So… the challenge is to work across multiple machines, keep everything identical (contacts, appointments, email, task lists) in all environments, given that I’m not the only person adding data into the system, and not the only person that needs to be able to see where I’m going to be and what I’m going to be doing.

Fortunately, I’m on a Mac. I know it’s a cliche, and I was a bit of a cynic through almost 20 years of PC use – but the ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion experience surprises you. I’m not going to get into a debate about the relative merits of Mac vs PC here. I’ve argued both sides and if you’ve made your mind up, nothing I say here is going to convince you. But I’m totally sold for 1001 reasons. I couldn’t go back.

Now, the easiest thing to do when you’re running a Mac is to use the native software that comes with it. They’re very good programmes and they do exactly what they need to do – on the computer you happen to be using. I use Mail, Address Book and iCal.

The trick is to make them all work on all of the computers that you use. Here’s how I do it.

1. Email
My preferred email provider is Gmail, and I have a couple of different accounts for different reasons – as well as the University email. All of them are set up as IMAP accounts in Mail:

Email inboxes

And the great thing about IMAP is that it means no matter how many computers you check your email on, it’s always 100% synchronised. Some people seem to think I just redirect my university email to my Gmail account (not worth the effort). Instead, I just see them grouped side-by-side like this.

As far as I’m concerned, that bit’s solved.

Here’s how to make IMAP work for Gmail. It’s just as easy to get it to work with other email accounts that support IMAP including (with a bit of effort) our university email.

2) Address book
The best answer here is Mobile Me. Get that installed on your computer, pay your annual fee, and everything will just magically work across all of your computers.

However, it’s not the FREE answer. Plaxo works (most of the time – I’ve had one or two issues along the way):


Plaxo does all sorts of clever things. Most of them, for me, are pretty pointless. But the cleverest thing it does is that it not only synchronises your address book, but it also updates your address book whenever anyone changes their own contact details.

That is to say – if I’m a Plaxo member, and you’re a Plaxo member and a contact of mine – and you happen to update your phone number, that update automatically goes to all of my computers without me even having to know that you lost your phone. Very handy: Self-healing address books.

3) Calendar
Here’s where it gets tricky, of course. In iCal, I have three calendars: My BCU calendar for appointments, meetings and classtimes; my personal calendar for haircuts, gigs and dinners with friends; and my New Music Strategies calendar for consultancies, seminars and advisory board meetings.

But there are other people that I work with who make appointments for me. To that end, I use Google Calendars and have them authorised as people who can update and change appointments on my behalf. For that reason, I need to synchronise iCal on the Mac with gCal (Google Calendar).

I’ve let my colleagues see all of my calendars, because a) I don’t care if they know I’m going to the dentist or taking Bobbie out to dinner; and b) it ensures that they don’t inadvertently book something that conflicts with something else.

For this iCal – gCal sync, I’ve chosen Spanning Sync:

Spanning Sync

Yes, Spanning Sync is a paid-for service, and yes I know that CalDAV is available for free via Google now. That was not the case when I signed up to Spanning Sync.

However, it seems that CalDAV adds your Google Calendar as an extra calendar in your iCal software, whereas Spanning Sync will map one iCal Calendar (say, my BCU one) to an identical one in gCal – and any changes made by any person on one are immediately reflected on the other. For that alone, it’s absolutely brilliant for my purposes – and worth the $25 per year or $65 lifetime licence.

And, as it happens, you get $5 off (and I get a $5 gift!) if you sign up using this link: Spanning Sync referral – or you use the code ‘YJQVXD’ when you pay for it.

Your call. I’m actually recommending to my more technically-inclined friends to give the CalDAV thing a go. If you find it worthwhile, leave a comment and let us know how you got on.

4) To Do list
As I said in part 1, I’m a bit of a GTD freak. I spend a couple of hours, once a week, reviewing all of my projects and all of my upcoming tasks. Then, I run the system out of a piece of software that tells me what I’m supposed to be doing, based on where I am and what time I have available to me.

I’ve tried several different systems. All of them have their good points. I started out with Thinking Rock, shifted to Ghost Action and have finally settled on Things.


Things is brilliant. Again, it’s a paid-for piece of software, but it does everything I want it to do, and I’m happy to pay a little bit for that. However, it only works on a single machine, and doesn’t naturally synchronise to another instance of Things on another machine. And, the way that I work – I NEED for that to happen.

There was a clue in the way that Things synchronises to iCal on the same machine:

Task list

You can have Today’s tasks listed in the To Do list on iCal. So my immediate thought was that if I could synchronise To Do items across multiple computers, it would be more or less solved. So I went on a hunt.

I knew that Spanning Sync couldn’t interface with Google on To Dos, so that was a non-starter (apparently, they’re working on it, but Google need to sort out the API).

Likewise, Plaxo don’t do it – though it’s in the pipeline. I know this because I’ve tried to sync tasks via Plaxo before and the nice developer man from Plaxo sent me a secret trial version on which Tasks did sync. It worked, but it was a bit unstable and I had to remove and reset Plaxo a couple of times before I ended up giving up and looking elsewhere.

And that brought me back to MobileMe – Apple’s ‘synchronise everything’ solution. I’d been reluctant to use it because it’s expensive (US$99 per annum!), but I signed up for the 60 day trial because I figured I could always opt out if I find something better.

This time – it worked. Tasks and ToDos synchronised perfectly across multiple macs, and that meant that the at least the ‘Today’ to do list in Things was current. That was about midnight last night.

Twelve hours into my trial period, and I’m less convinced that I need it. Because although it’s a reasonable (though incredibly pricey) workaround for my Things problem – as far as everything else is concerned, it’s a solution to issues I don’t actually have.

And, of course, the workaround is ultimately unsatisfying. I have projects, scheduled tasks, tags, notes and categories for all my stuff in Things. I want the whole damn database to be identical across two machines – the laptop and the desktop. Not just today’s task list – I need to be able to schedule, tag or change something on one installation, and have it automatically just mirror on the other.

It wasn’t till I slept on it, and gave some thought to file synchronisation that I had my answer…

[To be continued…]