Exchanging Exchange

My hosted Exchange provider started acting weird again recently, and I decided I’d had enough. At the same time, the new Live Mesh client that was supposed to improve compatibility with Windows 7 started causing my netbook to freeze up (solid, no moving the mouse pointer even) about five minutes after booting up. Now while the rational thing might be to switch to a different Exchange provider, I decided to shake up my whole computing ecosystem and see what was involved in living La Vida Google.

Exchange email to Gmail

This was probably the easiest transition to make, because of the way I was using my email in the first place. When someone sends me an email to jeff@jeffkirvin.net, it goes first to my domain host, then redirects to Gmail, then gets autoforwarded to my Exchange provider. So all I had to do was turn off that forwarding, and start using Gmail as my mail client instead of Outlook. Frankly, this has worked out better than I expected on my netbook, since I don’t have the overhead of running Outlook to deal with anymore. A lot less random (The program is not responding) messages in titlebars now.

It was a little more challenging to make the switch from Exchange to Gmail as the email client on my phone. Windows Mobile is, obviously, designed to work with Exchange. Setting it up for anything else is a lot less automatic. I opted to go with Google’s IMAP option rather than POP, which meant I wasn’t able to use Microsoft’s automated setup (which defaults to POP). I went with IMAP for two reasons. One, it synchronizes with other mail clients should I decide later I’d rather use something like Windows Live Mail or Mozilla Thunderbird on my Windows 7 machines instead of Gmail’s web interface, and two, it supports subfolders for labeled items, particularly starred items. I went through the manual IMAP setup instructed provided by Google, and have email syncing to my Touch Pro without a hitch. It’s not push, like my Exchange email was (Google doesn’t fully support the IMAP IDLE protocol), but I’m okay with pulling new messages every 15 minutes. In fact, I might even change that to 30 or even 60 minutes to reduce distractions. If someone needs to contact me quickly, there’s always SMS, Twitter, or an actual phone call.

Exchange calendar to Google Calendar

This was a little more challenging. First I recreated every recurring appointment I had in Exchange in Google Calendar. I could have exported from Outlook to .csv and then imported into Google Calendar, but I have only a dozen or so recurring appointments and very few one-off appointments, so it was probably faster to just recreate them, especially given how easy it is to create new appointments in Google Calendar. That took care of the desktop easy enough, but mobile is a little more challenging. For that, I had to download Goosync. A one year subscription is about $30, or you could go for $60 for a lifetime subscription. This is way less than I was paying for hosted Exchange, so it seemed like a no-brainer. I downloaded and installed the Goosync Windows Mobile client and set it to sync my calendar and contacts. It runs in the background and syncs every half hour, which seems to work okay. Appointments on the device retain full fidelity including repeat settings and alarms.

Exchange contacts to Gmail

I solved this the same way I solved the calendar issue, with Goosync. The one problem I had was that I need to re-add my contact photos and weed out dozens of incomplete contact records Google saved for me automatically that I really don’t want. Once they’re set up, though, they work well enough in Windows Mobile for email, SMS and dialing.

Exchange tasks to Remember The Milk

Gmail supports tasks now, but the feature is still in its infancy, and I can’t find any good way to sync them to other devices. So instead, I went with the most popular of online task lists, Remember The Milk. This has great integration with other services like Gmail, iGoogle, Twitter and SMS. I could use their MilkSync application to sync tasks from the web interface directly to Windows Mobile’s Tasks application, but since Tasks is generally ignored by TouchFlo 3D on my Touch Pro, it’s just as easy for me to manage my tasks on the device in Opera through RTM’s mobile interface as it would be to keep them in the Tasks application and dig that up every time.

