchange services

Microsoft's Exchange Server, which incorporates the ActiveSync data syncing technology, is one of the business world's most widely deployed systems for centrally managing contacts, calendars, notes, e-mail and other collaborative tools.

Exchange integrates with Outlook to provide several syncing features to Windows users. It can be accessed from a wide variety of mobile devices with push functionality for immediate sync and notification; it provides a Web interface in the form of Outlook Web Access; and it can even be synced with Mac OS X's Address Book and Microsoft's Entourage for contacts, calendars and notes, as well as for e-mail access.

While Exchange may seem like the Holy Grail of sync and collaboration for large enterprises, it appeals less to individuals and small businesses because it requires a fair amount of infrastructure and licensing to implement.

That's where Exchange hosted services come in. Available from many different providers, hosted Exchange services give you all the features and benefits of Exchange (from the desktop, Web and mobile device levels) including push notification for new e-mail and updates to synced data, for a monthly fee (typically around $10 to $15 per month for a single user, and most providers offer package plans for multiple users). The provider handles the hosting and support issues for you.

All of this makes hosted Exchange an option worth exploring, particularly if you're an individual or small business user of Windows and the Microsoft Office suite. However, the ubiquity of Exchange support in mobile devices (including the iPhone) can make this an appealing solution even beyond Windows-only users.

At a glance: Hosted Exchange services

Works with:
  • OSs: Windows (Macs can integrate with a limited set of Exchange capabilities)
  • Devices: Windows Mobile and Palm OS devices, iPhone and iPod Touch, BlackBerry devices (requires BlackBerry Enterprise Server infrastructure)
  • Apps: Microsoft Outlook, Apple Address Book and Mail, Microsoft Entourage for Mac
Pros:
  • Tight integration with Outlook on Windows
  • Broad support for mobile devices
  • Mobile device management options (including remote wipe of lost or stolen devices)
  • Push e-mail
Cons:
  • Monthly fee (varies by provider)
  • Limited Mac support
Best for:
  • Windows and mobile device users who need reliable data syncing and push notification of e-mails and contact or calendar changes
  • Small businesses looking to offer centralized contact management, e-mail and shared calendaring

Conclusions

In this guide, I've looked at several syncing systems -- from free to paid, from consumer to business. While each offers similar capabilities for keeping your e-mail, contacts, calendars and personal information organized and up to date across multiple computers and mobile devices, each also offers its own set of features and drawbacks.

No single solution is right for everyone. The key to finding the best option is to look at the computing and mobile platforms you use, examine the additional features each service offers, and then try out the interfaces available and see which one fits your needs and work habits the best.

Good luck and get syncing.

Ryan Faas is a frequent Computerworld contributor specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. You can find more information about him at RyanFaas.com.

Read more about Mobile/Wireless in Computerworld's Mobile/Wireless Topic Center.



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