Finally - an effective way to consume information

Ever since I've gotten my tablet, I've strugged to find an effective, scalable way to keep my e-mail synchronized between the tablet and my desktop. This problem was only compounded when my company started blocking web-based e-mail programs, leaving me unable to check my e-mail throughout the day.

Over the course of the past six months, I've made several attempts to help alleviate this problem.

There are a number of tools that will synchronize PST files between two (or more) machines. I think the best one that I tried was OsaSync. This required a fileshare, wasn't the most efficient in terms of network activity, and sometimes screwed up. I ended up witha  lot of duplicate entries. (And as I said, this was the BEST one I used). But generally, it worked, so I was able to keep my tablet and desktop sychnronized.

I also wrote a web application to display the contents of my POP3 account (and even provide an RSS feed of the mailbox). This solved the problem of being able to read e-mail from work and being able to manage my contacts and e-mail and tasks on my tablet and have any updates reflected on my desktop.

I've had similar issues with reading RSS feeds. Maybe it's not on the scale of Scoble, but I'm subscribed to 161 feeds (including various high-volume, aggregated feeds like the main feed here). My time is rather limited these days, and I needed a good way to manage what I've read if I were to have any chance of keeping up. I talked a bit about my reading habits before, and now I have added the Tablet PC into the mix as well.

The limited time I do have to read weblogs is not a contiguous block either. I'll have 10 minutes before a meeting, 20 minutes over lunch, 15 minutes between classes, 10 minutes there, an hour at night - you get the point. And as we are all undoubtedly aware, context switches are expensive. If you gave me 2 hours a day to sit and read, I would have no problem keeping up. But when I have a 10 minute block to read and 4 minutes are wasted just trying to sort through what I've read and not read, my time is worthless.

SharpReader is great, but doesn't support any synchronization features to my knowledge. I started to write a WebSync program to keep my OPML synchronized across machines, but it still didn't help on the read/unread status.

I tried RSS Bandit, which has built-in synchronization of read status and subscription files. Unfortunately, FTP traffic is blocked here, so I had no way to keep my work and home synchronized. I plan on revisiting RSS Bandit when SIAM support is added. (It sounds similar to the WebSync I started working on awhile back, actually). 

Aside: Check out RSS Bandit if you haven't lately. It's really added a few key features (which, as you'll see, I won't need anymore), such as search folders and flagged items. It's starting to really rock :)

Bloglines.com came a bit closer to what I was looking for. It's a web-based solution that keeps track of what I've read and even allows me to save items for further review.

The inability to specify whether an individual item is read was a show-stopper for me. Let's say I haven't checked the main feed for a few days, and there are now 300 or more new entries. Bloglines only allows you to read them in one shot. That is, I click on the feed, and I see all 300 entries on one page, and 300 are marked as read. I mentioned this to them, and it's something they're looking at, but for now this just wasn't going to work for me.

Ultimately, I realized these were just patchwork solutions for a bigger issue: I wanted ubiquitous access to my information from anywhere.

I've finally found an effective solution to both of these problems - Exchange Server 2003 with Outlook Web Access and intraVnews.

I'm still ironing some of the kinks out, but it seems to be something I can definitely use going forward. There are a few minor problems I'm having, which I'll comment on in a future post.

One such example: intraVnews is an Outlook add-in, so it only runs when Outlook is running. If I forget to keep Outlook open, my news feeds aren't updated. It would be better if this ran as a service on the Exchange box itself - but the cost of remembering to keep Outlook open was less than the cost of trying to rewrite this software (for now).

This begs the question though - why doesn't Outlook support this sort of stuff out of the box?

I can't imagine I'm the only one with multiple machines who wants access to all of my information from anywhere. I don't need all the enterprise features of Exchange (nor do I want the overhead). This solution would work equally well if it were just a lightweight service running on my primary desktop, allowing another Outlook installation to connect to a 'master' Outlook server. Outlook Web Access would be supported as well, with the obvious IIS prerequisite.

I've also realized that Outlook will (or at least should) natively support RSS subscriptions in a future version.

My final conclusion: This solution works so well because of the awesome rich client I have to consume it. Outlook makes Exchange Server and the PST the ultimate database. Hopefully, Longhorn will build on this - I see WinFS and Outlook as a very powerful combination.

Imagine that we take this a step further, and allow the same mobile support and ubiquitous access to any information - including files - from anywhere.

The possibilities would be endless.

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