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.

Sync woes, reprise

One of the problems with having to reinstall all my applications at work (on a new PC, which I’m 100% not complaining about) is having to re-synchronize my Microsoft Windows Mobile 6 PDA (O2 Xda Orbit) with Microsoft Outlook 2003.

You’d think it was like a conversation between two members of the UN, with a translator for each.

I’ve just dropped off a couple of folks in St Andrews after dinner, popped into the office and it’s STILL synchronizing.

It’s been synchronizing for over 13.5 hours now!

Seriously?!! That’s absolutely rubbish.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: my Psion 5mx from 8 years ago is better than that.

Update

Thankfully when I arrived at the office this morning, shortly before 09:00, my PDA had finished synchronizing. Phew!