Opinion by Scot Finnie

Scot Finnie: Personal data syncing to the cloud is broken; let's fix it

Opinion by Scot Finnie

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The free Web services that sync your personal data -- contacts, calendar, bookmarks, email -- to the cloud promise device independence. That's very attractive in an age when many of us have two, three and even four computing devices.

For many years, my personal productivity Holy Grail was to make all my data accessible at all times. That pursuit led me down interesting paths, ones that sometimes went against IT policies. I BYOD'd my work computer more than five years ago, and today one machine doubles as my work and home computer. The email package running on it gathers both work and personal email.

I regard everything I read, view or write as personal data. Those things often relate to more structured personal data, such as contacts, calendaring and logins. The trouble is, there's no single syncing service that is able to reliably, and without fuss, sync even most of these data types to the cloud. Even worse, the current crop of data-syncing services don't play nicely with one another.

The one that comes closest to being a unified service is iCloud. Basic syncing services for contacts, reminders, notes and file storage are easy to set up, and they work well enough. But iCloud's email and calendar syncing are quite limited. And while iCloud works well with all types of devices, it's nearly useless if those devices didn't come from Apple. Android need not apply. If your PC runs Windows 7 or Vista, you can use a limited version of iCloud.

Microsoft's Windows Live offers cloud-based file storage and webmail, but it's fledgling at best. Office 365 has more of the right stuff, but it's not a free service; prices start at $4 a seat per month.

Google doesn't offer unified data syncing like iCloud, but its applications and services are powerful and mature. Google's contacts, calendaring, file storage, IMAP and webmail, and Web-based document software suite are all solid. Windows users can sync Google contacts and calendars with Outlook. Mac users can't, however.

It's an old story: The vendors behind sync services seem to be more interested in positioning their wares against those of their competitors than in delivering solid services that integrate with a variety of platforms and syncing scenarios.

Here's why calendar syncing among iCal, Google Contacts and Mac Outlook 2011 doesn't work: Microsoft doesn't support the CalDAV protocol in Mac Office 2011. (Why? It does in Outlook 2010 for Windows.) Apple abandoned its own Apple Sync Services (which Office 2011 does support, ironically) in favor of its own flavor of CalDAV -- which oddly won't sync with Google's CalDAV-based calendar. And Google hasn't provided Mac support for its Google Sync utility. It would seem they don't want it to work.

Making cloud-based personal data syncing viable in the real world should be as much of a given as incorporating a TCP/IP stack into operating systems was during the mid-1990s, when the Internet was becoming prevalent.

The reality of interconnecting your devices via the cloud is a baby step. What comes next could be transformative, though. We have little control over our virtual identities, the data about ourselves we enter into websites. Each social medium, bank, store and Web service is an island of our data. What if we controlled that centrally? Think about it.

It's time to stop playing around with freebie, toy data-syncing services. Let's make this work.

Scot Finnie is Computerworld's editor in chief. You can contact him at sfinnie@computerworld.com and follow him on Twitter (@ScotFinnie).

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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