OneNote, iPhone and Wi-Fi

January 15, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Posted in Collaboration | 9 Comments
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I’ve written several times about how my new life as an independent consultant requires me to organise large amounts of (often unstructured) information and to share it across my desktop PC and my laptop, for when I’m working away.  At the heart of this strategy is Microsoft’s OneNote 2007 and, like many other users, I was desperately keen to find a way to copy all that information to my brand new iPhone.  So, when MobileNoter was released for public beta, I was quick to sign up.  The first version was released to GA in November last year and I’ve been successfully using it ever since.

Congestion in the Cloud

MobileNoter works by periodically synchronising changes to your notebooks with a copy, stored on the company’s servers.  This of course depends upon a connection (either wireless or 3G) from your iPhone to the MobileNoter servers, to retrieve a copy of your notebooks – even if the iPhone and the PC are in the same room.  If your notebooks are large, then the transfer time could be a real issue.  Tech guru Peter Cochrane has written in recent days on the impact of bandwidth (or more particularly latency) issues on productivity.  At the same time, the BBC’s Rory Cellan Jones has written about the increasing inability of 3G networks to cope with data hungry applications on the iPhone and other smart phones

Before You Go

Of course, if the content of your notebooks is likely to change while you’re travelling, then you have no choice but to accept the time it takes to refresh.  However, lots of independent specialists, like me, will travel, knowing that nothing will change before they return.  For them, the logic is to load a copy, direct from their desktop PC to their iPhone, without going through a cloud service or long haul network connection.  For these users, MobileNoter introduced the Wi-Fi Edition in December of last year.  This new edition has 3 significant differences from the cloud edition:

  1. MobileNoter Wi-Fi Edition does not use web server for synchronization process, but a registration process is still necessary to set up an account and confirm the purchase. While using Wi-Fi synchronization, your files are not being sent anywhere in the Web, so you don’t need to worry about security of your data.
  2. MobileNoter Wi-Fi Edition is purchased by a one-time payment instead of subscription fee. The price is higher, but there is no time on using the app.
  3. MobileNoter Wi-Fi Edition is more suitable for those who have large volumes of OneNote data.

How it Works

By dispensing with the MobileNoter servers, the wi-fi edition becomes a peer-to-peer process.  To make this work, the first step is to configure your iPhone to connect to your home wireless router.  Now, gadget freaks like me will have long since done this anyway, but for those readers who actually have a life, it’s quite simple.  You’ll just need your home router’s SSID and encryption key.  If your router doesn’t enforce WPA encryption, PLEASE go and turn it on right now.  If in doubt, you may find the instructions here helpful.  Alternatively, you can find detailed instructions in the iPhone User Guide.

The next step is for your iPhone and PC to be able to discover each other, register and form a “pair”.  MobileNoter Wi-Fi Edition uses Apple’s Bonjour service discovery protocol to achieve this.  The necessary components are downloaded and configured by the installer for both desktop sync client and the iPhone app, so you shouldn’t need to do anything.  If you do have problems though, you can find extra help on the MobileNoter development blog.  The main thing to remember though is that Bonjour is a non-routable protocol.  If you connect your iPhone to a public wi-fi network, it won’t work.  If you have more than one home router and your iPhone and PC are connected to different routers, it won’t work.  If you have a BT Home Hub, configured for FON and your iPhone connects to the FON segment, it won’t work. 

With all this done, you should be able to initiate a sync from the iPhone app.  However, it’s still possible to hit problems.  The first release of the Wi-Fi Edition used TCP Port #80 on the PC.  It soon became apparent that on many PCs, other applications were using this port and TCP port sharing was not allowed.  So, a maintenance release changed the default port number to one far less likely to be in use.  The installer attempts to configure the PC to allow the use of this port, but the sheer number of permutations of PC security tools (firewalls, intrusion prevention systems) and their configurations means that sometimes, permissions need to be set manually.  You can download a simple command line utility to do this from the MobileNoter website.

This can all seem quite daunting, but my installation worked first time, without any intervention on my part, so don’t be put off!

Cloud or Wi-Fi?

Which edition you choose depends very much upon how you are going to use the product.  I outlined the principal differences earlier, but probably it all depends upon whether (through collaboration or otherwise) the notebooks could be changed by someone else while you’re travelling.  The two editions share a common desktop sync client but have separate iPhone apps.  I have both apps installed together on my iPhone and can use either to sync with my desktop PC.  However, as things stand, the apps each produce their own copy of the notebooks and you can’t specify which notebooks are synchronised over wi-fi and which through the cloud.

What Next?

There’s a new version of the Cloud Edition  iPhone app planned for February, which will provide improved search capabilities and will also allow pictures to be added to Quick Notes (to be synchronised back to the PC).   At a later stage (no date yet) these features will be added to the Wi-Fi Edition and it’s probable that at this point, the two iPhone apps and their data files will merge into a single app.

Still further down the line, there are plans to allow the notebooks to be edited on the iPhone with changes synchronised back to the PC.  There are a number of ways this could be achieved, but the first possibility is already being tested.


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