Moving to Microsoft Exchange 2007

Computers and devices connected to a server
You say single point-of-failure, I say synchronized data!

Back in July 2009 I upgraded my mobile phone from an O2 Xda Orbit to an O2 Xda Zest. All was well until I tried to synchronize it with two copies of Microsoft Outlook, one at home, the other at work.

It didn’t work.

Windows Mobile 6.1 won’t sync

A quick Web search showed me that I wasn’t alone. It turns out that there was a bug in that version of Windows Mobile 6.1 on my phone. Microsoft had fixed it and rolled out the update to OEMs but it appears that O2 wasn’t going to let it roll any further.

Diagram of Windows Mobile phone synchronizing with 2 PCs
My Windows Mobile 6.1 phone would only synchronize with one PC

So I was stuck with a phone that would synchronize with only one PC. Which was somewhat bothersome as I was rather used to the convenience of my calendar, contacts, tasks and notes being available both at work and at home, as well as on the go on my mobile phone.

I needed to find another solution.

XTND Connect

The first thing I looked for was an alternative to Microsoft ActiveSync (I was using Windows XP at the time) and I discovered XTND Connect.

I wondered if the problem could be bypassed by using an alternative to ActiveSync.

It couldn’t.

That didn’t work either, which made it quite an expensive mistake. The demo version looked promising but was so highly crippled in terms of functionality that I had to buy the full version in order to fully evaluate it. Which rather defeats the purpose of a demo version, in my view.

Sync2

So I looked around at alternative solutions and it appeared to me that there were only two options left:

  1. Synchronize with an online application (e.g. Google Calendar)
  2. Synchronize to a server (e.g. Microsoft Exchange)
  3. Synchronize to a local folder (e.g. USB flash drive)

I explored the Google Calendar and Google Contacts option but (and for me, it’s a deal-breaker, which is one reason I’ve not gone rushing out to buy an Apple iPhone) one the elements of Outlook that I use perhaps more than any other is Tasks. And I couldn’t sync my tasks with Google Calendar.

I assumed that Exchange would be out of my price bracket so focussed on the second option which led me to Sync2 from 4Team.

Not only does Sync2 synchronize your Outlook calendar, contacts, tasks and notes with a folder of your choosing (USB flash drive, local folder, LAN folder, etc.) it will also synchronize with Google Calendar and Contacts.

I discovered that if I synchronized it with a folder in Dropbox at home I could then synchronize it again from the same folder on my PC at work, without having to worry about remembering to pack my USB flash drive.

Three computers using Sync2 synchronizing with a Dropbox folder
Using Sync2 to synchronize using a Dropbox folder

That has been the solution I have been using for the last six months to synchronize my data between home, work and my laptop.

Occasionally I ran into problems with data not synchronizing properly and so had to either

  • Resynchronize a profile (i.e. make it think it was doing it for the first time again.
  • Delete a profile and recreate it from scratch.
  • Reinstall Sync2 completely.

But most of the time it worked pretty well.

Except that it still didn’t address the issue of my mobile phone being out-of-sync for most of the day, between synchronizations at home.

Hosted Microsoft Exchange 2007

So in January I went in search of an affordable, UK-based hosted Microsoft Exchange account.

After some shopping around I eventually selected Simply Mail Solutions (SMS) based in Warrington. What attracted me about their hosted Exchange 2007 account features were (in order):

  • Only £4.99 per month
  • Full support for Windows Mobile including push
  • Full Outlook Web Access (OWA) in Internet Explorer
  • Out of office assistant
  • Free copy of Outlook 2003 or Outlook 2007

With each device connecting directly to the Exchange server I can guarantee that my data is always up-to-date (server outages withstanding).

Various devices connecting to an Exchange Server
Two PCs, a laptop, a mobile phone and Outlook all connecting to the Exchange Server

Another welcome benefit is that I won’t have the problems of duplicated entries that I’ve experienced so many times when synchronizing multiple devices. Here’s a screenshot I took of Outlook and posted to Twitpic last month showing a repeated entry for “Doug Aitken’s Birthday” duplicated 13 times!

Calendar entry (Doug Aitken's Birthday) duplicated 13 times
Calendar entry (Doug Aitken\’s Birthday) duplicated 13 times

I can even resynchronize my mobile phone when I’m out and about using my roaming Web add-on from O2.

Conclusion

So far I’m really pleased with Exchange and with the service offered by Simply Mail Solutions (SMS).

