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One of the Key Lessons of the Microsoft/Sidekick Failure!

For lo these many years, I have been a staunch supporter of regular backups and I speak from personal experience. On one occasion, I took a brand new MacBook to San Francisco for Macworld Expo. The drive failed upon the first startup, so I had to borrow a note-book from one of my publishers and then use “remote access” to retrieve my stuff from the desktop Mac at my home office.

On a few occasions, I’ve received phone calls from nervous Mac users who lost their data for one reason or another and didn’t have a backup available. This may be a case of attempting to close the barn door after the horses have left, but it’s not unusual. When Apple first introduced Time Machine, they said that slightly over a quarter of the Mac user base ever backed up anything, and only a small percentage bothered with dedicated backup software.

I haven’t seen the stats since Time Machine debuted as part of Leopard in 2007, but I’d hope they’ve improved substantially. More recently, the question of protecting your stuff has loomed front and center after the tragic server failure over at Microsoft’s Danger division. That episode left up to one million users of the Sidekick mobile phone with the threat of losing the entire contact list and photo libraries if their batteries run out, or the device is reset.

Now one would hope that the danger — excuse the pun — is behind them, and that the Sidekick servers are functioning properly again, but this whole sorry affair still goes to show that you cannot depend on a single source to protect your data. The more copies the better.

With the iPhone and iPod touch, this is a non-issue, since your stuff is backed up whenever you dock these gadgets with iTunes on your Mac or PC. Other smartphone makers also provide a syncing option, and RIM recently released a Mac OS version of their software, which is roughly similar to the Windows version. Indeed, other than the BlackBerry, you aren’t even depending on a single network of server farms to preserve your stuff.

As smartphones go, the Sidekick was a decidedly niche product. Over the years, a little over one million units were sold. That’s less than the Palm Pre in its first few months on sale, so it may not count for a lot. But if you are one of the people who embraced the Sidekick, it doesn’t matter. You’re still left with a product that possesses a totally insecure method of storing your data, and it’s doubly clear that Microsoft is totally incapable of offering any guarantee that your stuff will be protected.

Whether you use a Mac, a PC, or a Linux box, you will want to take this tragic incident as a huge wake up call. You can’t be cavalier about your files, particularly if they are important to your family or your work. Every computing platform provides a number of backup solutions, plus methods to sync your stuff when you need to have the same data in several places.

When it comes to email, I recommend IMAP, and if your ISP or mail service doesn’t offer that option, go elsewhere. Even the free Google Gmail service provides an IMAP feature — a strange one to be sure, but it works pretty well when you get used to the way it’s set up. IMAP means that you are depending on the cloud as the final storage location, but desktop email software will cache your messages locally, so if something happens to the server, you can still restore everything once you’re reconnected to a working system. This, by the way, argues against the exclusive use of Webmail.

Apple’s MobileMe provides a useful way to sync accounts, contact lists and other settings to your Mac, PC and iPhone. Here it’s serving as a conduit, so it doesn’t matter if the server-based data is somehow damaged or lost. You will simply see a prompt during the sync process, established in the MobileMe preference panel, giving you the option of specifying whether to use your local computer for the source information.

One of the data repositories you’re certainly going to want to preserve is your music library. While some of you may have a few dozen or a few hundred tunes, those numbers will frequently expand to encompass many gigabytes of data. I know some people for whom even the 160GB iPod classic doesn’t provide sufficient storage for their collections of music, videos and, of course, playlists.

One solution that I’ve been exploring lately is SuperSync, a file sync/backup solution that lets you keep your libraries consistent on the Mac or PC. It starts at just $25 for a two-pack, covering two computers. At $33, you get a version for five computers; $40 covers ten.

Compared to iTunes new “Home Sharing” feature, SuperSync offers unlimited two-way synchronization, and works on both a local network and the Internet. What’s more, the price you pay covers all updates for the life of the product. You won’t have to return a year or two from now and pay for the latest and greatest.

I’ve been working with SuperSync on my Mac Pro and 17-inch MacBook Pro and it’s super slick and definitely worth further investigation. Indeed, SuperSync supports pretty much all Macs from present-day Snow Leopard systems back to the days of Jaguar, along PCs running Windows 98 through Windows 7. Few apps can boast that level of compatibility.

Regardless of your chosen backup solution, choose at least one, and maybe even two so you know your stuff will be safe if and when the worst occurs.