Please Santa, Can I Have My Documents?

Tony Williams
8 December, 2008
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So here I sit writing my Xmas list and this blog post.

What does Tony want from Santa this year? Easy document transport would be nice, and Santa may have delivered it early.

At the moment I find myself losing too much time and sleep worrying abut the information I have stored in computers and how to get at it from various locations. Recently a vital file needed at the weekend was on my work computer, sitting in a locked building.

Thanks to Address Book and my iPhone, I now know your phone number wherever I am. Now that Google has taken its CalDav support out of beta and given us that nifty new tool calaboration to set it up for us I can now have the same calendar everywhere. Delicious now have a neat iPhone app so my bookmarks are everywhere. My notes live in Evernote so I can see them from any computer or my iPhone — they live offline as well. Lists are in Zenbe so they are fine on my iPhone and computers (though they only live offline on my iPhone.)

Then we get to documents. This is the real sticking point of sharing information among your various computers and devices. At the office I have a server, at home I have a server and never the twain shall synchronise. Synchronising files across computers is one of those tasks that you think would be easy for a computer but turn out to be incredibly difficult. If you change a file at work and then change it at home without getting your earlier changes you end up with files that will not properly synchronise, and the computer will usually either do the wrong thing and overwrite one set of changes or do nothing. Either solution is less than ideal.

I can use Google Docs or some such equivalent to keep some on; Docs even allows me to view files on the iPhone. There is also offline storage using Google Gears, the only problem is that you can only work on the document types available in Docs.

If you keep some sense of when and where the document will be needed it can be easier — this column is being written in Google Docs as I know this morning I’ll work on it offsite, this afternoon back in my office and then finish it at home, making Google Docs the perfect tool for this particular task. Not all are as clear cut as that.

The solution to my dilemma would seem to be DropBox. This neat little utility and website stores up to 2Gb of files online for nothing (you can pay $US10 a month and get 50Gb.) When you run it for the first time on your Mac it installs itself as a login item so it always runs. It effectively mounts the 2Gb of space as a folder anywhere you like on your Mac and you can drag and drop files between the Mac and the online folder. They have a client for Windows, Linux and the Mac as well as a web interface. The web interface looks good on an iPhone and you can even open and view PDFs, text files, Word documents and several graphic formats. So you effectively have access to your files anywhere you want. It even allows for sharing files between friends and associates.

Dropbox also solves the synchronising clash problem perfectly – it marks the files by renaming them “conflicted copy of filename” and leaves it for you to sort out. Even better, when you open the web interface you get a list of “events” so you can see when you changed files. For the best party trick, find a file you have deleted and click on its name – you get a page that tells you that the file has been deleted and allows you to restore it.

Dropbox is one of those tools that just works. I now have my most common applications defaulting to my Dropbox folder at home and work. I don’t need to think about files being in the wrong spot. Quite soon I’ll probably have to either archive some off or pay that monthly fee, but I think that $US10 is worth it for ease of use and peace of mind.

Oh, Santa, if you think I’ve been very good, could you also get the kind folks in Cupertino to announce improvements to the Apple TV software and Mac Mini hardware at Macworld?

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