Take your files with you and keep them up-to-date

When you have only one computer, you have only one place to look for your data. But when you add a second computer, you have the problem of transferring data from the computer where the data is to the computer where you need it. You take files to work on at home or move files from a desktop computer to a laptop computer in preparation for a road trip.

If the computers are networked, you can easily transfer files across the wire. But moving large files across a modem link is not as easy, especially if the company does not approve of dial-in connections from your home or hotel room. And then you experience the inevitable problem of having multiple versions of a file and trying to decide which one is right.

Have you ever wondered what the My Briefcase icon is doing on your Windows NT desktop? The Briefcase lets you take copies of files, move them between computers, edit the files, and re-synchronize them when you return them to the originating computer. In this article, I explain how to use the Briefcase, a program that was ahead of its time when Microsoft introduced it with Windows 95. As of NT 4.0, the Briefcase now comes with NT, and its time has arrived.

Setting Up Briefcase
The first time you open Briefcase, you'll see a description of how to use Briefcase, as Screen 1, shows. Now, open Explorer or the My Computer folder. Arrange the desktop so that you can see the files that you want to copy from the Explorer window, and keep the Briefcase icon or window visible as Screen 2 shows.

Drag the files from Explorer onto the Briefcase. This action places a copy of the file in the Briefcase folder, which by the way, is %winnt_root%\Profiles\%Username%\Desktop. Substitute your path to NT and the correct username. Note that the file is a copy, not a shortcut or link to the original. Repeat this process for all the files that you want to take with you.

Move the Briefcase to the target computer. If you have a network connection, open Network Neighborhood, and drag the Briefcase icon to the target drive and directory. Notice that you do not copy the Briefcase to the target destination; move the Briefcase from the source system to the target. If you do not have a network connection, drag the Briefcase icon and drop it on the removable drive. Whether you use Explorer or the My Computer folder does not matter, as long as you can see the target drive. For the removable media, you must take a second step: At the target computer, reverse the process, and drag the Briefcase from the floppy or cartridge to the hard disk.

With either approach, NT places the Briefcase in the directory you drop it on. You can drop it on your desktop on the target computerĀ­just make sure that no Briefcase icon is already there, or NT will ask whether you want to replace the existing briefcase files. The network connection is typically a LAN, but it can be a Remote Access Service (RAS) connection.

Using the Briefcase Files
Now your files are on the target computer. You use them like any other file. You can edit them or create new files in the directories. But, make sure you leave them in the Briefcase directory.

When you finish working with your files, move the Briefcase back to the removable drive or diskette and from there to the originating computer. Or drag the Briefcase icon across your network connection so that the Briefcase is back in its original location.

Synchronizing Files
Now for the fun part. Double-click the Briefcase icon to open it. You'll see a list of files. On the menu bar, select Briefcase, then Update All. The display in Screen 3 shows which files have been updated and when. The Word file was updated on the portable computer, and the Excel spreadsheet was changed on the originating computer but not on the portable computer.

If someone has updated the file on both the originating and the target computer, as the text file Sql7.txt shows, you have to decide which file to accept as the correct version. By default, Briefcase will offer to skip the update for this file. You can override this default and select the direction of the copy and replace the older version over the newer version, or vice versa.

You can right-click the skip arrow to invoke a pop-up box with choices, as Screen 4 shows. If you are not sure which version is correct, use the Skip option to not update a particular file, and examine both files to resolve the differences.

When you've deleted files in the original location or in the Briefcase, you have the option of deleting the corresponding files so that the Briefcase stays in synchronization with the originating computer, as Screen 5 shows. If you delete a file accidentally, you can right-click the Delete option to switch to Create and recover the file.

Integrating Briefcase with Microsoft Access
A remarkable capability of the Briefcase software is the way you can integrate it with Microsoft Access. When you copy an Access database file to the Briefcase, Access converts the original file to a Design Master. At this point, the warning message in Screen 6 prompts you to choose not to make changes to the design of the database at any other location. (Be sure to back up your Access MDB files before you start this procedure.) NT places a copy of the Access file in the Briefcase. From that point, you can change the original data or the data in the Briefcase copy. But the Briefcase synchronization does not offer to skip the files if both have changed; it offers to merge them. When you merge the data, Access looks not only at the file, but at each record in the database. If you've updated a record in one version but not in the other, Access copies the changes so that both records show the updated data.

This tool is powerful if you use it correctly. For example, you can create a copy of a contacts database from a server in the office. A sales representative can make sales calls, update client information, and then synchronize new data with the master contacts database. You can even make multiple copies of the contacts database in multiple briefcases and move one to each sales representative's laptop computer. Then they can share a contacts database.

But what happens when two or more people update the same record? The Briefcase works with the application to allow for Replication Conflict Resolution.

Access tracks how many times a record has changed and selects the version of a record with the most changes as the right version. When a user opens the other copy of the data, a message appears. (If you use Office97, the Animated Assistant lets you know that you have a problem.)

If you follow the suggestions the program makes, you'll see a dialog box similar to the one in Screen 7. Note the differences in the Address and Title boxes. You have to resolve the differences manually, but you can compare the changes and make an informed decision about which record to keep. This capability in Access is close to magic, and it's not hard to use.

Looking to the Future
Briefcase has not received the attention it deserves because without a network connection, you're limited to using floppy disks to transfer data. The amount of data that you can easily move around with that method is limited. Now the floppy has given way to the Iomega ZIP and JAZ drives, the Syquest Flyer, the Avatar Shark, the LS-120 floptical disk, and so forth, and removable storage capability has increased by two orders of magnitude. You can now take much more work home with you. And coming soon to a computer near you: erasable CD-ROMs and Digital Video Discs (DVDs).

Briefcase might not be high on Microsoft's agenda because the tool is not a Web-based application. I'd like to see the conflict resolution capabilities you see in Access incorporated into other products such as Word and Excel. Then Briefcase will be a popular utility. But even now, especially with the new high-capacity removable media drives, Briefcase is a neat tool to experiment with and use in your day-to-day file and information management systems.