Monday, October 12, 2009

BlackBerry Desktop Manager for the Mac

(After reading, find a follow-on to this post here)

Friday October 2nd will be remembered for two epic failures--Chicago's elimination in the first round of voting for the 2016 Olympics, and for the release of RIM's horribly incomplete Desktop Manager for the Mac. I had high hopes for both; both ended up poorly. The good news is that RIM has a chance to fix this in short order, whereas Chicago just goes back to being a great city that isn't going to get a second chance to host the big games in seven years.

I'm not sure if I should give RIM a D, an F, or an incomplete. Maybe by the time I'm done writing this review, I'll have made that determination. In fact, I've held off writing this recap; I've hoped that each of the last 10 days, I'd wake up to some magic button that allowed synchronization to occur accurately. Nope.

A little background...I'm not exactly a newb when it comes to matters of syncing a BlackBerry and a Mac. When I launched my consultancy in 2007, I knew that the BlackBerry and the Mac were my two platforms of choice, so I set to work to determine the best approach to keep my e-mail, contacts, and calendar in sync. For e-mail, I chose Google Apps for Your Domain, as its IMAP capabilities make e-mail work the way e-mail should work. As in, it just works. Meeting my other two needs was a little more challenging.

BlackBerry Desktop Manager for Windows was obviously the slam-dunk choice if I'd been on a PC, but I wasn't--nor was I willing to run a Windows virtual machine just to run BDM, particularly since moving contacts and calendars between my Mac and Windows would be a process in and of itself, rather than having that synchronization occur as part of my normal workflow on my Mac. So, for contacts and calendar sync, I went with RIM's offering at the time, PocketMac.

Which could not have been worse. Let me remove any doubt from the equation--PocketMac was without question or hyberbole, the unequivocally worst PIM sync solution I'd ever used. Starting with my Franklin REX in 1997, I've used portable devices running operating systems from Motorola, Nokia, Microsoft, Palm, BlackBerry, and maybe one or two others I've forgotten--none of which polluted, duplicated, corrupted, or flat-out deleted data like PocketMac did. Luckily, I had backups of my data files, but PocketMac proved to be an enormous waste of time and effort.

Poking around in the blogosphere, I learned that A) PocketMac sucked (which I'd figured out on my own); B) Missing Sync for the BlackBerry seemed to be the solution of choice for tethered contacts and calendar sync; and C) Spanning Sync was the way to go for cloud-based calendar sync with Google Apps.

So, I bought licenses for both, using Missing Sync to keep my contacts sync'd to my BB via USB, and using Spanning Sync to enjoy two-way cloud-based calendar sync via Google Apps. That worked great until February 2009, when all hell broke loose. I upgraded my BB's OS from 4.2 to 4.5; for whatever reason, Missing Sync broke like eggs in the colander above Jeremy Clarkson's head. The OS upgrade caused contacts to be deleted from my Mac, but not from my BB; vice versa; and for individual contacts to duplicated up to a dozen times. The solution from Mark/Space (Missing Sync's publisher) to try to correct my data? Pay for an upgrade to the next version of Missing Sync--a lousy policy for a piece of sync software. Yes, I pay for updated software regularly. But, a crucial part of the implied contract between a sync software vendor and a sync software user is that the software won't f-up my data.

Heck, I'm perfectly capable of doing that on my own.

So, sadly, I threw Missing Sync to the trash. I'd started this journey with about 3500 contacts. After the sync collision, I had nearly 6000 contacts, with little trust in the veracity of the data in any of them. But, I had a backup! Since I'd needed to fire up Fusion to use BDM to perform the 4.2 to 4.5 RIM OS update, I had a backup. Lordy me. I figured that I could simply roll back my contacts database to where I'd been in the good ol' 4.2 days, then wipe out my Mac address book (after backing up, of course), then use Missing Sync to push my contacts from my BB to my Mac.

Sadly again, that didn't work. Something in the move to Missing Sync 2.0 beta was throwing all kinds of sync errors; working with the Mark/Space tech support team to resolve this was sadly an exercise in futility. But, with the lemons dealt, I chose to make lemonade, using this as an opportunity to upgrade the quality of my contacts database by deleting stale contacts. Over the next couple of months, I dealt with the frustration of having a BlackBerry and a Mac without a good copy of my contacts. Sure, I endured some extremely annoying moments, but at least I usually had a copy of contact data somewhere, even if I had to go find it. After about six weeks (and a requisite amount of red wine), I had a contacts database with about 2300 sanitized contacts, one which I now back up every 30 seconds or so.

