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Travelling with ACT!

July 13, 2012

The talk these days is all about being mobile. Nobody is tied to the office, we all have smartphones, tablets, laptops, and we expect to be able to do our jobs everywhere and anywhere. I gave up paying rent for an office years ago because I was rarely there and even when I was clients almost never came in. Now I have a base in my home and my office is held in a backpack and is wherever I happen to be. This is not something confined to small businesses like mine – I worked for a consulting company once that had 130 employees and only six desks in the office for us to use. We were expected to be out working with clients and the only time I spent in the office during the six years I worked there was doing things like tender and quote preparation.

ACT! is obviously a big part of what I do so I need to be able to get to what's in my ACT! database at all times. There are several ways to do this and they fall roughly into two categories – remotely accessing the database in the office or on a server somewhere or taking the database with you.

Remote access

There are several ways to do this depending on where the database is stored, the operating system on the server, and what functionality you require when away from the office.

Remote login to the server

You might already be using this if your database is hosted on a server outside your office or in another state. In those cases you just do what you always do. If you want to set your own business up to do this you can, but be aware that you should only do it using a dedicated server version of Windows. If you use a desktop version (I use Windows 7 Ultimate in my office) you can only have one user logged in at a time and this could cause disruption and inconvenience if there is someone in the office who needs to use the computer at the same time.

Read about Remote Desktop Connection at Microsoft.

Remote control software

There are several products which allow you to remotely control a computer in your office. I use GoToMyPC from Citrix because I have been using it for years and it suits what I want to do. It gives the remote user full control over the screen, keyboard and mouse and does not require either a fixed IP address or any firewall modifications.

GoToMyPC using Internet Explorer on a PC

GoToMyPC Android app on Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 (iPad app looks the same)

There are other remote control systems such as LogMeIn and VNC (Google can help to find more). These all work in basically the same way, although some might require a fixed IP address (or a domain name that points to one) and firewall changes to allow the traffic to get to the relevant computer.

 ACT! for Web

This is a version of ACT! Premium that allows full access to your ACT! database by anyone with an Internet connection. The specifications say that the user must be using Internet Explorer or Firefox as their web browser, but I have had it working through Safari, Opera and Google Chrome (there might be some display problems with non-supported browsers, but most of the functionality is still there). With Internet Explorer there is full integration at the user end with Microsoft Office (including Outlook). Installation requires IIS (Internet Information Services) to be running on the server, because the database is presented as web pages. The firewall and router also need to be set up to pass traffic to the relevant computer. You will need a permanent IP address or a domain which always points to where your database is stored. Here is my router allowing ACT! for Web to get to the ACT! database in my office.

What you see at the remote end depends on what you are using to display the database. Here is ACT! for Web using Internet Explorer on a PC:

If you access ACT! for Web using a mobile device you see a version optimised for the environment. This is what comes up on my Samsung tablet, and the same appears on iPads and Apple or Android smartphones.

Warning: If you use ACT! for Web you expose your computer and database to anyone who knows your IP address or the domain name you use for access. As these details are stored in the browser cache they are available to anybody who uses the computer after you do. It is essential that all users of your database have passwords and you should implement a strong password management policy (see the Tools menu in ACT!). It is also a good idea to redirect anyone who types your IP address by itself into a browser to a web page other than the IIS default. I redirect to the front page of the main web site.

Taking ACT! with you

All of the remote access methods rely on the user having Internet or network access to wherever the database is stored. If you want your data to be available when you are offline you need to do something different.

Synchronising phones with Outlook

ACT! can synchronise contact and calendar information with Outlook, so any device which can itself synchronise with Outlook can at least have phone numbers and appointments on it. Some software from the phone maker will be required, but none of these cost money. For the iPhone synchronisation is done through iTunes, for my HTC phone with Windows Mobile 6.5 it's Windows Mobile Device Center and for my Sony Ericsson dumbphone it's phone management software that came with the handset. As far as I know there is nothing for Android or Blackberry, and Windows Phone 7 only synchronises through Outlook Exchange which is overkill for a small business that doesn't use it for anything else. In all cases the phone has to be connected to a computer in the office for synchronisation and there might be some manual intervention required. As most people plug their phones in to recharge the batteries daily this not too inconvenient.

