Talking tech since 2003

MobileMe is one of those services that we all love to hate.  Sure, it offers a spectacular email account and synchronization services that can be used between multiple devices, but with a price-tag of $99 per year, your average user typically isn’t going to get their money’s worth out of the service.  That’s not to say, though, that there aren’t some people who MobileMe makes a lot more sense for.  If I were a traveling businessperson or salesman, for example, I would be more than willing to fork up the annual rate simply because I would indeed be using the mobile aspects of MobileMe each and every day.  While Apple has been rumored to be working on improvements for MobileMe that could potentially make it more attractive to consumers like you and me, the current reality is that even though it provides an excellent set of tools and services its high price is a bit of a turnoff for what users ultimately get.

Admittedly, I use iCal and the Apple Address Book, two features built into Mac OS X incredibly often.  Needless to say, I have quite a bit of information stored between these two applications that I would be flat-out lost without.  For this reason I have actually pondered purchasing a MobileMe subscription in the past, but have always ended up deciding against it simply because it seemed incredibly wasteful to use a service like MobileMe simply to back up my address book and calendar.  Fortunately I quickly discovered a fast and easy way to do (more or less) the same thing as MobileMe in terms of data syncing with the freely available Dropbox service.

Before I explain how to do this, there are a couple of things that I feel obligated to make very clear.  First off, even though Dropbox is a multi-platform application that runs on Windows and Linux as well as Mac OS X, this process will not let you sync your calendar or contact book against said platforms.  This is because Apple’s format for storing such information varies from that of other applications.  And of course I would opt to back up your calendar folder (~/Library/Calendars) and your address book folder (~/Library/Application Support/AddressBook) before doing anything.

You should also know that iCal stores its information is a folder structure, meaning that individual events are stored as isolated files.  For our purposes this is really ideal, because adding or changing a single event will only force us to sync that particular file.  On the other hand, the Address Book file is composed of an SQLite database.  This means that any changes to any contact in the Address Book will cause the entire database to be re-synced.  My rather extensive address book contains the contact information of friends, family, and business contacts; all taking up less than 700KB in space.  So while it’s probably not a big deal for most people, the address book will synchronize in a less than efficient mechanism.

With that in mind, let’s get to the fun!

First off we’re going to open our user folder in Finder and navigate to the “Library” directory.  In doing so we will see a folder called “Calendars” where iCal stores its event information.  Now we’re going to click on that folder, drag it, and drop it onto our desktop like third-period French.

Likewise, we’re going to navigate into the “Application Support” folder (located within the “Library” folder that we previously accessed) and find the folder named “AddressBook.”  Again, like with the “Calendars” folder we’re just going to go ahead and drag that onto the desktop.

Now that we have both our iCal and Address Book data on our desktop, we’re going to navigate into our Dropbox folder (assuming that we already have it installed; if not you should sign up and download/install it) and move the “Calendars” and “AddressBook” files into it.

As with any Dropbox sync, the two folders that we just dragged in will show blue emblems indicating that they are in the process of being uploaded to Dropbox’s infrastructure.  Depending on the amount of existing data that you have, the time required for this process will differ a bit.  Once everything is uploaded, however, you will see the blue “syncing” emblems replaced with green ones indicating that everything is ready to go.

Folders in the process of synchronizing

Folders that have completed the synching process

Now that we’ve moved over our folders onto Dropbox, we only have one small feat left to conquer before we can enjoy synchronization.

You see, both Address Book and iCal are coded to look for their data in their proper folders.  However, because we’re storing our data on Dropbox we have moved the folders containing the user data into a directory that the applications will not read from.  In order to overcome this, we are going to use a “symlink” (also known as a “soft link”, “folder link”, or just “link”) make the data from our Dropbox folder appear in its expected location, all without copying or moving the actual data.  Simply put, we’re telling the computer that the folder has been moved.  To create these links, we need to fire up “Terminal”, which can be found in the “Applications/Utilities” folder, or by searching with Spotlight.

Once in Terminal, we are going to issue two commands to link the folders.

ln -s ~/Dropbox/Calendars/ ~/Library/Calendars
ln -s ~/Dropbox/AddressBook/ ~/Library/Application Support/AddressBook

Going back into Finder you will see that the “Calendars” file located within the “Library” folder, as well as the “AddressBook” file located within the “Application Support” folder show the Dropbox synchronization status emblems.

Additionally, you can make a change to an event in your iCal calendar or a contact in your Address Book and you will notice that the Dropbox menu bar icon will change itself to the “synchronization in progress” status.

If you’re like me and are simply using this method to back up your personal data, then you should be done right about now.  If you’re looking to sync between another Mac, you simply need to download/install and sync Dropbox so that your data is downloaded and use the “ln -s” commands in Terminal in order to link your folders.

And while this article has only covered synching your calendar and contact information using Dropbox, you can easily take advantage of the same concept to sync even more.  I personally sync my 1Password database to Dropbox as well.

As usual, if you have any questions feel free to post in the BestTechie forums!

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