Over the holiday break I spent more hours than I care to remember sorting out duplicate Mac OS X Address Book entries, thanks in large part to bad past experiences I’ve had with services including Plaxo. In addition to cleaning and editing my address book, I’ve been reinstalling all my applications onto my Macbook laptop and getting my Macbook set to sync with iTunes to my iPhone. Unfortunately, for several nights, I’ve faced error messages like this one:

MobileMe Sync Errors

After trying multiple suggested fixes from the Apple Mobile Me support website, I finally resorted to the Mobile Me Live Chat support option today. I faced two different but related problems:

  1. My contacts would not sync down to my Macbook and replace the existing contact book entries.
  2. One of my Mobile Me calendars mysteriously disappeared, and I needed to restore it from a backup.

Mobile Me advice via chat

As you can see, perhaps Johnny cannot spell as well as we all thought he could. I didn’t correct his spelling of “calendar,” but perhaps one of his supervisors will.

My Mobile Me support rep (code named “Johnny A”) told me to restore my iPhone from my last backup, and be sure to turn on iCal syncing on both my computers. His suggestions did not produce immediate fixes, but I think I’ve resurrected my missing calendar entries. I never did get my contacts from Mobile Me to sync properly down to my Macbook, however. I’ve spent literally hours on this, so finally I resorted to a sneakernet solution: I copied my backup address book archive via a flash drive to my Macbook, and just imported it so it would replace/overwrite my blank address book there. Now things are syncing fine to Mobile Me, including my iPhone, and I can at last declare this “Mobile Me wrestling match” over.

I agree with those who predict that cloud computing will continue to grow in importance in the months and years ahead. It’s likely to reshape many things, including the way many of us tend to think about the utility and importance of locally installed software. I listened to Clark Boyd’s podcast from December 20, 2008, today on my way into work, and really enjoyed the last segment on cloud computing. I certainly find myself increasingly relying on Google Documents, web-based content management solutions like WordPress and Joomla, and other applications which reside “in the cloud.”

The past few weeks, as I’ve wrestled with address book and calendar synchronization issues across two different computers and my mobile device (iPhone) I’ve been vividly reminded of a major potential shortcoming of cloud computing: offline backups. Before my latest wranginglings with Mobile Me, I had an offline backup of my address book (and still do) but did NOT have an offline backup of my calendar, since I was just syncing my iPhone to Mobile Me (in “the cloud”) and not syncing to iCal on my computer. Tisk, tisk. Silly me. Relying entirely on “cloud computing” data without an offline backup is silly and dangerous. As Ted Landau noted in his August Mac911 post “Bugs & Fixes: Contacts and calendar events disappear from iPhone:”

…this symptom points to a inherent risk when your iPhone is synced to MobileMe and you have Push (or even automatic Fetch) enabled: Synced data on your iPhone may be compromised at any moment, due to a problem with the MobileMe service. That is, if your data on the MobileMe server gets erroneously deleted (temporarily or otherwise), the same data will likely be removed from your iPhone minutes or even seconds later (requiring the fix described above to get them back).

I’m going to continue my Mobile Me subscription when it renews this month, but I continue to get the distinct feeling that all the bugs haven’t been worked out of the service. Overall I am pleased, as I’ve been able to keep BOTH my work MS Exchange calendar events and my personal calendar items right at my fingertips now for about six months on my iPhone, since I started using Mobile Me. What HAS changed since the holidays is that I’m maintaining offline backups of both address book entries and calendar items.

Of course I should have been doing these things all along, but often we don’t listen to advice about a hot stove until we’re burned ourselves, do we?

Peanuts roasting over an open fire
Creative Commons License photo credit: williamhartz

Do you know where your address book and calendar backups are tonight?

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2 Responses to Cloud computing lesson from Mobile Me Wrestling: Offline Backups

  1. […] of Education. I found a link to the enhanced podcast version of this presentation tonight as I wrangled a bit more with Mobile Me. From April 2006, I titled this podcast presentation “High Stakes Testing is the […]

  2. Jim Cottrell says:

    Westling contacts and calendars has always been a pain. In the past my Palm devices and software always did the best at this. Palm is stuggling back into existance with a new phone and operating system that speicalizes in contacts and calendars. (The Treo was good three years before the iPhone, but is a relic now.) This may put pressure on the market to make managing contacts and calendars easier again. I just saw this today.

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