Google brings us closer to the multiple device sync OTA dream


Google Mail, Calendar, Contacts, and Tasks have opened up a new world for me recently. In fact, as of yesterday, which is when they released calendar and contacts sync to iPhone using the Exchange support built in to iPhone.

Some preamble: I have used Outlook since I was 18 years old for email, calendar, and address book. I’m now 28, so you can imagine I’ve accrued a lot of email, contact entries, and calendar items in that time.

For example, when I broke up with girlfriends, went on holiday, attended client meetings: I journaled it all on Outlook, or on whatever mobile device I was using at the time  (eg. Palm Pilot, IPAQ, smartphone, iPhone), which synchronised back to Outlook using a cable. In fact, this ipad repair company suggests to use Outlook so that in case of repairs, there is always a backup available.

I can look up when I did things, how I felt about them, I logged jobs for people, made notes about solutions to problems, creative ideas, you name it. In my contacts, I have little pointers to remind me how to drive to people’s houses, or little memories about a person, stored in text or images in the notes section.

Because I’m a good boy, I have been backing my life up as I’ve gone along, and now, three computers later, I still have them all.

Google just made my life really rich: now, all these things are stored as Google Mail and Calendar items. I have unlimited and immediate synchronisation of my whole life between desktop PC at home, my laptop when I’m at work, and iPhone when I’m out for the evening.

I never need to hook a cable up between any of them. I don’t need to wait for various devices to synchronise before I leave the house.

I don’t need to worry that I read an email on my desktop and it won’t be downloaded to my iPhone now.

(My Gmail password had better be secure. I had better have pin entry to my iPhone, with deletion of all data if it gets compromised. Check, I do!)

Here’s how.

Mail: this evening I moved the entire contents of my desktop PC outlook inbox, sent items, and custom personal folders to my Gmail account through IMAP, and they are now available in entirety on my laptop, desktop PC, and iPhone using IMAP folders.

That was about 1GB of email.

That’s every mail – with every attachment – I have ever sent or received since 2003, available on any device I own, or from the web. It’s secure (SSL used on outgoing and incoming in Oultook, and on Gmail web interface. And it seems highly responsive, due to the way iPhone and Outlook clients handle IMAP. (Only headers are downloaded until you try to view the email.)

Outlook flagged emails translate to Gmail starred emails: cute.

I then set up filters from the Gmail web interface, so that mail from certain people (eg. notifications from Flickr, Facebook, Twitter) is delivered to certain folders within gmail. Technically these folders are called ‘labels’ in Gmail, but they translate to IMAP folders in Outlook and iPhone.

Labels are a better concept, when you get used to them.

So, no need for Outlook rules. Gmail filters work on the Gmail servers, so my mail is categorised regardless of whether Outlook is running somewhere… even if I’m viewing it on iPhone. Whatsmore, the gmail filters are much more intelligent, easier to set up, and work better than outlook rules.

Then I installed Google Sync on my desktop PC to sync my entire Outlook calendar to Google Calendar, so it’s available from the web. As Google Sync supports two-way sync, I did this on the laptop as well. Cool, my entire calendar stretching back to when I interviewed housemates at university (including notes on what I thought of them all!) is now available and searchable from within Google Calendar, and my laptop and desktop PC.

The only thing I’ve found isn’t supported is rich text in the notes field… meh, who cares. The two way sync doesn’t remove rich text from existing calendar notes, so my numbered lists, work logs from previous jobs, and colourful angsty prose on ex girlfriends is maintained. It’s only lost if I then update it on another device.

To complete the glory of the calendar solution – and this bit is very cool – I have set up the iPhone with a new Microsoft Exchange calendar with full exchange features (meeting requests, split recurring appointments etc) to connect to Gmail calendar – did you know this was possible? Check it out:

What does this mean? It means that I can update a client appointment on my laptop with some plans or thoughts, and read and edit them on the bus after I’ve left, without having to physically connect and sync the two devices each time I do an edit. No subscription cost, no Exchange Server to maintain, no nothing. All the goodness of an enterprise collaboration server, for free, with push updates on the move.

All because of Google. They really are very, very nice.

Google Tasks are of course available on iPhone as of quite recently, however at the time of writing there is no official sync utility for Outlook. I don’t so much mind because I can use Google Tasks from my iGoogle page. In fact, I’m even considering for the first time ever stopping using Outlook for my mail, tasks, and calendar and just using the Google web interface as it’s so, SO good. Sack it, why don’t I ditch Office and use Google Docs too?

Realistically, what do I need Outlook for? Offline viewing of emails? Google Labs has a Gmail application to make all your webmail available in your browser when offline. Seriously.