Okay, not that frequently...I back up every time I'm about to do something new and/or questionable--like installing BDM for the Mac. With that saga as background, here's the good, the bad, and the ugly on the new BDM for the Mac...

The good:
  • Installation is a breeze, notwithstanding the need to reboot the Mac upon completion. I can't really argue with a reboot, as the process/daemon that needs to watch the USB port for device connection has to get cranking.
  • The ability to back up your BlackBerry with a single click is awesome, and long overdue on the Mac platform; similarly awesome are the capabilities to selectively backup and/or nuke selected device databases, like the address book or calendar, and to install/remove/update applications.
  • iTunes synchronization is seamless, save for a few inconsequential errors relating to unsupported file formats.
The bad:
  • Sync is slow. And when I say slow, I mean slooooooooow. Not, pop up for a spot of tea slow. I mean, drive over to Costco for another cube of Diet Pepsi slow. I can deal with the two-plus hours the app took to initially sync 3.5 gigabytes of music from iTunes to my Curve; what I can't deal with is 10-15 minutes on each sync, just for the app to make sure that my contacts haven't changed.
  • Logs aren't horribly useful--the fact that the log seems to have some kind of a maximum size means I can't debug the beginning of most of my sync sessions, as the first n hundreds of lines simply scroll out of the log and aren't available to be saved. I have logs with more than a thousand lines that're still incomplete. Yes, I want logs that tell me what happens to each (e.g., contact) record during the sync process, but incomplete logs are nearly as worthless as no logs at all.
The ugly:
  • Sync doesn't freakin' work. Full stop. Now, I can't validate this on any other platform than a T-Mobile 8320 Curve running 4.5.0.81 and a black MacBook running 10.5.8. But, I'm not exactly an edge case here. I asked BDM to sync my contacts and iTunes. Nothing else. iTunes works great. Contacts sync doesn't. Fail, fail, fail, fail, fail.
Now, you may ask yourself "Coop, what doesn't work?" Lemme tell ya...contacts sync doesn't work. Let's break this down. The number of contacts on my Mac matches the number of contacts in my BlackBerry. Woohoo! A point for BDM!

And that'd be all. Examples? I have five Karens in my address book. For two of them, their physical addresses don't sync onto my BlackBerry. (Thankfully, BDM hasn't deleted them from my Mac, but for that, I have backups!) I have two Vinces. For the one that I care about (and yes, that's a stretch if you know who I'm talking about), one of his e-mails and both of his physical addresses are missing on my BB. I have two Antons. Like Vince, my local Anton is missing one phone number and his physical address. Even on my own contact information, BDM has managed to truncate my information by three e-mail addresses, two physical addresses, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Let's be crystal clear on this--a partial sync (with even a single record being off) falls into the same category as being a little bit pregnant, the challenge being, on a partial sync I have no idea who was the culprit or what kind of further symptoms I might expect. And yes, I've done all the stuff you would hope I would've--resetting iSync multiple times, wiping out the Mac and BB address books and reloading clean copies, etc.

I really, really, REALLY don't think I'm asking for too much here. I'm pained every time I hear my local Anton talk about how seamlessly Windows BDM syncs his 40,000 contacts...and how quickly, too. I'm familiar with garbage in, garbage out. But, when I'm providing a 48 ounce porterhouse on one end, I expect a 48 ounce porterhouse on the other, not a slider made of Hamburger Helper.

So, last night I went back to Spanning Sync to synchronize my contacts between my Mac and my BB. I call Spanning Sync "the poor man's BES"--using their over-the-air sync of Google Apps contacts and calendars in conjunction with Google Apps' IMAP functionality gets me pretty darn close to a BlackBerry Enterprise Server for the stuff I care about.

And, yeah, contacts sync worked great last night. I'm glad to be back to Spanning Sync.

Truthfully, I was a little worried about the fate of Spanning Sync (and yes, Missing Sync, too) with the arrival of BDM for the Mac. Unless BDM for the Mac gets way better, way quickly, they have nothing to worry about.

So, yes, BDM for the Mac is a vital piece of software, for its ability to back up and restore your BB; for its ability to selectively whack individual databases on your BB; for its ability to let you upgrade the OS, or upgrade or delete applications; and for its iTunes sync capability. But, until they get contacts sync right, BDM for the Mac will remain a backup tool--literally.

Grade: D+ with an incomplete.
Homework: Correction of sync capabilities to work as assigned to remove and resolve incomplete tasks.
Prognosis: B+ upon resolution.

(Find a follow-on to this post here)

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