For years my lunatic Apple friends have asked me: “when are you going to get a Mac?”. When I finally did, they started asking me: “when are you going to get an iPhone?”. As iOS is growing increasingly more useful with good notifications and over-the-air updates, my answer has been trimmed down to when it has a Gmail app that’s as good as the Android one. “Gmail with IMAP works great” is the usual knee-jerk reaction and “what’s so special about the Gmail app?” the followup question. I’m thinking perhaps it’s time I change my stock answer. I think my new response will be: sync.

This morning on my way to work I was listening to Macbreak Weekly. A bunch of my heroes, including John Gruber, were talking about iCloud sync and the problems some of them were experiencing. Tonya had factory reset her iPhone several times trying to get contacts to sync properly. Andy jokingly suggested the merging of contacts was painful and would sometimes merge 17 different versions of the same contact into a lean 12. Chris suggested it was a good idea to make sure you had a backup of the contacts, calendar and email setup you considered “canonical”, before embarking on your iCloud adventure. When the team started talking about the supposed iOS 5 battery drain, iCloud was almost universally assumed responsible for this.

Grubers level-headed approach was that, while he apparently had no problems himself, he did believe Apples iCloud transition was going to be monumentally difficult and compared it to stepping from solid ground on to a boat while carrying valuable trinkets. Transitioning MobileMe customers to a new free setup, making sure not only calendars, email and contacts sync, but also documents, was bound to generate some headaches, but they’ll pass in time, he suggested. I agree, I’m sure things’ll improve once Apple is on the boat.

Perhaps there is something to be said about Apples approach to sync. As much as they tout that “the truth is in the cloud” — as Yogi Berra would say: that’s only true when it’s true. It’s no secret Apple loves native apps. Native apps run faster, smoother, nicer than web-apps. You’ll hear many chant this, they might even use allegories such as “being closer to the metal” when describing why a web-app can never be as good as a native app. Let me tell you this: Yogi Berra doesn’t care. If it works, it works. If the app is good, it’s good. If things sync, things sync. And if they don’t sync properly, they don’t sync properly.

Googles overarching approach to sync is to not sync. Push the changes immediately. When you add a bookmark to your Chrome browser, a teensy signal is immediately sent to Googles bookmark sync server pushing the change. When you finish typing a word in Google Docs, changes are saved. There is no sync, because there are not copies of files anywhere. There is only one file. There is only one email. There is only one contact. You’ll never have to worry about whether your Android phone, tablet, or Macbook has the most recently edited version of your document, or which one has the most complete contact, or which calendar you added an event to. Because everything is always in sync. It just works.

You’d think it would get muddy if you scratched the surface and peeked underneath. If you do, you’ll find that Android sync is actually asynchronous, and that if you use Google Docs’ offline editing capabilities, you’ll actually end up with some of the same sync challenges that Apple is facing: which version is the right version? Somehow I’ve never once had a problem with this, though. I don’t know if it’s because Google started with the web-apps and built native apps and offline sync at a later time, but I have no trust issues with Google getting my sync right. I know that if I visit and edit a contact, my changes will propogate to all my devices seamlessly. I never have to worry about losing contacts, losing appointments, losing emails, getting corrupt data, or even backing up. While these words may smell like famous last words, I wouldn’t even think of backing things up. I expect it to work, I trust that it will work, and has done so far.

Compared to the flaming hoops I had to jump through to get just calendars, contacts and Gmail to sync on my wifes iPhone, using an Android device is just a relief.

4 thoughts on “Sync”

  1. Lasse Brandt says:

    There isn’t much of a difference imho.

    if an app instantaneously and magically sends your changes to the contact/mail/etc on the fly or when you actually press send/save/whatever doesn’t really matter. If I save a bookmark to my reading list on my iPhone, it’s near instantaneously appears in my Safari browser – although it’s “just” sync. Let me tell you this: Yogi Berra doesn’t care. If it works, it works 🙂

    Personally I never had iCloud sync issues, I simply “enabled”, everything sync’ed and I was i happy camper. But there _is_ problems for some people – no doubt about it. Just like I experienced problems in i.e.. Gmail in the beginning if I was writing an email and the internet connections suddenly disappeared.

    iCloud is still new, it’s certainly needs maturing – just like Googles always-on approach certainly has matured over time (Remember back when there was no offline mode?)

    Bottom line, I don’t see a reason to prefer one over the other – it’s just sync – Yogi Bear doesn’t care 🙂 If you wan’t to buy a new phone or computer, I’m guessing there is a lot more relevant parameters.

  2. Nick Momrik says:

    The setup takes a few minutes, but after that my contacts and calendar sync seamlessly. I don’t sync mail though because the mobile Gmail site is so good.

  3. Joen says:


    I knew the four testimonials on Macbreak Weekly constituted ridiculously anecdotal stats as a whole, but it appears to be working for many more people than I was led to believe.

    That’s good.

  4. It works seamlessly for me, and iCloud is intended to do exactly what you describe for google’s stuff.
    I think the difference people might be experiencing is that sync is one of those things that seem to be intrinsically difficult and full of weird little edge cases. These things seem to take some real life maturing before they work properly.
    Google has had quite a few years of experience in this, and their stuff mostly works great (though google docs has started flaking out on me, more and more often in recent months).
    Apple is just starting.

    But as this is a big bet for Apple, and they generally don’t put up with core stuff that is flaky, I am sure that they will also beat out bugs until it works as well as googles stuff. Especially seeing as it’s the same approach to sync.

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