Live Mesh to Google Docs

Don’t get me wrong, I love the concept behind Life Mesh, and it’s still technically a technology preview, not even a beta. I’m sure the issues I’ve been having with it recently will be ironed out, especially now that Mesh has been moved under Steve Sinofsky’s Windows division (which is on track for their best release ever in Windows 7). But for now, it’s just not stable enough and requires way too much CPU, especially on my Windows Mobile phone and my netbook. So instead, I’ve uploaded my current projects to Google Docs. This works well enough on my netbook and desktop, though I can’t do much offline because Google Gears doesn’t support Firefox 3.1b2 yet. It also means I can view, but not edit on my phone because Google Docs doesn’t support that through their web interface. I’m still trying to come up with a way around this, but all I’ve come up with so far is saving documents from Google Docs to my desktop, then using my phone’s drive mode to copy them to the phone, then reverse the process when I need to get the document from the phone back into Google Docs. Usually this won’t be worth the trouble. I might just write new material in an email addressed to my Google Docs address and then copy and paste it where it should be the next time I’m online. Still not ideal, but it should work for the rare times I have to write something on the phone. Writing on the phone itself isn’t as big a deal for me as it used to be now that I carry my netbook everywhere I go.

iGoogle or Gmail Labs?

On my phone, I’m accessing my data pretty much the same way I always have, other than the aforementioned difference with tasks. (Hey, Llamagraphics, any chance of a web-based LifeBalance? You could knock RTM right off the map!) On my Windows 7 machines, though, I have more choices. I could keep using Outlook (right!), but even if I opt to go with the web interface, it’s still not cut and dried. I could use Gmail for everything, or I could use iGoogle, Google’s widget driven homepage. Gmail labs offers the ability to insert small side modules for Calendar, Docs and RTM to the right and left of the message list, which has everything on one page, but pretty tiny, especially on my netbook. It is nicely arranged, though. With iGoogle, I can spread stuff out over multiple tabs, change the layout at will, and add in other stuff that I can’t do in Gmail. (Also, Gmail is blocked by content filters at the office, but Google isn’t.) I have three tabs set up in iGoogle. Organizer contains Gmail, Google Calendar, Remember The Milk and Weather. Media contains Google Docs, Google Reader for my RSS feeds and Google News. Social contains widgets for Twitter, Google Talk (my IM of choice), Facebook and MySpace. If I open these up in separate tabs in Firefox, that’s pretty much everything I need for my daily use.

A method to my madness

And last, an ulterior motive. Part of the reason I’m taking this opportunity to transition off Exchange to something a little more open is to make it easier to move to a Palm Pre when they go on sale in March (yes, I’m standing by that prediction), or to an Android-based variant of the Touch HD. I’m still happy with Windows Mobile today, and with a little third party help and some choice registry tweaks it can be as slick and modern as any other mobile OS (more on that to come), but I’ll state publicly that I’m not sure they can overcome the public perception that they’re “old and busted” before such rumor festers into fact. Fortunately, cloud computing offers choices enough to build your own solutions.

4 thoughts on “Exchanging Exchange”

  1. Good article. Interesting to see you going back to Google – I remember one of your other posts sometime ago talking about your “Google PDA”.

    As an alternative to Live Mesh, have you looked at DropBox or Syncplicity? I use DropBox to sync files between my desktop and laptop. Syncplicity is similar and also syncs with your Google docs. I assume they will run on your netbook ok.

  2. I went this route originally, and it certainly works. I sprung for the RTM syncing app, and it was pretty decent.

    But I’ve stopped it all entirely, as it just got frustrating that I couldn’t access emails when offline. That frustrated me.

    But cloud-computing… I may have another go at it, as I use a desktop, a fully-fledged laptop, my Omnia and numerous other computers at Uni.


  3. while I think that some measure of server-side-synching is really what we need in email, IMAP is such an annoying protocol, and the implementations of it are really quite annoyingly inconsistent. But if you can find a good combination of tools that work it’s worth it.

    Having said that, I’ve been less that impressed with the Remember the Milk, not conceptually and in it’s first impression, but in it’s usability as I’ve tried to use it with desktop clients and phone clients, it just seems to fall down. Miserably.

    Best of luck, and if you have any secrets, that would be great.

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