Communication Anywhere

It is quite fitting that I am continuing my series on the cloud while working on a laptop not my own. Today I managed to lock myself out of the apartment: no key and not even a cellphone. Luckily the neighbors let me use their phone and I knew at least one phone number by heart (how many phone numbers do you know by heart? how many cell phone numbers?) and so managed to get my brother-in-law to pick me up so I could spend the rest of the afternoon at his place.

Now I am sitting at his laptop writing this, proving that I can work from anywhere. Of course blogging is easy: wordpress is a web-based application. However I can also access most of my other data if I need it.

Yesterday I talked about the value of cloud-based services (just sounds fancier then web-based) in general. My topic for today is communication – the social stuff. How can we manage our communications in such a way that we can easily set up away from home or even away from our own computer?

So how do we need the cloud to help us communicate?

  • I need my email to work where ever I am – I might need access to an important mail with travel data at the airport or I want to look up directions somebody sent me. I might need to answer questions about my apps.
  • I might need to be reached by phone while abroad and roaming charges are still awfully expensive. So having the equivalent of a landline anywhere is a good idea.
  • I don’t need to talk to people on the phone for everything, sometimes chatting with others is sufficient
  • I need a place to store and often share important appointments
  • Most importantly: I need a service where I can store and retrieve contact data without knowing how to reach people there is no communication

Most of these problems have pretty straight forward solutions:

  • chatting: all instant messaging services I ever tried store contact data online and with a page like Meebo you can access your services (xmpp, icq, aim etc.) from any browser – in many cases even when the usual ports are blocked by a firewall.
  • email: if you use a webmail service or have an imap account your email is in the cloud already. Add a server based spam filter like Spam Assassin and server based filter rules with sieve and you’re ready to have the same email reading experience anywhere.
  • voip: skype works just the same as other instant messaging programs but it also carries voip abilities. With number from sipgate you can be reached on a number in your home city even if you are currently¬† working from the other side of the world. You can even use these from your mobile phone if you have Wifi access.
  • calendar: that’s a no brainer. Is there any serious alternative to google calendar that works with any operating system and can be used from any browser?

Most of these are not big surprises and I’ve been using them for quite some time. My personal issue was always maintaining a single consistent set of contact data.

Remember phone numbers?

Remembering phone numbers went out of fashion when we first got telephones with integrated phonebooks. These days I know about half a dozen phone numbers by heart. I depend on my gadgets to remember them for me and when those are not available I have a problem. Today I was without my gadgets and I felt quite helpless.

I used to have phone numbers and other important contact data stored all over the place. It was a mess – never current, never where I needed it. All that changed just recently.

Contact data anywhere

Thunderbird – my preferred mail reader – has a contact application. However this stores data locally and over the years I never quite managed to migrate data from old to new computers or to consistenly sync between different computers. Plus the automatic storage of new addresses the application encounters produced a lot of junk entries. When using webmail to access my email there is no way to access the contact data.

When I got my android phone the first thing I did was consolidate all phone numbers, addresses, eMail addresses, birthdays and other contact data into one service: Google Contacts. The phonebook on my phone synchronizes with Google contacts. And while I am not sure what Google really does with that data, I am pretty sure they’ll not loose it.

As a neat bonus I can also import my contact data into Thunderbird with an addon: the google contacts addon. (Note: I only use this to import data I am not exporting from Thunderbird to google contacts. For me it just didn’t work out like I wanted it to – I am just not friends with the Thunderbird contacts application)

Sharing still not trivial

There is one issue with contacts it is not easy to share the data with friends and family. So far I managed to do so by simply exporting the contacts I wanted to share and then they could be re-imported into a different google account. It works – kind of: for example contact images are not shared in this way. There is only one – commercial – google app that implements sharing between different accounts (it’s $50/month – ridiculous for private persons).

Next I installed a neat little birthday app on my phone and now I will always get reminders when I am about to miss somebody’s birthday and I even have a homescreen widget telling me who’s up next.

I can easily sync all contact data between different computers by connecting my email reader to contacts with the mentioned plugin. And if I am away from a computer of my own I can still access everything on the web or on my mobile phone.

These communication tools are less about creating backups and more about syncing to different devices so we can always carry our social network in our pocket with us. I never have to say again: “Can’t call him, don’t have his number with me!”

So how have you set up your communications tools? What are your preferred solutions to contacts syncing, appointment sharing and reading email?

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