Fenestration 42
Data Exchange in the Clouds

On June 25, 2008, in How-To, by David Cohen

For users straddling the Windows PC and Mac worlds, the question of seamless data interchange between the systems can be a challenging one. Of course, with the capabilities of OS X, the rise of USB and the availability of flash drives and external disks it is probably easier than it has ever been to pass data, but nevertheless there are still considerations of disk formats, file formats and application versions to consider.

Even when moving between applications from the same software house, compatibility is not guaranteed. Adobe applications are normally OK – but then you would expect that from the company that brought us the universal PDF format. (Editors note: production houses would tend to disagree) Microsoft, however is another matter – there are a variety of applications that they only offer in the Windows version of Office that are unreadable on the Mac platform – such as Access databases, Visio diagrams or Project files. This is frustrating as Microsoft does make reader applications available for Windows users, but does not give Mac users the same courtesy.

Even among the applications with Mac equivalents, all is not sweetness and light. The most recent version of Office on Windows is Office 2007, which on launch at the end of 2006 introduced new file formats for the core Word, Excel and Powerpoint applications. Microsoft took some time to bring equivalent file compatibility to the Mac with Office 2008 for Macintosh, which was released in January of this year. While Office 2008 has file compatibility with all earlier versions of Office for Windows, it does NOT support Visual Basic for Applications, Microsoft’s Office macro language. This means that many files (particularly Excel spreadsheets generated in a business environment) might not work properly. Microsoft has subsequently announced that the NEXT version of Office for Mac will reinstate VBA support. In the meantime, Office 2008 has other foibles as well – it is buggy (even with the latest Service Pack 1), and runs poorly on non-Intel Macs.

Office 2004 for Mac was a more solid release, and copes well with Office files from Windows versions before 2007. Again, while Microsoft retrofitted the latest file compatibility support to older versions of Office for Windows when Office 2007 for Windows was release, we are still awaiting the equivalent file converter package for Office 2004 for Mac.

Mac developers have stepped into the file format breach where possible – the latest version of iWork will open Office 2007 files, for example. However, this scenario is an objective example of that oft-used phrase ‘your mileage may vary’! As the formats themselves are not completely open, and the capabilities of the program doing the conversion often vary from Office itself, results can be mixed – especially with more complex documents. Ultimately, only you can decide based on your need whether a separate program is ‘good enough’ for this sort of file working.

One effective route for transparently moving data between PCs and Macs is to use web applications and services. Apple themselves have embraced this with their MobileMe service, that will move data between Mac, PC and iPhone and also allow data editing using web apps for data stored on the server – or ‘in the cloud’, as all the cool kids call it. This actually does work really well. I use Evernote, which does the same thing as MobileMe for text notes, web clippings and images. They have clients for all platforms, and also allows data to be added and edited via a web service. The advantage is that you don’t have to worry about syncing between multiple machines – the same data is available everywhere, and is automatically synced from the web service when you fire up the local client. Where the service beats out online systems such as Google’s applications is the offline client aspect – you can work on your data when an Internet connection is not available, and synchronize back once you get in to connectivity again.

This to me is the way of the future, and there are signs that the industry appreciates this. Google themselves are working to extend their Web 2.0 magic to allow offline editing, and Adobe has launched their Air platform, which is another way of merging local clients and web services. Imagine a future where Microsoft Office is the same code base for either Mac or Windows, run off a web server but capable of running in a disconnected mode – but file sharing is enabled via a Microsoft web service. We would then be able to move away from the functionality wrinkles and data exchange uncertainty.

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