Inching Toward a More Unified Me

Keeping track of custom dictionaries, email signatures and alert tones is a hassle for users and a nearly impossible problem for IT to solve without spending more money than the problem is worth.

I feel spread out at work. Like many IT knowledge workers, I carry a mobile phone and a tablet, and I have a laptop that uses a desktop hypervisor, thus making the laptop at least two or three virtual machines. Unlike most, I also use a VDI (virtual-desktop-infrastructure) session a fair number of times in the week. For example, I recently tested, with a great deal of satisfaction, a Windows 7 desktop that was running as a VM (virtual machine) in our VMware infrastructure that I accessed via an Apple iPad. Calgon, take me away!

More places to work means more places to customize and control. I'm not just talking about passwords (for which there are well-known technology solutions) or file sharing (such as Dropbox) that are rapidly emerging to solve the "access-from-anywhere" problem. The problem extends to application options such as custom dictionaries, email signatures, default email accounts and even alert tones. The veritable explosion of the number of devices and location options is raising the specter of user-device-management overload.

What I want is a "wherever I work, there I am." To the extent that IT managers can solve the time needed for individual technology workers to manage the devices they need to do their work is the extent to which ubiquitous computing will achieve new levels of productivity.

This isn't a new problem. USB flash drives are a turn-of-the-millennium attempt at file portability. I have a martini glass full of these devices on my desk. They are handy for immediate file transfer but are nearly useless for meaningful anywhere-access. The main deficiency of USB flash drives is that you have to remember to take them with you.

There are products available today that are taking a stab at the problem. Ubuntu One and Dropbox both use the Web to provide centralized file synchronization. And both services provide backup as well. As I've pointed out, however, there are even greater levels of personalization that I suspect consume a fair amount of user time that these products do not touch. And likely for good reasons.

Among the many blockers to providing extensive user customization across device platforms is the sheer complexity of the problem. Between my three primary physical devices I use10 applications on three different Web browser platforms and two operating systems. Customizing the dictionary between Microsoft Word, Google Docs and the spell checker in my Samsung Galaxy Tab and my HTC EVO 4 Android-based phone presents a very tricky problem. Add to that complexity the fact that the solution has to be less expensive than the time I would spend fiddling with the devices and the situation is even worse.

I still yearn for a central management tool that would help me ride herd over my devices. Between the phantom ringing (hearing a device sound when, in fact, it hasn't made any noise or vibration) and not paying attention to audible alerts due to a lack of recognition is starting to be a real drag for me. Constantly right-clicking to add specialized tech terms to dictionaries is getting to be a real pain. And customizing email signatures on my many and several devices is a time-consuming bore.

However, until there is a "User Multi-Platform Custom Personality" standard, I'll be playing Bo Peep to my flock of productivity tools.