This is the most convenient thing I’ve come up with in a long time: I now have a mash-up where e-mail attachments get filed with a set they belong to, and then distributed out to every PC I use.
There are 3 problems I needed to solve to do this:
- Download and file individual e-mail attachments that arrive asynchronously
- Collect the filed attachments into appropriately synchronized sets.
- Distribute them.
To do this I used 3 free utilities:
- Mail Attachment Downloader from GearMage
- Link Shell Extension from Gerhild’s & Hermann’s Site
- The Skydrive App (working with a Skydrive account) from Microsoft.
First, let me discuss Mail Attachment Downloader. This program does one thing well: it goes through your e-mail, either on a schedule or when you click it, and saves all of the attachments you’ve received. In particular, I have it set to download attachments to folders organized by sender.
Second, I was pointed towards Link Shell Extension by this post on Symbolic Links at How-to-Geek.
First, a digression on symbolic links. You’re probably familiar with a shortcut in Windows — it’s a little file that can take you to another file or folder. The inconvenience of that is that you actually go to that other location. A symbolic link relaxes that and then puts the whole idea on steroids. A symbolic link is like a copy without a copy. The problems with copies are 1) bloat on your hard drive, 2) little differences between the copies, and 3) keeping track of them all. A symbolic link gets around this by putting what looks like a copy in the place where you want it, without actually changing the original or making a copy. In short, you have multiple locations that work on the same original.
I’ve had two problems with symbolic links over the years: conceiving of ways to use them, and actually creating them properly (Windows does not make this straightforward).
In this case, I’ve conceived of the following use for symbolic links: showing attachments in more than one place without actually copying them.
And, Link Shell Extension is a very cool and easy way to create those symbolic links. This isn’t a program: a shell extension is a menu item that shows up when you right-click something. Install Link Shell Extension, and there will be a new item on the menu when you right-click called “Pick Link Source”. If you click it and go to another location on your PC, and right-click again and there’s a new choice “Drop As …”. Click it, and you’ve created your symbolic link. The file or folder you’ve just symbolically linked now appears in the second location as if you copied it. But it didn’t: you still have just one copy of it that works seamlessly in both places.
Third, there is Skydrive and the new-ish Skydrive app. Skydrive has been around for a while: it’s Microsoft’s version of Dropbox (and other file sharing services). Skydrive stores your files in the cloud so that you can access them anywhere over the internet.
For my money, if you’re using Windows, Skydrive integrates better. And you don’t have to deal with the ethical issues associated with Dropbox’s marketing model.
The Skydrive app goes one better. It resides on your hard drive, and automatically syncs the folders you choose off of Skydrive. In short, save a file to a folder on one PC and it’s populated out to your other PC’s (quietly in the background). It’s on the cloud too as a backup, but because it is downloaded by the app to your hard drive, it loads more quickly.
So, here’s what I did:
- Created a folder that is shared through the Skydrive app
- Put symbolic links inside that Skydrive folder that go back to my original e-mail attachments
- Have my attachments downloaded to those folders on a regular schedule.
And what do I do with this? I have students submit homework through e-mail with attachments. When they do, their attachments are synced out to all my computers. I grade them where I am, and the critiqued files get synced back to all my machines.
Now I just have to automate an e-mail return system for those. Perhaps with IFTTT. I’ll let you know how that works out.