I’m not quite ready to take that step, but I’m open in the future now.

The same goes for Outlook contacts: there is no official sync uitility for Outlook just yet. Joyously, the Google “Exchange protocol support”, or whatever we want to call it, does support contacts, and therefore we have push updates to contacts AND calendar on the iPhone. I may stick with traditional iTunes sync for contacts for now though, until there’s an Outlook to Google sync utility. The reason is that  I do quite like Outlook contacts, with the detailed support for myriad of business fields, birthdays, spouses, and of course – contact photos (that show up when your friend calls on your iPhone).


So now, I have ridiculous storage on Google central servers, push email and calendar on my iPhone, support for meeting requests and collaboration on the iPhone, almost-full Outlook synchronisation on multiple devices across the web, all communications are SSL (even iPhone email and calendar), and the joy of using Google’s stupidly powerful search for all of my mail, tasks, calendar, contact items. Which, when you have as much stuff as I do in your diary and email history, starts to mean a lot.

Interesting links

Tech Crunch IT discuss an application for Windows Mobile users that brings them into the fold in this respect, too: I am not sure what the iPhone app mentioned in this article can do that isn’t supported natively as described in my post above.


11 Responses

  1. Simon

    February 11, 2009 12:36 pm

    You would deifnintely get a lot more hits if you posted some of those ‘colourful angsty prose on ex girlfriend’ 😉

    And Google Gears rocks.

  2. Denis

    February 13, 2010 10:39 pm

    Once of the previously missing pieces of the puzzle was syncing Google Tasks to iPhone. To fill in the gap I wrote an iPhone app – GeeTasks. It syncs google tasks OTA and works offline.

    Google does not document tasks API so I don’t think you will see a outlook-googletasks sync any time soon.

  3. JJ

    July 8, 2010 12:06 am

    Hey, does this whole process also sync your outlook tasks to and from google? (not events, which have a set date, but tasks, which only have set “due times”, stuff like “go buy some milk”).
    I am looking for a new cell phone but I don’t know which one would be the best to have my contacts, calendar events and calendar tasks sync’d. iPhone or android?
    Would something like this be possible on a cheaper phone like the LG gc900?

  4. admin

    July 8, 2010 12:15 am

    Great question.

    There is currently no way to sync your Google tasks with Outlook, at least not with any software provided by Google. And I’m pretty sure there are no plans by Google, because I’ve been following the newsgroups on this subject for a while.

    The real problem is that Google’s task application isn’t very good in comparison with Outlook tasks.

    Outlook tasks, in turn, is very poor compared to the multitude of brilliant and cheap iPhone applications out there.

    I used to use Outlook tasks, but since getting the iPhone I realised there is so much out there that is superior.

    My strong recommendation for this purpose is to use iPhone to sync with Google Mail, Calendar, and Contacts, and then use a third party app that syncs with the cloud, and offers sync with Outlook as well. Forget Google for tasks. It’s too simple.

    The app I currently use on the iPhone is called Today ToDo and it’s truly amazing, and only a couple of dollars. It actually doesn’t sync with an online service, but there are a couple of backup options, and you can access it from your PC. It’s a gorgeous app to use, really well designed.

    Regarding the LG, I’m not sure. Most smartphones offer reasonably powerful forms of synchronising apps for mail, contacts, calendar, and some also do tasks. But really, the native tasks implementation for any smartphone I’ve EVER owned (everything from the Palm, HTC, windows mobile, etc.) is rubbish.

    Honestly, get iPhone, buy a tasks app, and you will be very happy.

  5. David

    April 18, 2011 3:44 am

    Hi Mat, great article. Have setup imap through google now and it’s working. If i recieved an email to my gmail account, outlook receives it but how did you download your 1gb of emails to gmail? I can’t seem to figure it out very quickly. plus, i’m assuming you setup a forwarding from your ‘old’ pop3 email to gmail? eg: mine main email is currently still


  6. admin

    April 18, 2011 8:53 am

    Hi David,

    Thanks. To download all of your emails over IMAP in Outlook, you should head to

    Tools > Send / Receive Settings > Send / Receive Groups > Edit the given account

    Click “Download complete items including attachments for subscribed folders”

    Then ensure you have subscribed to the folders you want to download using the section below that tick box.

    Hope that helps!

  7. David

    April 18, 2011 10:29 am

    Hi Mat, thanks for the reply. Did what you said and now it definately syncs between the two accounts nicely but i was expecting gmail to upload every single email/attachment i’d ever received and setup the exact same folder structure for my inbox. I’m i asking too much?

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