Convergence vs Transference

I previously wrote a blog post titled Considering Convergence [1] about the possible ways of using a phone as a laptop. While I still believe what I wrote there I’m now considering the possibility of ease of movement of work in progress as a way of addressing some of the same issues.

Currently the expected use is that if you have web pages open on Chrome on Android it’s possible to instruct Chrome on the desktop to open the same page if both instances of Chrome are signed in to the same GMail account. It’s also possible to view the Chrome history with CTRL-H, select “tabs from other devices” and load things that were loaded on other devices some time ago. This is very minimal support for moving work between devices and I think we can do better.

Firstly for web browsing the Chrome functionality is barely adequate. It requires having a heavyweight login process on all browsers that includes sharing stored passwords etc which isn’t desirable. There are many cases where moving work is desired without sharing such things, one example is using a personal device to research something for work. Also the Chrome method of sending web pages is slow and unreliable and the viewing history method gets all closed tabs when the common case is “get the currently open tabs from one browser window” without wanting the dozens of web pages that turned out not to be interesting and were closed. This could be done with browser plugins to allow functionality similar to KDE Connect for sending tabs and also the option of emailing a list of URLs or a JSON file that could be processed by a browser plugin on the receiving end. I can send email between my home and work addresses faster than the Chrome share to another device function can send a URL.

For documents we need a way of transferring files. One possibility is to go the Chromebook route and have it all stored on the web. This means that you rely on a web based document editing system and the FOSS versions are difficult to manage. Using Google Docs or Sharepoint for everything is not something I consider an acceptable option. Also for laptop use being able to run without Internet access is a good thing.

There are a range of distributed filesystems that have been used for various purposes. I don’t think any of them cater to the use case of having a phone/laptop and a desktop PC (or maybe multiple PCs) using the same files.

For a technical user it would be an option to have a script that connects to a peer system (IE another computer with the same accounts and access control decisions) and rsync a directory of working files and the shell history, and then opens a shell with the HISTFILE variable, current directory, and optionally some user environment variables set to match. But this wouldn’t be the most convenient thing even for technical users.

For programs that are integrated into the desktop environment it’s possible for them to be restarted on login if they were active when the user logged out. The session tracking for that has about 1/4 the functionality needed for requesting a list of open files from the application, closing the application, transferring the files, and opening it somewhere else. I think that this would be a good feature to add to the XDG setup.

The model of having programs and data attached to one computer or one network server that terminals of some sort connect to worked well when computers were big and expensive. But computers continue to get smaller and cheaper so we need to think of a document based use of computers to allow things to be easily transferred as convenient. With convenience being important so the hacks of rsync scripts that can work for technical users won’t work for most people.

3 comments to Convergence vs Transference

  • Matthias Urlichs

    Well, we do have Syncthing. A browser could simply export its list of open tabs to a shared directory, and the recipient could pick it up from there. No rsync scripts required.

    Granted that syncthing is still somewhat less reliable than rsync, but that’s not an unsurmountable obstacle.

    Thanks for that recommendation, the features sound good, I’ll have to check it out!

  • Kane

    Syncthing is what I would recommend as well for files. Doesn’t require internet (just a network path), and can connect more than 2 devices.

    For the browser tabs, I’d suggest using Firefox and a Mozilla account ( It’s not Google for one, and you can pick and choose what syncs using individual device settings, you don’t need to sync history if you don’t want to, you don’t need to sync anything if all you want to do is send tabs between devices.

    If you wanted to cut Mozilla out completely you could even run your own Accounts server, sync server, or both depending on your appetite for self hosting.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>