I’ve noticed only one outage from Simply Mail Solutions which lasted only a couple of minutes when connection to the server went down, and one period of particularly slow connectivity … but then it was 01:00 in the morning, they were doing some maintenance on the servers (I discovered via a quick support call) and I should have been in my bed!

There is a balance to be made when using a hosted service like this for such important personal data between:

  1. the reassurance that I have one ‘golden copy’ of data, stored centrally that is accessed by all my devices, and
  2. the potential for it to be a single point of failure: if it goes down completely I can’t synchronize between locations and my data isn’t up-to-date.

But given my previous experience of hours and hours wasted by repeatedly cleaning up corrupted or deleted data through failed synchronizations, and living with the uncertainty that perhaps my work calendar isn’t exactly the same as my home, laptop or mobile phone calendars … I think I’ll stick with Exchange for a while.

Fixing ActiveSync woes with Outlook 2007

Microsoft ActiveSync

Now here’s a remarkable (even blogable) thing: my slow Windows Mobile to Outlook ActiveSync synchronization woes now appear to be a thing of the past. But not before running into some difficulties.

After I upgraded from Microsoft Outlook 2003 to Microsoft Outlook 2007 ActiveSync point-blank refused to connect to my beloved O2 Xda Orbit.

Not only had I upgraded Outlook itself, I’d also moved from the older “Outlook 97-2002” PST file format to the newer “Outlook 2003-2007” format. I didn’t even realise that I had been working with the older format. That must go back to my upgrade from Outlook 2000 to 2003.

My usual solutions did nothing to help:

  • Remove the Windows Mobile 6 device from the cradle and then reseat it.
  • Reboot the Windows Mobile 6 device.
  • Reboot the Windows XP device.
  • Run scanpst.exe on my Outlook.pst file.

I went for a solution-hunt on Google, and discovered that disabling the advanced nework functionality might just do the trick. And you know what: it did.

What I did

  1. Click Start > Settings
  2. Click on the Connections tab, and you see this:

Windows Mobile 6 Settings

  1. Double-tap the “USB to PC” icon
  2. Now untick the only option available: “Enable advanced network functionality”.
  3. Click OK button (top right).

Windows Mobile 6 USB to PC settings

Now everything seems to be running faster and more responsive on my O2 Xda Orbit (not just connecting to ActiveSync but accessing menus, calendar data, contacts, applications start faster), and it connects to ActiveSync first time, even straight after a system reboot. Previously it would always object, and I’d need to remove it from the cradle and leave it until after the system had completely booted up.

But …

The only thing is that I’m not entirely sure what “advanced network functionality” is. I’m not sure what I’ve disabled, what I’m missing out on … any ideas?

Error’d: Attention required

Microsoft ActiveSync - Notes: attention required.

What a tremendous error message I received the other day while trying to synchronize Outlook with my O2 Xda Orbit (running Windows Mobile 6). In the status column opposite the Notes icon I got the message: Attention required.

Above it, against my profile (Home) written in red the same message: Attention required. But this one was a link.

So I clicked it. And got a pop-up window with the meaningful message: Notes: attention required.

Kind of wish I hadn’t bothered now! Still, at least I gave it some attention.

There’s some folks I know who could really do with that alert window — actually, not so much for them but those around them!

Why is ActiveSync so slow?

I’ve probably said it before, I’ll say it again:

Why does Microsoft ActiveSync take such an inordinate length of time to synchronize Outlook 2003 with Outlook Mobile?

My Xda Orbit is currently doing an initial sync with Outlook. It has taken 75 minutes so far and it still says “Processing”.

My Psion Series 5mx or Series 7 on the other hand will do an initial sync in less than 10 minutes. Using software from the turn of the millennium!

Update #1: that’s the two hours mark now … still “Processing”.

Update #2: … and three hours passes … still “Processing”.

Update #3: … and four hours passes by. The really annoying thing is that there is no feedback other than “Processing”. The rest of ActiveSync is working fine, e.g. Explore and Connection Settings … but is it synchronizing with Outlook?

Update #4: I eventually cancelled the synchronization, deleted the ActiveSync profile on my O2 Xda Orbit and within Microsoft ActiveSync and then reconnected.  I then set it to sync only Tasks — that completed; then Tasks and Notes — that completed too; then Tasks, Notes and Contacts — that’s completed.  Just Calendar to do now, and I should be done. At last!