PalmSource, the company that develops and licenses the Palm OS, let slip in February that it would not support Mac synchronization with devices running its next-generation operating system, Palm OS Cobalt (see "PalmSource to Drop Mac Support in Mac OS Cobalt" in TidBITS-717). At the same time, Mac developer Mark/Space announced that it was working on software that would be able to replace PalmSource’s HotSync technology for the new handhelds. Although Cobalt devices have not yet appeared, Mark/Space recently released The Missing Sync for Palm OS 4.0, an improvement over the current HotSync software that throws in a number of welcome features that go beyond data synchronization.
Adding Cool to the HotSync — The Missing Sync for Palm OS 4.0 (which I’ll call Missing Sync for brevity) is designed to handle Cobalt’s new synchronization architecture, but it also uses the existing HotSync conduits (instructions for how to compare and transfer data, such as calendar or contact information) to perform the same synchronization that is currently handled by HotSync Manager and Palm Desktop for Macintosh. All existing conduits – including the built-in Palm ones, Apple’s iSync Palm Conduit, Microsoft’s Entourage conduit, and others – work just as they do when using HotSync Manager. Double-clicking a conduit brings up the same controls (such as "Synchronize the Files" or "Macintosh Overwrites Handheld") that are found in HotSync Manager.
However, Missing Sync adds a great, simple improvement. Under HotSync Manager, if you wanted to prevent one or more conduits from operating during a HotSync operation, you’d have to set each excluded conduit’s actions to "Do Nothing" in a separate dialog. In Missing Sync, you can disable a conduit by unchecking a checkbox. For example, let’s say I want to synchronize only the contact data from the Address Book application. In Missing Sync’s Conduits window, I’d uncheck every conduit but Address Book, and then initiate a HotSync operation from the Palm. (A small feature request: I’d like to Command-click the checkboxes to turn all of them on or off, much as you can do when activating or deactivating lists of songs in iTunes.)
Better yet, you can create conduit profiles so you don’t have to do all the clicking. Similar to sets in Mac OS 9’s Extensions Manager, conduit profiles are saved sets of active conduits. Missing Sync includes two useful profiles already set up: Install, which only installs software during a HotSync operation, and Backup, which skips the other conduits and only backs up the handheld’s data. I’ve also set up a custom profile that synchronizes only the built-in applications, without running the Backup conduit.
For testing purposes, I was hoping I could create conduit profiles for synchronizing with Palm Desktop and Apple’s iSync applications (iCal and Address Book). However, the iSync conduit is particular about who gets to stand on the playground when it’s playing: Missing Sync’s capability to enable and disable conduits doesn’t go far enough, as iSync refuses to work if the Palm Desktop conduits are present in the same conduits folder (which is located at ~/Library/Application Support/Palm HotSync). To switch between the two systems, I still need to go in and manually move the conduit files around.
Another side effect of using iSync instead of Palm Desktop is the lack of a corresponding Mac program for the Palm’s built-in Memo Pad application. As remedy, Mark/Space includes a simple MemoPad application with Missing Sync where you can read and edit your memos on the Mac. As an extra bonus, they also include a small Palm OS application, TimeCopy.prc, that automatically synchronizes the Palm’s clock with the Mac’s clock when you synchronize.
Internet Sharing — When you HotSync, you open a data connection between the Mac and the handheld. If that’s the case, why not just leave the connection open? In Missing Sync’s Internet Sharing mode, you can do just that, enabling you to surf the Web and check email from the Palm (Web and email clients come with many of the latest PalmOne handhelds; they’re not included with Missing Sync).
But… if the handheld is connected to your Mac, and your Mac is connected to the Internet, and you’re presumably close enough to the Mac to HotSync, why would you want to access the Internet from the small-screened Palm device in the first place? Some people use their handhelds as laptop replacements in the field, reading and composing email that will be sent later. If you catch up on email during a train commute, let’s say, you can quickly send the messages you’ve composed directly from the Palm, instead of transferring them to your Mac somehow.
A better case can be made for the return of an old Palm friend: AvantGo, the proxy Web browser that lets you download online content to the handheld to be viewed later (see "AutoSyncing TidBITS Handheld Edition via AvantGo" in TidBITS-554). A Mac OS X version of the AvantGo client was never developed, leaving Mac users without an easy way to refresh their AvantGo channels. Using the Internet Sharing feature, however, you can synchronize your AvantGo channels directly from the handheld via the Mac’s Internet connection.
Setting up Internet Sharing involves a few steps, which are clearly explained by an Internet Sharing Assistant (found under Missing Sync’s Help menu). Once that’s configured, switch to Missing Sync’s Internet Sharing mode and, on the handheld, choose Sync from AvantGo’s Channels menu.
I’d like to see some visual feedback to indicate that the mode is being used by the handheld. Since I connect my Tungsten T to my PowerBook via Bluetooth, the Bluetooth status in the Mac’s menu bar alerts me to activity, but I’d like to see something – perhaps a change in the Missing Sync Dock icon, or even a red "on air" light in the application itself – to let me know when a connection is active (or more importantly, if it’s been dropped).
Expanding Expansion Cards — So far, I’ve covered how Missing Sync improves upon the current HotSync Manager software. However, one of the program’s signature features is the capability to mount the contents of an expansion card inserted into a compatible handheld as if it were a drive attached to the Mac. This feature lets you copy files directly to the card, rather than shuttling them through the HotSync installation process (which you can still do, but which is inconvenient for large files or groups of files).
What type of files? I try to keep at least one ebook on my handheld (such as those sold by PalmOne), which can be read using PalmOne’s free PalmReader software.
But some devices can handle multimedia files, too, and Missing Sync takes advantage of that. Wish you had an iPod, but have a Palm instead? On Treo, Tungsten, and Zire (31, 71, and 72 models) handhelds, you can listen to MP3-formatted song files from the handheld. In iTunes, mounted expansion cards appear in the list of devices in the left-hand column. Drag song files to the card icon to copy them to the expansion card, then use software such as RealPlayer for Palm, Pocket Tunes, or AeroPlayer to play them back.
Missing Sync also provides a method of transferring pictures from iPhoto to the handheld. The software comes with a demo version of SplashPhoto, a Palm OS image viewer. With an expansion card mounted, open iPhoto, select a few pictures, and then export them (by choosing Export from the File menu) using a Missing Sync plug-in that was added when you installed the software.
Looking ahead to Cobalt — No Cobalt-based handhelds have appeared yet, so we won’t see what’s changed in the new synchronization architecture until they arrive. Neither Mark/Space nor PalmOne have said anything about whether Missing Sync will be bundled with the devices or discounted in some way for Mac users. Unlike HotSync Manager and Palm Desktop, The Missing Sync for Palm OS costs money to license: $40 new, or $20 for people upgrading from previous versions of Missing Sync (which included specific editions for Sony CLIE, Garmin, Tapwave, and Internet Sharing). If Missing Sync was merely a replacement for HotSync Manager, I’d be hesitant to put up money. But the extra features rolled into version 4.0 justify the cost.
In the bigger picture, I see the price tag as a form of support: with PalmSource’s dropping interest in the Mac, it’s encouraging to see a longtime Mac developer step in and provide not only a replacement for the current HotSync architecture, but something that promises to be built upon as the Palm OS platform moves forward.