Why Apple And Google Can't Sync Right—And Don't Care If You Suffer
There's a mobile ecosystem battle raging, with Apple and Google racing to build end-to-end mobile monopolies. According to VisionMobile, "The triumph of iOS and Android is a testament to the superiority of ecosystems economics over legacy business models." Sadly, this triumph has a casualty, and that casualty is you.
It all worked great when Apple was a hardware company that dabbled in software, and when Google focused on cloud services but didn't veer into hardware. Now that these companies are encroaching on each others' turf, some essential things are getting lost in translation.
Apple Sinks On Sync
We live in an increasingly mobile world, which requires correspondingly tight synchronization between these devices. Sadly, even when buying into one vendor's end-to-end stack (hardware, software, cloud), sync is not guaranteed. At least, not with Apple.
I've written before about Apple's hit-or-mostly-miss approach to cloud services. Perhaps once a year I take up the topic, and each year the story is the same: Apple sync always feels like a kluge.
This isn't because it hasn't had smart people working on the problem. I've worked with a number of people from Apple's MobileMe/iCloud team, and they're exceptional. But Apple never placed a premium on the work they did. Apple's DNA is amazing industrial design with elegant interfaces. Cloud? Not so much.
So I've dumped iCloud for everything but synchronization of Notes from my MacBook Air to my iPhone and iPad. It mostly works. Sometimes. Cloud is Apple's Achilles Heel.
Google's "Standard" Approach To Sync
Which is why I have turned to Google to handle synchronization of my most important data across devices. But even Google's sync has started to falter, though in its case the problem seems to have less to do with technical ability and more to do with political maneuvering.
If you're an iPhone user that depends upon Google services like Gmail, Google Calendar or Google Contacts, life was great when Google supported Microsoft's Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) technology. You'd make a change on your phone and it would immediately be reflected on every other device. Brilliant.
But it also made life easy on rival platforms. So in a move ostensibly to embrace open standards like CalDAV and CardDAV, but very likely done to burn bridges to rival ecosystems, Google announced that starting January 30, 2013, new users wouldn't have access to EAS, and instead would need to use IMAP (email), CalDAV (Calendar) and CardDAV (Contacts).
Suddenly, syncing Google's services with Apple's products doesn't work nearly as well. I can use Google's Gmail app, but it's not deeply integrated into Apple's iOS experience. If you want the premium integrated ecosystem experience of yesteryear, you're out of luck. Or out of sync, as the case may be.
Sync At A Snail's Pace
The genius of EAS was that it was push-based, rather than Google's pull-based approach (or "fetch," in Apple's iOS terminology). In an iOS fetch world, things get around to synching every 15, 30 or 60 minutes, or you can arrange to only sync manually.
This sounds like a minor thing until you move from a push-based world back into the fetch-based Stone Ages. I've been experimenting with Google's CalDAV and CardDAV today, and have found it somewhat infuriating. I made a change in my browser then had to run out the door to an appointment, and waited... and waited... and waited for the appointment to make its way to my device. There is a refresh button which I repeatedly tried pressing to get a manual sync moving, but it didn't seem to do anything.
Almost as bad, for those of us who use Google's services for both work and home, Google's sync has a range of known issues with iOS, including serious limitations in how it handles managed calendars. That is, in order to avoid jumping back and forth between tabs for home and work calendars, both of which are stored in Google, Google lets me manage my home calendar from my work calendar.
But not on my iPhone. And enabling my work Google account and a separate personal Google account results in Google sending me double alerts for every event (I can't seem to turn one off). So not only is Google's new and improved sync terribly slow, but it's also overly chatty.
Can't We All Just Get Along?
Third-party tools don't help. I bought CalenMob to help me tame sync by completely bypassing Apple's iOS calendar app, and I almost as quickly decommissioned it. The interface is pretty, but the functionality is lacking. CalenMob entries make it to my iPhone Calendar app, but not to the Google server. (Bizarrely.) SMS notifications get turned into standard pop-up notifications. And so on.
Has anyone else found a way to live happily on Apple's hardware using Google's cloud services? Don't tell me, "Android comes with native integration of its services." I know that. But the point is that I, and much of the market, isn't interested in an end-to-end, cradle-to-grave affiliation with one particular ecosystem. We want choice. And right now our only choice is broken-by-design sync.