Friday, December 20, 2013

Synchronising files between devices -- how hard can it be?


It's the age of the cloud, or so we are told. All our documents are available to us everywhere, on our computers, phones, and tablets.

In this golden age it should be simple to synchronise between Android and the desktop computer, in such as way as to take advantage of an internet connection when it exists, but not be hampered by the lack when it doesn't. Seamless editing, with automatic synchronising on each edit, should be a reality in 2013, given that the technology is decades old. But the truth is rather different.

Defining the problem
First, I should be explicit about my criteria.

1. I don't mind where the documents are held online, since I doubt any one provider is safer or more trust-worthy than another. Having the choice of different file stores would be perfect. OPTIONAL

2. Off-line editing is a must, since I don't always have an internet connection. Even if I do, I don't want to drain my mobile device's battery unnecessarily, or rely on a fragile connection. Instead, editing should be independent of the cloud, synced on request (or automatically). REQUIRED

3. Editing should synchronise automatically. Behind the scenes this might well be implemented as a) get document, b) edit document, c) put document (while checking file stamps). But the process should be transparent. REQUIRED

4. There should be no show-stopper bugs. Obviously. REQUIRED

5. I don't want to be locked into any additional vendor software, over and above that required for file sharing. REQUIRED

Possible solutions
Here are two popular solutions that don't work for me.

Evernote is the leading note-taking and organising app. It runs on various platforms plus has a web interface. The free version is quite capable. Documents can be freely edited whether online or offline. These sync automatically, and if there's a conflict, I am told. Sounds great so far.

The problem is that there is no undo function. While editing, if I mistakenly delete a large swath of text, I cannot undo this change in the editor. Neither can I exit the document without it being updated; saving is always automatic. So my mistakes get saved, even once I have realised I have, in fact, made a mistake. That was rather unthinkable behaviour even back in the 1980s.

After losing a whole document this way I uninstalled Evernote. It fails criterion 4 big-time.

The omnipresent Google Drive provides online document storage that links directly to Google Docs, an application designed to emulate a typical office suite. Together these web apps allow me to share documents and freely edit them from anywhere. Yes, there's an Undo function! And changes are saved automatically (whether I want this or not).

Google Drive on Android has an offline mode which allows you to set a file for offline editing. But in fact this does... nothing. An internet connection is needed at all times, unless you simply want to view your file. (Which you can do whether the file is marked "offline" or not.) This bug has existed for at least two years and Google is uninterested in fixing it. The party line at Google is that everyone is online at all times, or else ceases to exist as a valid customer.

Apparently, if you access Drive using the Chrome browser, there is an add-on that makes this all work properly. But I am not interested in being coerced into using YAB (Yet Another Browser). In point of fact, I use Dolphin so I can view the Flash content other browsers deny.

There are loads of other sharing solutions -- too many in fact. Not one seems to accomplish exactly what I am looking for.

Sugarsync, typical of corporate solutions, doesn't seem to offer anything interesting and costs a pile. Box, Wuala and other tools perform similarly to DropBox, not implementing seamless editing (criterion 3). Microsoft's SkyDrive seems clumsy and wants to work only with Microsoft tools (violating criterion 5). GDriveSync only synchronises uploads. About a thousand other possible choices are mentioned in this article.

Though it doesn't solve my problem, I should mention ownCloud, intriguing open source software that requires you to install your own file sharing server. It will then allow folder synchronisation between computers. The motivation for the project appears to be altruistic: to free data from the control of centralised corporate servers.

A compromise solution
Though I have not found the perfect solution, I have come across a compromise, involving the synchronisation of specified folders. So long as my files are organised in those particular storage locations, it is possible to define synchronisation at a particular time or interval. This is not as nice as having it happen automatically once I am finished editing, but is certainly better than nothing. Perforce I must give up on criterion 3.

For Dropbox the app Dropsync allows two-way synchronising with bandwidth control and time interval settings. But better yet is FolderSync, a full-featured programme that works with over a dozen different storage services. I like this, since it permits me to operate independent of vendor.

One problem I noticed immediately is that it cannot synchronise native Google Doc files... yet another restriction from our friends at Google. So I will say good-bye to Google Drive and Google Docs. Thankfully I haven't committed much to their world.

Conclusion
I will adopt a two-step synchronisation workflow, editing files locally (on multiple systems) and then synchronising periodically with FolderSync. That will work out just fine.

But is it really 2013?

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