Mobile Free (Partial Solution – Calendar Edition)

The holy grail is to have a computer at home, a computer at work and a computer (or a phone) in your pocket. Those things have calendars and contacts and email on them. You might use them at different times, but in the end, you want to know what you need to do tomorrow while you’re sitting on the couch surfing the web on your MacBook Pro. And you want to know if you have plans tonight while your at work figuring out if you have time to start one more thing.

MobileMe seemed like a promising service that would do all of this, allowing you to sync all of your computers with the data on your iPhone. It happened over-the-air and gave all of the systems the same, unified view. And it works. Sort of. As long as you’re just using a Mac and an iPhone. Usually.

Outlook support seems to be incredibly hit and miss. To the point where it’s just not worth the hassle. You can read the forums about all the trouble people are having syncing with Outlook. Some people blame it on having Outlook hooked up to Exchange. Hello? That’s like saying your browser won’t work hooked up to the web? Who uses Outlook willingly without Exchange involved?

Partial Solution – WebDAV

Setup a WebDAV Server

There are plenty of Web Servers out there and plenty of hosting services. Many of them can support WebDAV. I’m using Apache 2.2 as my Web Server so I setup WebDAV there. Your configuration might vary based on what you are using of course.

Apache Configuration

I created a new virtual host for my WebDAV server and configured it as such:

<VirtualHost *:80>
    ServerName dav.zorched.net
 
    DavLockDB /var/www/var/DavLock
    DocumentRoot /var/www/dav
    <Directory />
        AuthType Basic
        AuthName "Zorched.net DAV"
        AuthUserFile /etc/apache2/dav_svn.passwd
        Require valid-user
 
        Dav On
    </Directory>
 
    ErrorLog /var/log/apache2/dav_error.log
 
    # Possible values include: debug, info, notice, warn, error, crit,
    # alert, emerg.
    LogLevel warn
 
    CustomLog /var/log/apache2/dav_access.log combined
    ServerSignature On
</VirtualHost>

Publish your Outlook 2007 Work Calendar to WebDAV

In Outlook. Right click on a Calendar and Choose Publish to Internet -> Publish to WebDAV Server

Publish Outlook Calendar to WebDAV
Publish Outlook Calendar to WebDAV

Enter in a path to an existing directory on the WebDAV server. This copies an ics file out to your WebDAV server and will periodically update it out on the server.

Publish your Apple iCal Calendar to WebDAV

In Apple iCal. Right click on your calendar and choose Publish. In the Publish on drop down, choose a Private Server and enter in the proper details.

Publish your home calendar from Apple iCal
Publish your home calendar from Apple iCal

This will push the calendar out to the server so that you can subscribe to it from Outlook.

Subscribe to your Home Calendar in Outlook 2007

In Outlook. Choose Tools -> Account Settings from the toolbar. Then choose the Internet Calendars tab. Click the New… button.

Subscribe to a WebDAV calendar in Outlook
Subscribe to a WebDAV calendar in Outlook

Enter in the full path to the shared ics file on the WebDAV server.

Subscribe to your Work Calendar in Apple iCal

In Apple iCal. Choose the menu Calendar -> Subscribe and enter in the URL of the work calendar.

Subscribe to a shared Calendar in iCal
Subscribe to a shared Calendar in iCal

Limitations

Now I sync my iPhone with my MacBook pro and all of the info gets onto the iPhone. Any changes on the iPhone to the Home calendar get pushed into iCal and get synced up to the WebDAV server. So the next day when I come into the office they show up in Outlook when it pulls down the changes from the Home calendar.

This is not MobileMe though. There is no over-the-air syncing. Each of the calendars is still only editable from its origin. (You can only edit the Work calendar from Outlook and the Home calendar from iCal.) But it works.

Mac OS X Leopard and iPhone

Leopard

With the new version of Mac OS X announced we can all wait for an early Christmas!
You can order yours early on Amazon for $20 less than you can get it at Apple. How? I don’t know, but they give you the discount.

So check order it here:
Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard)

iPhone SDK

The other great news is that Apple has finally announced an SDK for the iPhone to be released in February. I think this is a great move. The value of the iPhone is increased dramatically when it can have 3rd Party applications on it (without all of the trouble from JailBreaking it). The other very interesting news is that the SDK will be available for the iPod Touch as well. This kind of development will have a huge impact on developing the ‘ecosystem’ around the iPod and the iPhone.

Expect to see a lot of development and uptake of the iPhone early next year. A small computer in your pocket, the Newton 2.0 – this could be some really good stuff.

Video Conferencing? Look to Apple’s iChat and iSight

At SpiderLogic we have offices in Milwaukee, WI, Madison, WI and Pune, Maharshtra, India. While Milwaukee and Madison are right next door in the global sense, Pune is all the way around the world. Being so distant can make communication challenging of course. When you are in a one-on-one situation, you have quite a few options to use. Obviously we use email and instant messaging for many exchanges. We share information more widely using a Wiki. Often though you just can’t beat the power of a good conversation. In a one-on-one situation we generally use Skype which offers a free voice service as long as you are calling another Skype user.

