Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Breaking Free from MobileMe

Formerly known as .Mac, MobileMe is Apple's collection of cloud services and includes online applications for email, contacts, calendars, picture organization, and cloud storage.  It even has a tool to locate your lost iPhone and disable it if need be.  As you would expect from Apple, all of these online applications adhere to the same usability and design standards as Apple's standalone applications.  Something that the Googles and Microsofts of the world would do well to learn from. 

While all this attention to design detail is compelling, the functional features offered in MobileMe are not particularly unique.  To tell you the truth, a year into my $100/year MobileMe subscription, I don't think I've ever seriously used any of the online services directly.  Rather I use MobileMe, along with a couple other services, to link together my data across the various computers and connected devices in my life.  Recently,  I wondered if I could get the same synchronization experience using free services that I do with MobileMe.  This article describes my setup both before and after.

My connected life consists of sharing data across a home iMac, a home Macbook Pro, a work Macbook Pro, an iPhone, and an iPad.  The iPhone and iPad do double duty as both work tools and home toys.  In addition, wife-Annette and I use an online calendar to stay in sync (although this is more of an adaptation for her as she is quite efficient using only the paper calendar on the inside of our pantry door).  Prior to my investigation I had the following setup:
  1. Microsoft Exchange Server (work): synchronize my Work Calendar/Contacts between my work Mac, iPhone and iPad
  2. MobileMe: synchronize the Family Calendar and my Contacts between my home Macs, work Mac, iPhone and iPad
  3. MobileMe (iDisk): synchronize documents and files between my home Macs, work Mac and provide access to these files on my iPhone and iPad.  Synchronize my OmniFocus library across all computers and devices (very necessary to keep me organized)
  4. Google and Calgoo Connect: synchronize the Family Calendar between wife-Annette and I
A bit of a Rube Goldberg set up (particularly the Calgoo bit) but it has worked for a year now.  At first the synchronization between OmniFocus and iDisk was painfully slow but fixes between Apple and Omni Group improved things immensely.

Before designing a free service solution I leveraged some research and experimentation that I had done for work.  This included looking into services from Google, Microsoft, Dropbox, Box.net.  So it didn't tame me very long to design something that would work just as seamlessly as the MobileMe integration.  Here's what I'm testing today.
  1. Microsoft Exchange Server (work): synchronize my Work Calendar/Contacts between my work Mac, iPhone and iPad (no change)
  2. Google: synchronize the Family Calendar and my Contacts between my home Macs, work Mac, and iPhone
  3. Google: synchronize the Family Calendar between Annette and I using shared calendars
  4. Dropbox: synchronize documents and files between my home Macs, work Mac and provide access to these files on my iPhone and iPad.  Limited to 2G (MobileMe was 10G).  If I overrun my 2G I can either pay $10/mo for more or use Box.net or similar services to cover additional data.
  5. MyDrive: like Dropbox and Box.net, MyDrive.ch is a cloud service hosted in Switzerland.  What makes it different is that it provides the WebDav interface that OmniFocus needs for synchronization. This also makes it mountable in Finder so that I can access an additional 2G of storage.
The astute reader will see that while I am now free from MobileMe I seem to have lost my ability to synchronize my personal calendar and contacts with the iPad.  This is due to a limitation in iOS 3.x which only supports a single Exchange account (in this case, my work account).  Google synchronization of calendars and contacts uses the Exchange protocol (which makes for dead simple setup and seamless synchronization).  The forthcoming iOS 4.2 will remove this limitation and I will once again be fully synchronized.

Friday, September 3, 2010

What's on your Browser?

Continuing the theme started with What's on your Pod? and What's on your Mac? I humbly submit this list of browser add-ons that I use.  For those not familiar with the technology, a browser add-on (or plugin or extension) is a small piece of software that works within the framework of the underlying platform (a web browser in this case) to provide some piece of additional functionality or change the way part of the browser looks or feels.  By their nature, add-ons are typically small in size and single purpose.  In fact the best add-ons, in my opinion, do only one thing and do it well.

It wasn't long ago that if you wanted to plug extra functionality into your browser your only option was Firefox.  In fact, I'm still primarily a Firefox user today because of the richness of the add-ons available for this platform.  I really like Safari (especially its Reader function) and I like Chrome's speed and skins.  Both have outstanding HTML5 support as well.  However, unlike recently, neither of them supported add-ons (although both do now).  The moment I can get equivalent add-ons (extensions) for Safari to those below I will likely make a permanent browser switch.

The list below is simply the list of Firefox add-ons that I use or have used recently.  It is by no means an exhaustive list of the popular add-ons available.  For that, you'll have to go take a look for yourself.  Before I start the list, you might be curious whether or not you are running any add-ons.  In Firefox, pull down the Tools menu and select "Add-ons".  This will pop up a window where you can see the list of Extensions (add-ons that provide new features), Themes (add-ons that change how your browser looks and feels), Personas (add-ons that make the browser pretty), and Plugins (add-ons that provide additional content support such as video formats).  I'm going to list my favourite Extensions. 

1Password - This browser extension goes hand-in-hand with the excellent 1Password application that I use on my Macs.  Go to a site and 1Password will fill in the username and password for you.  Supported on all major browsers.

AdBlock Plus - Essential extension that seamless scrubs out banner ads.  AdBlock maintains its own database which you can extend as you go.

Canadian English Dictionary - I need the letter u in all my favourite, colourful, neighbourhood words.

Download Statusbar - This is one of the first extensions I installed way back.  I've tried other download enhancers but I keep coming back to Download Statusbar.  It does its one job and it does it well.

Evernote Web Clipper - This is another extension that goes hand-in-hand with an essential desktop application.  In this case it is Evernote, the essential brain extension.

Firebug - If you do any web development Firebug is an essential debugging tool.  Also allows editing and viewing of CSS, HTML, Javascript, etc.

Firefox Sync - Powerful search engines like Google and Bing have nearly obviated the need for bookmarks.  However, I do have a small set that represent the most frequently visited sites that I go to.  Firefox Sync (formerly Weave) does a decent job ensuring that no matter what machine I'm not, the instance of Firefox there will have my usual set of bookmarks.  It also syncs passwords, preferences, and tabs.  The latter is a little clunky though IMO. 

FireGestures - FireGestures enables you to navigate your browser and web pages using swipes and other mouse gestures rather than clicking on different parts of the browser.  To be honest my Macbook Pro's multitouch trackpad with jitouch installed removes the need for FireGestures.  However, I still find it useful on my iMac.  Windows and Linux users will love it as well.

Forecastfox Weather - This extension puts some discrete weather icons in the bottom right corner if your browser window.  Over time my eyes have been trained to respond to the word/thought "weather" by glancing to the bottom right corner of my browser window.  This is one of the reasons why it is jarring for me to use another browser. 

Tab Mix Plus - If I was stranded on a desert island and could only take one Firefox extension with me it would be Tab Mix Plus.  Sure, all browsers now support tabs but Tab Mix Plus provides many more configuration options and has excellent save/restore functions.

FireTitle (MIA) - FireTitle is one extension that went away after the Firefox 3.6 upgrade and I really wish it would come back.  It allowed the user to set the window title text rather than using the default page title.  I like to group similar tabs in different browser windows each with a topic title.

That's my list.  What about yours?  Do you know of equivalent extensions for Chrome or Safari?  If so, I'd love to have some links.