syncing Desktop across multiple computers

I treat my Desktop as “stuff I’m working on right now” and file things away into project folders after I’m done actually working on them. I also use 3 different computers, and a couple of iOS devices. How to sync this active-work area across all? This would work with any other file sync tool1.

It’s an easy trick, based on one I found on Lifehacker2. It’s also not necessary – it’s trivial to just leave the active-work files in the Dropbox directory, but then you have to go digging every. single. time…3

First, on one computer, create a Desktop folder in your Dropbox directory, at ~/Dropbox/Desktop (then wait for it to sync to Dropbox).

Then, in Terminal, run this on all computers you want to sync the desktop:

sudo mv ~/Desktop ~/Desktop.bak
sudo ln -s ~/Dropbox/Desktop/ ~/Desktop

This will move the “real” Desktop directory out of the way (but just renames it so Finder won’t use it – all of the files are still safe) and creates a symbolic link from the ~/Dropbox/Desktop directory to the place that Finder looks, at ~/Desktop.

Then, log out (don’t save state – Finder has to relaunch fresh) and log back in again. Move any critical/active files from ~/Desktop.bak/ back onto the Desktop. Sync. Magic.

Not sure how this will work over time – I’m sure the Finder-specific invisible files will act up a bit, storing strange positions etc… for icons on the shared Desktop… Might also get extra funky if mixing platforms – I have no idea what would happen if Windows variants were thrown into the mix. Should be possible to share a Desktop across Mac/Win/etc… though.

  1. I recently gave up on OwnCloud for a bit because it was just too funky to trust 100% with my active working files, because it gets confused with browser-based wifi authentication and self destructs when it encounters this. so, I’m on Dropbox (again) for now. []
  2. but I had to modify it ever so slightly. The Lifehacker recipe wanted to sync the entire Dropbox directory to the Desktop. That’s just stupid. []
  3. and, yeah, you can just add that folder to the sidebar in Finder, but, again, clicking every time… []

giving up on owncloud (for now)

I’ve really been loving running my own dropbox clone, by using owncloud running on my Hippie Hosting Co-op account. It’s (mostly) seamless and automatic, and (usually) Just Works™. It’s not as polished as Dropbox’s UI, but that’s not critical (although the status badges on files and folder badges would be nice…)

But, over the last week or 2, I’ve been noticing that owncloud on my work computer gets wedged. Digging into the status, the URL changes from my owncloud instance to something intercepted by browser-based wifi authentication. Just changing the URL in configuration doesn’t seem to solve it. I have to nuke my owncloud settings, add a new config, delete it because it insists on syncing to /clientsync rather than /, and then re-adding it manually. Then, deleting the /clientsync folder on the server. Annoying. I just need this to work.

So. I’m back to Dropbox for awhile. I don’t have time to fart around with this stuff right now. I need my file sync service to Really Just Work™. I’ll try owncloud again when I have some downtime to muck about with it.

Reclaim Project: 2 steps forward, 1 step back.

on reclaiming dropbox with owncloud

In the Reclaim project, I’ve been struggling to find a way to properly access my files from anywhere – Dropbox has that problem solved handily.

I’ve been watching ownCloud for awhile, and it’s getting to the point where it’s just about ready to use as a self-hosted Dropbox replacement. Previous versions had web- and webDAV interfaces, but didn’t have the ability to sync files to each computer I use. The web interface worked, but was too awkward to actually use for anything. And using webDAV directly was so frustratingly slow that it was basically a non-option (saving a large file to webDAV has to upload the entire file each time you hit command+s, which can lock up the application you’re using until it’s done. not fun).

But, ownCloud version 4 now has desktop syncing clients for Windows, MacOS, and Linux. Interesting. So, I updated my ownCloud installation to the latest version, and installed the client on my home Mac laptop. And it worked. I’ve since added the client to my Windows 7 laptop at work, and a second Mac laptop. Files seem to be happily syncing between all three computers.

Out of the box, it wants to sandbox the desktop-synced files into a clientSync folder. I didn’t think that was a bad idea, so I went with the defaults. And then realized the web interface doesn’t provide access to the clientSync folder. Doh! So I re-set-up ownCloud to use the root of my ownCloud server’s directory (well, the directory for my user), and now it feels like an actual Dropbox replacement. Very cool. I can save files like usual, and they get magically uploaded to the server in the background. And there’s versioning as well, so it should be possible to undo Something Bad (touch wood).

Yeah. Ignore the scary warning. Leave “Folder on ownCloud” blank. Sync the whole thing.

ownCloud 4 is a dramatic improvement, especially with the desktop sync clients, but it’s still not quite ready for prime time. The sandboxed-clientSync folder issue wasn’t fatal, but was confusing. Easy to fix. And the client software is definitely in the early stages, lacking the maturity of the Dropbox clients (which, to be fair, are developed by a large, well-funded company, and have been under active development for years now, while ownCloud is in a 1.0 initial release).

Things I miss from the Dropbox client, when using the ownCloud client:

  • full status indication – Dropbox tells you how many files need to be synced, what % are remaining, etc… ownCloud gives you an opaque “Sync is running.” message – often with cryptic error messages that don’t seem to actually bork anything.
  • file-and-folder icon badges – has the file I just saved been synced to the server? Dropbox shows a green checkbox on files that have been taken care of. ownCloud, not so much (yet?)
  • simplify the client. ownCloud offers the capability to mount different folders from the server to different folders on your computer. I’m sure that makes sense to the developers. No average user will do that. Just sync the entire user’s ownCloud directory to the ownCloud folder on their computer. Simple. Treat folders inside that specially, if needed – maybe Pictures, Documents, Public. Music. Movies. But just sync the main ownCloud folder to keep things simple.
  • sharing files to people that don’t have an account on the ownCloud server – Dropbox lets me share a file and create a public URL so I can send files easily to anyone in a safe, read-only way. ownCloud seems to only want me to share files with people using the same ownCloud server instance.
  • running the ownCloud client at login. trivial to do via System Preferences on my Mac, or wherever the hell that’s handled on Windows, but a simple checkbox “start automatically” (or something user-friendlier) would be handy for non-geeks.
  • stability of the ownCloud client. I’ve noticed a couple of times that the icon has disappeared from the menu bar or taskbar. Relaunching the ownCloud client puts it back, but it shouldn’t need babysitting.
  • polish. the Mac client mentions something about the taskbar. There’s no taskbar on the Mac. Clearly text recycled from the Windows client. Again, not a big deal.
  • Menubar/taskbar icon needs refinement – the “syncing” and “synced” versions are hard to distinguish. How to better display that in an icon? Maybe a green dot for synced, something else to show syncing, an something else to show problems. or something.

Actually, that’s basically it. ownCloud is getting dramatically better with every revision – and the next version is scheduled for August. Can’t wait to see how far it comes. It’s got some handy stuff I’ll play around with (but don’t really need – calendar, contacts, photos, etc…)

In the meantime, I’m going to try sticking with my ownCloud server, and avoid using Dropbox. In my ~24 hours of experimentation, it looks like it’s going to work. Unless Something Horrible happens, I’ll stick with ownCloud. Happily hosting my files on the cloud, on the Hippie Hosting Co-op server. I’m now syncing over 600MB of files across 3 computers, which should be a good test. Also, I’ll likely need to throw a few more bucks into the Hippie Hosting bucket to cover the disk usage…

Update: after a couple days of trying out ownCloud with the desktop syncing, it’s just not reliable enough to use yet. syncs may fail. the client app may silently crash. I lost some files somehow. It’s getting close, but not quite ready for production use yet. Back to Dropbox for now…