Is Everybody On The Same Page?

If you work on more than one computer, this "briefcase" helps keep them in sync

I'm a three-computer guy. I work on a desktop computer in the office, another at home, and on the road I carry a laptop. I sometimes feel that making sure each machine has up-to-date versions of the data I need is the bane of my existence.

A new Web-based service called Visto Briefcase ( promises to ease my pain. It lets you upload files from Windows 95 and NT computers and store them on a server for retrieval from any computer with access to the Web. Briefcase also synchronizes your phone and address book and E-mail inbox, so that once you have read a message on one computer, your others also recognize it as read.

PROBLEMS. The idea behind this has been around for a while. Microsoft put something called My Briefcase in Windows 95. It lets you copy critical files to a floppy disk, then use that disk to synchronize the data with other computers. But there were problems: The software didn't work very well, and a 1.4 megabyte floppy often isn't big enough.

With help from the synchronization experts at Puma Technology, Visto makes the sync software work. And on the Internet, storage is limited only by the time it takes to do downloads: A Visto account, $9.95 a month after a 30-day free trial, includes 20 MB of storage.

If you work on more than one computer, I think you'll find Visto as much help as I did. You can synchronize Web bookmarks for either Netscape or Microsoft browsers. The address book takes data from several popular contact managers, including Microsoft Outlook, Symantec Act!, and Starfish Sidekick. Once you have uploaded information, you can view it on your private Visto Web site or transfer it to other computers. Briefcase does not support calendar synchronization, a serious lack Visto plans to remedy soon.

I found the E-mail clumsy. I could copy messages from a Netscape mail server to my Briefcase, and this will work with most corporate post offices. If you delete a message from Briefcase, it will disappear from the server the next time you sync. But new messages won't show up in your Briefcase inbox until you sync with the mail server. And reading and managing messages can be painfully slow. If you have the option, you'll probably be better off with direct remote access to your mail system.

SECURITY. Much better is the feature that gives all of your computers access to selected files. You can designate one directory on your computer, say the My Documents folder containing your reports and memos, as the sync folder. Its contents are kept on the Web server. When you sync with another computer, the files are reconciled with the contents of a folder with the same name.

The Visto software allows automatic, scheduled synchronization. But your computer must be logged in at the time, a practice most corporate security policies wisely ban. This can't be fixed in Windows 95, but a coming version of Visto software will take advantage of a feature in Windows NT that lets files be updated without compromising security.

Privacy and security are concerns with any system of this type. Files are encrypted by your browser before transmission and are kept scrambled on the server. This seems adequate for most purposes, but I'd be leery about posting really sensitive data.

I found Visto Briefcase was a big help in easing my multicomputer woes. Anyone who shares my difficulties would do well to give this handy service a try.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.