In my post Free alternatives to MobileMe earlier this year, I looked at some free alternatives to Apple’s MobileMe service. One crucial piece was still missing though: The seamless over-the-air syncing and push email experience offered by MobileMe on the iPhone.
MobileMe’s biggest advantage to date has been its support for push email and over-the-air syncing, which ensures that emails and changes to calendars and contacts are synced to iPhone users instantly.
But with Google Sync, Google aims to offer GMail and Google Calendar users the same over-the-air syncing feature that MobileMe does. To accomplish this, Google is basically taking advantage of the fact that the iPhone (and most other smartphones) natively support Microsoft Exchange syncing. So Google are offering their own Exchange-compatible service, that acts as an intermediary between your data stored in Google’s services and your iPhone. Configure Google Sync as a new exchange account on your iPhone, enable Push support and Google will Push any new email messages, calendar or contact updates to your phone.
When you consider that iCal, Address Book and Mail on the Mac also natively support syncing with Google’s services, Google Sync starts to look like a very interesting alternative to MobileMe. Change a contact in Address Book or add an appointment to iCal and those changes should be synced right up to your phone, without requiring a slow, USB iTunes sync – just like MobileMe. Emails should also be delivered right away, circumventing the 15 minute fetching interval limit. Or as Google sums it up it a cutesy comic:
But how well does it work in the real world?
Setting up Google Sync on your phone isn’t particularly difficult and Google offers easy step-by-step instructions. Enter your details, ignore a certificate warning, enter some more details and you’re done.
But mysteriously my Gmail inbox would only show 3 messages I had received this morning, with no sign of any messages I had received earlier in the week or later today. The same problem affected my other mailboxes as well. I was able to coax a few more messages off the server by selecting to only sync a week’s worth of email messages, but that does severely limit habitual emails hoarders such as myself. A know current limitation of the service is also the fact that drafts can’t be edited, once synced.
My Google contacts showed up fairly quickly in my Contacts application. But new contacts didn’t seem to sync back up to Gmail, no matter how often I tried to coax Google Sync into action.
Judging by the discussions going on over on the Google Sync messageboards, it looks as though the service has been pretty flaky for users the last few days, so these are most likely serious teething issues. But until these reliability problems are sorted out, it’s hard to realistically see Google Sync as a serious MobileMe alternative anytime soon.
Having said that, it’s promising to see Google taking the initiative and trying to offer an Exchange-like experience for non-corporate / non-MobileMe user – so Google gets a gold star for trying. It’s also worth remembering that MobileMe (a $99 per year service) had its own fair share of teething issues, so let’s hope Google is able to really challenge Apple in this area in the near future.
But for the time being, I’ll be sticking with regular Gmail IMAP syncing for my emails and MobileMe syncing for my contacts and calendars.