Use BirdieSync to Sync Thunderbird/Sunbird Data with a Windows Mobile Device

I never tire of complaining about what I consider to be nothing short of a scam perpetrated by Microsoft against Windows Mobile users: if you use Windows Vista you can't sync contacts, tasks, appointments emails, etc. with your Windows Mobile device unless you purchase one of the newer versions of Microsoft Outlook separately (a $100+ commitment).

My complaints in this regard are detailed in this post. In addition to being a greedy move, I think it's a tactical mistake on Microsoft's part: I am aware of no other mobile OS that doesn't provide syncing capabilities for free or as part of the purchase of the device containing the OS itself. And as long as Windows Mobile remains only one of several mobile OSes jockeying for market share it seems mind-bogglingly against their own interests to require that users of Windows Mobile shell out $100+ dollars for functionality that should be a fundamental part of any mobile OS. This is especially true now that device makers are increasingly declining to provide full versions of Outlook, as they once did.

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This deplorable situation led me to search for other ways of syncing data between my mobile device and my PC. I've previously discussed how it's possible to sync Windows Mobile data with Linux (see this), but for those of you who prefer to stick with Windows Vista, there is another alternative: Start using Mozilla's personal information management applications (Sunbird and Thunderbird) and use a marvelous program called BirdieSync to sync data between your PC and your Windows Mobile device.

Introducing Sunbird and Thunderbird

You're probably familiar with Mozilla's well-known Firefox browser, but you may or may not have heard of Sunbird and Thunderbird, which are less well known.

At the risk of oversimplification, Thunderbird is an email and address book program. It has features comparable to those found in Outlook and similar programs (learn more about Thunderbird's features here). Sunbird is a calendar and task program. Thus, if you use both programs, you have more or less all of the functionality that one finds in Outlook.

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A Partial Screenshot of Sunbird

Others will have to judge for themselves, but my experience using Thunderbird and Sunbird has so far been nothing but pleasant. And since the programs are both free, you have nothing to lose by giving them a try.

What Is BirdieSync?

So where does BirdieSync come in? BirdieSync allows one to sync the Pocket Outlook data contained on a Windows Mobile device with the Thunderbird/Sunbird data on a PC.

After installing the program, there isn't a separate BirdieSync application per se. Instead, the program makes several changes to Thunderbird, Sunbird, and the Windows Mobile Device Center (WMDC).

The program adds a "BirdieSync options" item to the "Tools" menu of Sunbird/Thunderbird:

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Clicking on this item will bring one to a number of BirdieSync options:

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Setting Up BirdieSync

The first time you run Sunbird/Thunderbird after installing BirdieSync a wizard will automatically be displayed to guide you through the process of specifying what address book, etc. you want to sync.

One also must instruct the WMDC to sync the desired data. This is a simple process and is done exactly as you would specify sync options for Outlook data. In the picture below, the bottom four categories of data are Sunbird/Thunderbird data:

birdiewmdc

How to Use BirdieSync

Once the program is properly setup, all you have to do is dock your device with your PC. A few seconds after you've done so, Sunbird and Thunderbird will open and you'll see a notification in the bottom right portion of the screen when synchronization is complete:

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If the program encounters a problem, this is also where you'll be notified about them.

What Makes BirdieSync Shine?

The most obvious pro to a program like BirdieSync is the fact that it lets one sync Mozilla data with Pocket Outlook. I am aware of only one other program that provides this functionality (the other being FinchSync) and so the fact that this program does is its most valuable feature.

Secondly, the whole thing just has that intangible polished feel. Problems are immediately brought to your attention via the notifications in the bottom right hand corner. Here's an example:

notifprob

And little touches like the post-installation configuration wizard demonstrate that the developer has really gone out of its way to make the user experience as seamless and easy as possible. The excellent documentation (in the form of a detailed help file) adds to its user-friendliness.

A third thing that really impressed me was the attention the developer paid to differences between Pocket Outlook and its Mozilla counterparts. For example, by default Pocket Outlook displays new contacts in a "last name, first name" format, but new cards (i.e., contacts) created in Thunderbird are displayed in a "first name, last name" format. The problem is that a synchronized address book would then display some contacts by last name and others by first name, which would make it difficult to locate a particular contact and would just be downright annoying. Thankfully, BirdieSync provides an option to override the Thunderbird preference and to instead display all contacts in "last name, first name" format.

Similarly, BirdieSync acknowledges that analogous fields in one program are not always the same in another. For example, when you create a new appointment in Pocket Outlook, the start time field is labeled "Starts" while in Sunbird it is labeled "From." BirdieSync has mapped these different fields to one another so that information populates the correct field regardless of which program was used to create the appointment.

Room for Improvement?

This program is full of options but I found one to be glaringly absent. As mentioned above, every time you dock your device, Sunbird and Thunderbird are opened. The main purpose for having a program like BirdieSync is to ensure that information between a WM device and a PC can remain synced, but I almost never need to see Sunbird/Thunderbird as soon as I dock my device. I really wish that there was an option to not open these programs upon docking. It may be that the programs have to be opened in order for the information to be synced, and if this is the case, then I would settle for an option to have the Mozilla applications be automatically minimized. This may seem like a small thing but I found it to be fairly distracting.

Secondly, with the U.S. dollar doing so poorly, this program is fairly expensive in my humble opinion. It goes for 19.99 Euros, which is almost 30 U.S. dollars. I can practically feed myself for a week with thirty dollars, and while it isn't unreasonable per se, I wish the price were a little more modest. Then again, it isn't the developer's fault that the dollar is so weak right now. And more importantly, $30 is still less than a third of what Microsoft Outlook costs. The brave user who doesn't want to pay $30 can try his or her luck with FinchSync, a free program, but one that looks to be much more difficult to configure.

Finally, while the developer went to great lengths to make the initial setup a smooth and easy one, it was still a little confusing to me at first. After reflecting on it for a little while, however, I think that this is an unavoidable byproduct of having such a feature rich and configurable program. [Edit: and my main difficulties were largely a result of my unfamiliarity with Sunbird/Thunderbird rather than any problem with BirdieSync].

Conclusion

Striking an almost perfect balance between breadth of options and user-friendliness, BirdieSync goes a long way towards cleaning up the mess that Microsoft made and providing a solution for those who simply prefer Mozilla applications to Outlook. It does what few other programs do and does it better than I would have thought possible.

If only there were a Linux version :)

[If you have questions about specific BirdieSync features, check out the feature set here].

Nate,

Glad you liked the review.

Regarding Ubuntu, I have never heard about a way to install Ubuntu without creating a separate partition...except that...

There is a project called Wubi (http://wubi.sourceforge.net/) that purports to allow one to install Ubuntu just like you would install a normal Windows program (you can uninstall it via add/remove programs, etc.). I've never tried it but if it works I believe that it would allow you to accomplish your goal of trying out Ubuntu without messing with your existing XP partition.

Did I understand your question correctly?

Another possible point of confusion is that a new Ubuntu distro is being released this Thursday (Oct. 18) and so if you read somewhere that Ubuntu will or will not do something you'll want to pay extra attention to what distro the speaker is referring to.

In any event, good luck with Ubuntu. Other than a tiny bit of tinkering with it, I have next no real familiarity with Linux. But I really liked Ubuntu and hope to really dig deep once I have some more time.

One of the main things that kept me from adopting it full time was the fact that Windows Mobile syncing, while possible, is very clunky, which is why I wish that there was a Linux version of BirdieSync or some similar program available.

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