What We’ve Done In the Past

Where we’ve struggled in the past is when we want to do group discussions. Skype will support up to 5 users on a conference call which generally works fairly well. Beyond that you have to do something else. Any conference call can be difficult to manage with a lot of voices. Having visual feedback offers a natural way for people to signal their intent to talk. It’s what we do everyday when we jump into conversations. Sometimes nothing beats the power of a face-to-face conversation as well. Being able to see people react to what you say is very powerful feedback. It’s also a connection that you grow to miss sometimes when you work with people in very impersonal mediums like email.

We’ve tried a number of things for video solutions in the past including Skype video. None of them have lived up to our expectations. We’ve even looked into special video conferencing solutions, some of which had price tags into the $20,000 US range!

What about iChat AV?

We decided to give iChat AV a try. The Pune office already had a Mac Mini that they’ve used for some QA work in the past. They got an iSight for their end to complete the package. I brought in my MacBook Pro which has a built-in iSight camera for the Milwaukee office to use..

The end result is that we were absolutely thrilled by the experience. It generally met or exceeded all of our expectations. The only problem we had was that the sound was a little bit low. We need to figure out some way to boost the sound output, probably with some better external speakers or a USB speaker phone appliance of some sort. The experience of looking at a conference room full of people sitting all the way around the world and being able to have a meeting with almost the same level of interaction as if we were all sitting together is almost indescribable. In the past we’ve avoided more interactive discussions and stuck to presentations because of the difficulties in the remote communication. This time we were able to have very good exchanges with both sides contributing and jumping in when they saw fit.

Cost

The cost for us was $150 to get the iSight since we had all the other pieces in place. If you would do it from scratch:

  • Mac Mini – $600
  • iSight – $150
  • Keyboard and Mouse – $50
  • Monitor – $200

That means that even if you started from nothing, no monitors, no keyboards and mice, it would cost you $2,000 to set up both ends. That comes to about 10% of the cost of some of the video conference solutions. Chances are really good that you’ll have some of that already which could bring the cost down a lot.

I think the experience of this could really sell a lot of people on the Apple solutions. We’re really looking forward to the next version that promises to add desktop sharing to the mix as well. So then we can have great chats with great presentations (using Keynote of course). And people say that Macs don’t belong in the workplace! I beg to differ.

Price References

Mac Mini
iSight
Apple USB Keyboard
Apple Might Mouse
19 in Widescreen LCD Monitor

Ohhh . . . the MacBook Pro

So I finally broke down and got a new Mac laptop the MacBook Pro to replace my 3ish year-old PowerBook. The initial impression I have is very positive. It’s got a very Buttery ™ experience. It feels way more responsive (as would be expected with dual core CPUs, each of which is faster than my single CPU in the old one) than my 1 GHz PowerBook G4.

Darwin Ports

I’ve been using Fink for quite a while, but during this transition I decided to check out Darwin Ports instead. Both of these systems provide an easy way for installing and maintaining a wide variety of the Unix utilities that are available. They handle dependencies and offer an easy interface to update to the latest version, uninstall, etc. Fink is based on the Debian apt/dpkg scheme. The Mac on Intel support for Fink is a little lacking currently and the packages seem to be rather out of date. They have Rubh 1.8.1 for example, which is even older than the one supplied by Apple.

Darwin Ports is a source based system fashioned more after the BSD ports collections. Darwin Ports has always been focused on the OpenDarwin project which ran on both PowerPC and Intel architectures, so the “transition” to the Intel architecture was much less of an issue for them. Darwin Ports was easy to install and easy to use. In a matter of minutes (did I say how fast the MacBook Pro is?), I had downloaded and compiled the latest version of Ruby, readline, openssl, etc.

Photo Booth

The MacBook Pro includes a built in iSight (branded) camera. The surprisingly fun Photo Booth utility is included. This is a simple little application that lets you take snapshots with the built in camera. It includes some simple effects which make the thing hilarious. You can take Fun House pictures of yourself that will have you cracking up.

So far I’ve found a couple of applications that I use that are not yet Universal Binaries like QuickBooks. No major complaints though, they are at least as fast as my older laptop which is fine for me.

I just can’t wait for the weekend so I can get some unintterupted playing time. :)

Congratulations to Safari

Safari has just become the first released browers to pass the Acid 2 test. Acid 2 is a complex HTML, CSS and PNG layout that was created to test the standards compliance of browsers for some of the latest Web Standards. The word is that Opera will not be far behind and other KHTML/WebKit based browsers like Konqueror will soon pass as well. (WebKit is a Mac OS X framework for displayign HTML based on the Open Source KHTML project originally produced by the KDE team. Web Kit and KHTML, after a rocky start, share a lot of code and patches.)

This kind of standards support is great news for the Web and web developers. Standards support allows for developers to create sites more easily (and thus more cheaply). Standards based Web development can reduce the amount ot HTML, reducing the size of pages, which makes downloads faster, and lowers the bills on web hosting for the site owners. Hopefully it will be followed by wider support when IE 7 is released. Firefox/Mozilla already have really good standards support and they will certainly catch up to Safari very soon.