Synchronising phones using other software

Synchronisation directly between ACT! and a phone is possible and the most common program used to do this is CompanionLink. This works with iPhones, Windows phones, Blackberry and Android. The basic program requires the phone to be connected to a computer like the free programs mentioned above. The main advantage is that you no longer have to remember to go ACT! → Outlook → Something Else. Just plug the phone in and everything happens automatically.

Synchronising roaming phones

Sometimes it's inconvenient to have to keep coming into the office and there are several options for keeping data on your phone up to date as you travel. Sage have recently introduced a product called Sage ACT! Connect which works with all the major phone and tablet operating systems and also allows a form of web access to your database through a PC browser. This is a new product and I have to spend some more time with it before I can recommend it to clients. There is a remote version of CompanionLink which provides the same facilities as the office-tethered version, but my preferred option is Handheld Contact. This is available for iPhone, iPad and Windows phone and an Android version has just been released. It can be configured to update and synchronise to a schedule, ensuring that anything that happens at either end is reflected at the other as soon as it is needed. Here is Handheld Contact showing the ACT! My Record on my Samsung Galaxy Tab.

All of these systems have an annual fee (because someone has to run the computers that do the synchronising) and obviously updating can only happen when an Internet connection is available. Data is held on the device in your hand so you can keep working when not connected. One drawback to all of them is that they are fussy about phone number formatting. You need to store area codes with all numbers in ACT! and make sure that the Country field is filled in correctly. (You can see on the Handheld Contact screen above that the phone numbers are displayed in an international format.)

Synchronising PC databases

If you carry a laptop or are based a long way from the office you can synchronise several ACT! databases so they all contain the same data. To do this you have to have ACT! installed on the laptop and synchronisation set up between a central database and the one on the portable machine. (Note – ACT! licensing allows for synchronising between two databases using a single licence registration.) Synchronisation can be done over a network, which works for people who regularly visit the office, or over the Internet. There are three forms of synchronisation called "Application", "Network" and "Internet". Application synchronisation only works between computers on the same network and requires ACT! to be running with the main database open on the central machine. This is the only method available with ACT! Pro (the "standard" version) and for this reason I always recommend that the Premium version of ACT! be used by anyone planning synchronisation. The additional cost is easily justified by reduced aggravation. Network synchronisation, as the name implies, requires connection between machines on a network. (Using virtual private networks (VPN) for remote machines is not recommended because of performance issues.) Internet synchronisation happens over the Internet obviously and requires IIS to be configured as for ACT! for Web. I never recommend the Internet option (even if the client is using ACT! for Web as well) because it is possible to do network synchronisation over the Internet with a bit of planning. This reduces complexity and the chance of problems arising and still allows synchronisation to work when the machines are connected on a network. It requires a port to be opened on the router and, as for ACT! for Web, the traffic to be routed to the relevant networked computer.

The advantage of this over all the other ways of getting access to ACT! data on the move is that you are running the full version of ACT! just as the people in the office are, with all the facilities and capabilities of a connected PC. The disadvantage is that you have to have a Windows laptop and the weight, cables and battery packs that this implies. Synchronisation can be set up to run to a timetable or just be something you do manually while you check your email.

 So what do I  use?

Almost everything. I synchronise my phones (both smart and dumb) using Outlook. This means I always have the latest contact details for clients and all my appointments right there in my pocket. I have Handheld Contact on my Android tablet so I can look things up and record data in the most convenient manner. I don't carry a laptop as often as I used to (since I started using the tablet) but the database on that synchronises using network synch over the Internet. I have ACT! for Web and GoToMyPC for those times when I really need to get to the office database but I have to use someone else's computer. I think that's enough.

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