An age-old problem that has plagued me is about to get solved via some innovative software tools. Before I tell you the solutions, let me describe the problem.
I maintain a large list of several thousand of my contacts in Microsoft Outlook. It isn't the best piece of software to do this, and as my contact list grows the file that contains all this information has grown beyond 100 megabytes -- the size that fits comfortably on all Zip disks and is an easy way for me to carry it around and make backups. My problem is how to access this information when I am away from my main desktop machine.
I guess the easiest solution is to just break down and buy a laptop and cart it everywhere. But I gave up on laptops a while ago, and besides, I wanted something more elegant.
Next up are Palm Pilots, and while this works well for a few hundred contacts, it breaks down for a few thousand or more. Now there are Palm Phones, like the one that works with Sprint's PCS network called the i300: I tried out one for a few weeks but eventually gave up on this for any real use for my contact management. Keeping it updated with several thousand contacts wasn't practical. Searching through this list took too long, and when I was making a call in "phone mode" I couldn't just take the stylus and write a number or take a note down on the screen. It combined the worst features of Palm and phone together in one big, ungainly package. The screen, while big for a phone was smallish for a Palm. And so on.
There are also products that combine Blackberry pagers and phones, and I await one to try out. But I suspect that they also are a design compromise and don't offer much help for my problem.
Another way to go is to setup some kind of virtual private network or make use of Remote Access Servers between my office and wherever I am. But that is fraught with all sorts of problems, and even though there are some newer and improved VPN and RAS products out there, it isn't easy enough -- yet.
The natural solution is to make use of the web. Ideally, I would upload my contacts to a site, and then be able to search that site using a browser. For a while I have been using Junglemate.com's service. The only catch was that I had to upload my contacts into their system periodically, which wasn't too bad and didn't take too much time. Their search functions were a bit quirky, but most of the time I could locate a contact readily using their service. It is free, is relatively clean and simple, and works well. And the company is still in business, which is more than I can say about many of the other web services vendors.
The others offer more features, and you can synchronize your contacts with Outlook or some other software. The trouble is, they are very quirky to get working, and I am always afraid that I will wipe out my entire contact database or replace it with something that is outdated. While synchronization is great in theory, I think most people just don't want to be bothered. Many of my friends who own Palms don't really trust the synch feature, although some swear by it and are happy. As for me, I am a synch-a-phobic: I once managed to wipe out my entire list of Yahoo contacts, and managed to learn a valuable lesson about making backup copies on my local drive as a result.
So all this is background for two new products. The first one is called I'm In Touch from a Canadian company called 01Communique. The software installs a web server on your main PC and puts some hooks into both Outlook and Outlook Express so you can access these programs, along with files stored on your hard disk, remotely. They just came out with a new version, and it has lots of promise. Its biggest drawback, however, is that it doesn't work well across a firewall without a lot of effort and configuration. You are welcome to try this out if you don't have a firewall connecting your main computer running Outlook.
The second is software that also recently came available from Gigamedia Access Corporation called PeerBook. They showed me something last fall, and I have been eagerly awaiting their product. It almost works, and does just about everything that I want. I haven't completed my testing, but I think it offers enough that it is worth telling you about.
The idea is simple. You load software on your machine that is running Outlook. The software does a few things: first, it connects to your Outlook contacts and email functions. Then, it publishes them on a private web site, using a peer web services connection. Unlike I'm In Touch, PeerBook works across any firewalls you may have, and the software incorporates VNC to do some nifty remote control sessions, although you don't have full screen-sharing controls as you would if you were running a complete version of VNC.
It is all very sophisticated, but the key thing is it just works. When you first connect to your private web site, you see a list of four items: your Outlook email inbox, contacts, calendar and shared files in the "My Documents" folder. You click on any of these entries and drill down inside your web browser's screen until you are viewing your email messages, individual contacts or calendar items, or the actual files themselves.
Everything you view is in real time and via a secure web browser connection. If you compose an email in the web browser, it gets queued up in your Outlook email outbox and gets sent from your remote desktop machine out into the world. I tried out the product by having two PCs next to each other on my desk, on two different networks and attached to the Internet via two different firewalls, and it was an eerie thing to see my Outlook outbox fill up with emails that I created from the remote web connection. It was also loads of fun to delete the inbox messages from the browser and watch them disappear from my Outlook inbox as well. Well, almost loads of fun. The life of a product reviewer isn't all that exciting.
The nice thing about PeerBook is that there is nothing to synchronize and screw up. You are using just one single copy of your Outlook contacts. As long as you leave your machine running, you can access it remotely from anywhere on the Internet.
Like I said, I still haven't completed my testing. Some of the screen layouts are a bit quirky with their selection of fonts and so forth. And sometimes I have had trouble connecting to their site, for one reason or another that I am still tracking down. Finally, the product is just now coming out of beta so it may still be a bit shaky. You can download it and try it for a free 30-day trial, after that you need to pay somewhere around $10 a month for the service, less if you commit to a longer contract.
Managing remote contacts is a pain, to be sure. But this software has lots of promise, and I hope they can make a go out of it.
My life has certainly changed in the past few months, and I appreciate all the kindness and support that I have received from many of you with respect to my divorce. It hasn't been easy, but I am muddling through the best I can.
I am going through another change that I want to tell you about, this one a turn for the better. I have accepted a full-time position with CMP Media, as senior technology editor for VAR Business magazine. It may a strange time to re-enter the magazine publishing world, given the number of titles that are dropping staff or disappearing entirely but I have come to enjoy my work with the folks over there, some of whom such as Bob DeMarzo and Bob Faletra I have known for over a decade. It will be odd to be back at the CMP "Mother Ship" and odder still to be working near some of the people whom I hired on at Network Computing and are still roaming the halls. But I think it is a great opportunity to do some good in our industry, and I look forward to playing a larger role with the publication and meeting with many of you at various conferences and magazine-sponsored events.
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entire contents copyright 2002 by David Strom, Inc.
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