Spread Yourself About

By | May 4, 2007

Loose Wire Service

Spread Yourself About

By Jeremy Wagstaff

You may only ever work and play on one computer, in which case you can skip this column and let’s chat again next week.

But if you find yourself using more than one—maybe one at work, one at home, or maybe you’re sharing several with family members, or, like me, you’ve decided to go for a slightly lighter model to lug around with you and leave that misnomer of a ‘notebook’ at home—you’ll have come across the same frustration as I, at one time or another: not having the files, passwords or bookmarks you want on the computer in front of you.

Here are some tips to avoid that. They’re not particularly fancy, but they’re free, so you can’t accuse me of trying to drain your budget.

First off, the biggest nuisance is browsing. I have spent quite a bit of time setting up my browser as I want it—fonts, bookmarks, and a few other bits and bobs to make moving around my favorite sites as painless as possible. I also use Firefox, a free, Open Source browser that is, in my view, streets ahead of either Microsoft’s Internet Explorer or Apple’s Safari. (It’s also better than Opera, a great little browser that my wife refuses to give up.) But the trouble is that the more you customize your browser, the more you’ll miss those tweaks when you’re on another computer.

But so long as you use Firefox, and so long as you have a Google account, this needn’t be an issue; an excellent little tool called Google Browser Sync (http://www.google.com/tools/firefox/browsersync/) will synchronize your bookmarks, saved passwords and other settings between any computers you install the tool on. Install it and you’ll see a little logo in the top right hand corner of your browser which will figure out what you’ve done and move it all over to whatever computer you work on next.

When it comes to files however, it’s trickier. If you’ve been working on a document on one computer, and you want to transfer it to another, you can always burn it to a CD or put it on a flash USB drive. Or you could email it to yourself. But there is another way that saves you having to do anything.

A free Microsoft service called FolderShare (www.foldershare.com) that works on both Windows and Mac computers allows you to do several useful things: Firstly, it will synchronize certain folders on each of your computers so any file changed or added on one computer will appear on all the others (assuming, of course, you have an Internet connection.)

It will also allow you to share the files on your computer with other people you’ve chosen to share the files with. And then, finally, and perhaps most usefully, you can access your computer at home or work, or wherever you’re not, via any web browser. And did I mention it’s now free?

FolderShare isn’t beautiful to look at, and not particularly intuitive to set up, but once it’s running it works like magic. And if you’ve got a relatively fast Internet connection the files are synchronized within seconds of any changes you make.

FolderShare doesn’t work from a mobile phone. And, frankly, I can’t see people needing to access their files from their phone as much as from a computer. But if you need to, there’s a service called soonr (soonr.com) which allows you to do just that.

Soonr seems to have lots of potential and while I’ve been able to play with a private beta version of their service, it’s not publicly available so I won’t bother you with it. Suffice to say FolderShare is good enough unless your cellphone has already taken over from your laptop as your primary device.

There are other ways of accessing your files from any computer. One is to use services like Google Docs, where your files aren’t stored on any of your computers; instead they’re stored online. If you’ve got an Internet connection wherever your computers are, then these tools might be enough for simple word processing, spreadsheets and what-have-you.

Of course, they’re particularly useful if you’re working with other people on documents; having them online will save you lots of emailing and figuring out which is the latest version. If you find Google Docs’ spreadsheet application a tad limiting, try eXpresso, a plug-in for Microsoft Excel that allows you to upload your spreadsheets to the company’s server and then work with them alone, or together, online from anywhere. (You need to already have a Microsoft Excel license to use this service, but that doesn’t mean you need to install the program on all the computers you use eXpresso on. For more details check out their website: http://tinyurl.com/29mfkj.)

Another, newly launched option, is Microsoft Office Live. I haven’t had time to explore it thoroughly, but, in theory,

It goes without saying that you want to be extra careful about a couple of things when you’re working on more than one computer. Make sure you don’t use any of these services on any computer if other people you don’t know or trust might have access to that computer. Indeed, don’t access, open or download any file on a public computer that you wouldn’t want someone else to read, because files are not easy things to delete. Unless you don’t want to delete them, of course: Make sure you make regular backups of any files you are moving between computers because one day you might get confused and overwrite one you really need.

That said, having your files and familiar browser settings available where you happen to be is a liberating experience I’d heartily recommend.

Jeremy Wagstaff writes for The Wall Street Journal Asia and the BBC World Service. His guide to technology, “Loose Wire”, is available in bookshops or on Amazon. He can be found online at jeremywagstaff.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.